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September 03, 2011

China: Turning Back the Future

I came to the Black Dress village, named for the dark natural dye used in traditional dress, because of its designation as a minority cultural heritage center.

  • Generations Working Together

    Women manage the household when the men leave the village for work and education opportunities in the city.

  • An Uncertain Future

    Young girls like this one face a dilemma when many opportunities lure them away from the security, community, and family in the village.

  • Maintaining Tradition

    Cultural heritage sites like this one at the Black Dress village promote the traditions and preserve the culture of remote, rural people groups.

I came to the Black Dress village, named for the dark natural dye used in traditional dress, because of its designation as a minority cultural heritage center. The Black Dress clan is part of the musical people of southwest China, nicknamed as such because music is a central facet of their customs. Music is used in everything from courtship rituals and celebrations to story telling and funeral rites.

The majority of the indigenous groups such as the Black Dress clan live in remote areas stretching from the South China Sea to the Gobi Desert. Many minorities share heritages with peoples across the Chinese border in countries such as Vietnam, Mongolia, and Kazakhstan. Some have been integrated through trade and cultural interaction with the majority Han Chinese, while others have remained relatively isolated. When young and productive workers leave villages and integrate into the Han culture, the marginal economy of a village is jeopardized and family ties are strained. Language, music, crafts, architecture, and folk customs are losing ground to modern modes of living and assimilation into the dominant Chinese society.

The Chinese government has set up cultural heritage tourist sites to promote the traditions and preserve the culture of remote, rural people groups. Few of us would ever know or care what happens to people like those in the Black Dress village without these efforts. But at times, it seems as if these cultural sites commercialize and stereotype a people group, thereby denying outsiders the chance to really get to know the people.

After three hours at the official cultural site, I had a perfunctory knowledge of the culture after walking through the welcome center and watching a dance performance. But it seemed as if everyone I met was an actor reading uncomfortably from a script that was factually accurate but missing the essence of the people and their lives. What I really wanted was to talk to the people and get to know their personal stories.

Our host at the Black Dress village was 17 years old and just completing her primary education. She seemed content working at the welcome center, but it seemed strange that a girl her age would want to spend her days talking to tourists. Wanting to get to know her better, I asked if I could visit with her family at their home, and she gladly accepted.

The girl took pride in her village and heritage. She pointed out that her house was one of the oldest in the village, built in the traditional way. Her mother and grandmother warmly welcomed us, and the closeness between the women was obvious. Her father worked out of town, and her brother was away at university, so the women managed the household. As I toured the girl’s room, I saw a wardrobe full of things you would likely see in an American teenager's closet – jeans, t-shirts, accessories. A large stuffed bear was on the bed, and posters of Chinese pop singers were on the walls. She said that she would like to go to university, but the family couldn’t afford it. The girl was thoughtful and discerning about the trade-offs of life at home in this remote, rural village versus life in the cities. She was not an unhappy teenager, trapped at home. She loved her family and enjoyed her job. But she was also keenly aware of the outside pressures and what that meant to her life as well as to the future of the village.

By visiting with this girl and her family, we learned more about the Black Dress people than we ever could at the official cultural center. I've thought many times about the people I met that day. They taught me about the importance of family heritage and the strength and wisdom it takes to preserve traditions. They were resilient and content, not fearful or naïve, as they faced the mounting pressures from the outside. I hope to someday have the opportunity to talk with my new friends again. Next time, I think that I will skip the tourist performance and just have tea in their living rooms instead.

-Written by Ray Scott
-Photography by Robert Johnson


[Originally published in TEAMHorizons, Septermber 2011]

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