Lijiang Identity Transformed By Social Space Cultural Studies Essay

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Space, place, and landscape-including landscapes of leisure and tourism-are not fixed but are in a constant state of transition as a result of continuous, dialectical struggles of power and resistance among and between the diversity of landscape providers, users and mediators.

Joseph Rock's renowned work The Ancient Na-khi Kingdom of Southwest China (1947) provides an historical narrative of the Lijiang district and its geography, boundaries-physical and social-and influences from the surrounding areas. After twelve years of living amongst the Naxi tribe of Yunnan Province, studying their literature and the land they occupy, and collecting copious amounts of Chinese texts (including ancient pictographic manuscripts), Rock produced an extensive and profound three volume series of the Naxi people and the forces that shaped them. This seminal work now provides a contrasting backdrop for investigating the contemporary forces that shape the Naxi identity and how that identity is produced by and reflected on the material and vernacular landscapes of Lijiang, China. Since the early 1990s, notable shifts have taken place in Lijiang on multiple scales producing a ripe environment to illustrate geographic theories in cultural tourism, identity construction, and spatial hegemony. In this setting, various stakeholders-the local Naxi population, domestic and foreign tourists, and the state-coalesce and transform (both socially and physically) a constructed and evolving space worthy of detailed and extensive thought.

In Rock's initial voyage into Lijiang, the entire second chapter of the first volume is devoted to the trek into Lijiang, dramatizing the role of explorer-encountering exotic terrain and peoples. Around that time, the old caravan road Rock traversed was replaced with a "motor-road" with the intent to increase ease of travel. Peter Goullart, in his notable work Forgotten Kingdom (incidentally, dedicated to Rock), likewise devotes a chapter to the "caravan journey to Likiang," but along the new motor way (the Burma Road). Goullart writes, "[W]e travelled in utter solitude through a rolling country with nothing but forests and great mountains in the distance. Soon, however, the majestic Mount Satseto moved into view, with its glittering glaciers reflected in the beautiful blue lake of Lashiba ….Slowly we climbed up to the gap that led to Likiang" (1957, 12). In lyrical tone, he continues, "I had to dismount and contemplate this scene of paradise. The air was like champagne; the weather, warm but with a tinge of freshness that came from the great Snow Range dominating the valley" (13).

Today, the lure of a forgotten kingdom continues to draw outsiders, namely tourists, and modern facilities meet their needs. Perhaps the most luxurious of the hotels is Banyan Tree Lijiang. On its Web site, the five-star hotel harkens to Dr. Joseph Rock's journey ("whom introduced Lijiang to the West"), proclaiming the historical import of its location: the hotel is located along an intra-providence trade route from Yunnan to Tibet. Banyan Tree Lijiang's advertisement describes the Lijiang Old Town as an "authentic outpost of Yunnan culture and architecture" (Banyan Tree Lijiang). The journey to the modern outpost, however, is significantly less arduous than in Rock's or even Goullart's day, with the Lijiang airport nearby.

In 1997, Lijiang (along with forty-five other locales) was designated a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). UNESCO's official Web site ( proclaims:

The Old Town of Lijiang, which adapted itself harmoniously to the uneven topography of this key commercial and strategic site, has retained an historic townscape of high quality and authenticity. Its architecture is noteworthy for the blending of elements from several cultures that have come together over many centuries. Lijiang also possesses an ancient water-supply system of great complexity and ingenuity that is still functioning effectively. (World Heritage


Partly due to this honor, as well as an emerging domestic tourism industry within China, Lijiang has become a distinguished travel destination, continuing to advance the lure of an authentic-exotic-the mythological narrative.

The Naxi

The Naxi populate the northwestern part of Yunnan Province and the southwestern part of Sichuan Province, China. Until recently, they have maintained trade links with India and Lhasa, Tibet-their previous homeland. While they are officially categorized as a minority group, they constitute the great majority in Lijiang Naxi autonomous county, in northwestern Yunnan province (White, 2002, 132). One of fifty-six minority groups officially recognized by the Chinese state, they are considered to be a relatively "advanced." Controversy-mostly confusion-exists in who exactly constitutes the Naxi group, as the national government couples the Mosuo (a matriarchical, 'fatherless' society) with the Naxi. Tourist guidebooks and travel agencies perpetuate the confusion, as evidenced by a number of travel Web sites (e.g. Lijiang and Shangri-La). Lijiang Old Town, with its abundance of historic buildings, canal system, and cobblestone streets, has come to represent the everyday urban fabric of the Naxi people. The Naxi have been well studied, and much has been written about the Naxi religion, hieroglyphic script, indigenous music, and art and architecture. The politics of tourism and its transformation on and by agency and the tourism landscape, however, has been neglected, at least in the English language (Su & Teo, 2009, 13). Likewise, the spatial boundaries, such as the line that separates the Old Town from the New City, and the conflicts and collaborations across those boundaries, deserve further attention.

Negotiation of Identity in Lijiang

Grouping Theory

Behind the World Heritage Site rhetoric, the "continuous, dialectical struggles of power and resistance" that Aitchison succinctly conveyed (see epigraph above) are evident in Lijiang, and these struggles have continued to shape both Lijiang and the Naxi minority group who call it home. The forces that shape today's place and space, however, differ from those of Joseph Rock's era, as the web of globalization and (international) tourism have dramatically affected, and been affected by, both people and place. While many agencies (and sub-agencies) have impact, three major stakeholders on this pivot point are the state, tourists, and locals.

At the onset, however, the term "group" warrants some discussion. Rogers Brubaker (2004), in Ethnicity without Groups, finds a gap in social sciences literature in its inattentiveness to the term (7). He coined this gap groupism, defining it as "the tendency to take discrete, bounded groups as basic constituents of social life, chief protagonists of social conflicts, and fundamental units of social analysis" (8). Even beyond statuses of race, ethnicity, and nationalism, groupism involves combinations of myriad relations, such as religion, minority status, age, and so on (8). Of course, these groups are not bounded, homogenous actors with unified purposes. Analyzing groups in this evolving and fractured frame unfolds a plethora of social theories, including rational choice, game theory, network theory, cognitive theory, feminist theory, and generally an entire constructivist stance about the "fragmentary" and "ephemeral" natures of the boundaries that form/separate those groups (8). Brubaker reifies ethnicity by severing it from the group, creating a discourse that focuses on the processes through which the categories are created and in particular how 'ethnic' violence is framed. This spirit of questioning units of analysis should inform further discussion of the interactions among the Naxi, neighboring minority groups, the Han, and Westerners that dominate the cultural literature in the Chinese context.

This reification of ethnicity has already been applied in situ. Jan Nijman (2006), in re-categorizing identity in Miami, beyond race, asserts that "in contrast to old notions of identity as singular and fixed, the concept of identity is now argued to be multi-dimensional and naturally in flux. Any individual or group is likely to have a plurality of identities that may be complementary or complete with each other" (177). Drawing upon Appadurai (1990), Nijman repositions ethnic categories to a globalization context, describing an analysis of "ceaseless flows of people, things, money, information, and ideas" resulting in a "restless" landscape and "de-territorialisation" (176).

Identity Theory

At this juncture, the term of "identity" also warrants discussion. Brubaker and Cooper (2004) argue that the term is "too ambiguous, too torn between 'hard' [essentialism] and 'soft' [constructivism] meanings, essentialist connotations and constructivist qualifiers, to serve well the demands of social analysis" (29). They find inherent faults with considering identity as 'fluid' (ignoring its congealed states) and 'multiple' (ignoring the strive for singular identities) and 'fragmented', pronouncing the term "heavily burdened" and "deeply ambiguous" (35). As such, they offer three clusters of "less congested" terms: identification and categorization; self-understanding and social location; and commonality, connectedness, and groupness (45-46). This range of alternatives can help deconstruct the ambiguities of "identity." The terms reveal the inherent conflict of grouping, as the pendulum swings between multiculturalism and nationalism, between an oversight of internal differences to a disregard for distinct and shared experiences. In particular, grouping and identity theories add complexity and texture to case studies.

In this regard, my analysis of the dialectical tensions in Lijiang will focus less on ethnic categories and instead center on the three major stakeholders: the state, tourists, and locals. Where ethnicity is invoked, it is with an awareness of the complexities of the term.

The State

The nation-state acts as a key agent in influencing heritage production, consumption, and representation for purposes of creating a shared national identity, a collective culture. As such, whole countries are promoted ("Amazing Thailand" and "Incredible India"). Comaroff and Comaroff (2009) term this nation-branding as Corporate Nationhood or Nationality, Inc. In the wake of globalization, an emphasis on difference and a production of patriotism is taking place. The Lijiang basin and particularly Lijiang, the heartland of Naxi culture, is experiencing this dialectic of globalization and patriotism. In fact, though, it has been "considerably exposed to and influenced by Chinese culture over the past millennium"-though to much lesser degree in certain locations (Blum & Jensen, 2002, 132). A number of historical accounts trace the myriad encounters, and the conflicts and adaptations engendered by them.

Anthropologist Sydney White gives an overview of these historical encounters via a chapter in Blum and Jensen's China off Center, revealing the relation between the local and national scales, and particularly between the Communist Party and the ethnic margins. White highlights the structurally marginalized status Naxi women face as a consequence of "imperial Chinese norms, according to which women were the center of domesticity and bound to the inner quarters of the home" (133). These allotments are played out in the division of labor, as men predominantly work for the state and receive higher pay and better healthcare and retirement benefits than women who manage their households and businesses-a relatively "bitter" assignment (137-138). While many of the statuses that shape the everyday lives of contemporary Naxi are the same that shape other citizens of the PRC, particularly in the urban-rural (or town-village) division, the distinct history and ethnicity of the Naxi and its status as a "minority nationality" offer a significant deviation.

Charles McKhann addresses Chinese nationality in the essay, "The Naxi and the Nationalities Question," first noting that China is ninety-two percent Han, with the remaining eight percent made up of several dozen minority groups-55 officially recognized "minority nationalities" (Harrell, 1995, 40). McKhann asserts that the government promotes models of national culture "derived largely from the (Confucian) traditions of the Han majority, and in this respect minorities policy has been broadly assimilationist" (40). Drawing on Marxist theory of majority and minority nationalities studies and on Morgan's theory of a social "evolutionary scale"-savagery, barbarism, and civilization-Chinese Communists characterized China's nationalities into categories of either modern or modernizing societies, the latter category describing nearly all of the minority groups (41). This hierarchical scale occurs (still today) on temporal and spatial levels, as the Han populate the 'core' of China, the developed eastern seaboard. Minority groups exist on the periphery, in multiple senses of the word: geographical, economical, cultural. Particularly in the past, the Naxi have been situated as barbarians or even animals, exemplified by the first Han magistrate to govern Naxi territory who described them as "animals…attracted by the sweet grass" (42). Contemporary literature, less overtly condescending, seek to "identity factors that may be inhibiting evolutionary progress" within minority groups (43). Concomitantly, "primitive" peoples are in part viewed more "natural" and spiritually in-tune, a reversal also found in the Western Hemisphere. For instance, the Naxi traditional custom of burning their dead suits the state's push to preserve available land (45-46). Such traditions, when beneficial, are lauded by Beijing. While often from a vantage of exhortation Han Chinese seek to present a harmonious China (in both conflict resolution and economic integration), and as such have made efforts to engage minority groups, offering Affirmative Action programs much like those in the U.S. (The effects of these programs present an area for further study.) The Chinese state, in various incarnations, has influenced the Naxi for centuries, especially by the post-1949 Communist government, and as such acts as an important identification agent, especially in centrally-operated Chinese cultural tourism.

Of course, the state is not homogenous, and discontinuities exist within. In an article entitled "How Much of China is Ruled by Beijing?" exiled journalist Liu Binyan questions the state's authority and control, exposing a fragmented China. He cites a increasing public contempt, a "growing resentment and hatred toward the Party" (Blum & Jensen, 2002, 30). Binyan points to the "numerous villages that are dominated by clans, various cults and sects, as well as criminals," (28) who subvert the authority of the Communist government. In particular, he notes the local armies that have formed in Shanxi and Yunnan provinces, speculating that they "may represent the embryos of future warlord regimes" (29).

Forces of Globalization

Two divergent outcomes are held about the forces of globalization: 1) the forces are so powerful that they threaten to homogenize the world and 2) globalization does not necessarily overwhelm place as local factors shape a place-specific uniqueness. In either view, the local is intimately entwined with the global, and the space-axis through which they engage, in a multitude of dialectical processes, is fluid and relational. As a result of increased awareness of the Naxi culture (including the misconstrued and falsified cultural practices), strategies to conserve and protect the Naxi culture can be favorable, yet this is a difficult balance, as tourism activity and conservation often form a mutually parasitic relationship. Additionally, the tourist dollar only reaches certain segments of the community, for better or worse.

Foreign and Domestic Tourists

Heritage sites are inherently contested spaces, as a variety of stakeholders are involved. In Lijiang, the Naxi are compelled to contribute to the building of a Chinese national identity. At the same time, Naxi cultural heritage must conform to the rules of global tourism-the production of the exotic other, through marketing and development (as shown later, though, this branding has empowering dimensions). Tourists to Lijiang-a heritage site-are typically seeking cultural capital, the knowledge and skill that can improve one's status in society and distinguish themselves from others. Of course, a multitude of customers comprise this category.

Tourism presents a variety of impressions, marketed toward certain populations, and generally, domestic and foreign tourists visit Lijiang with different purposes and predispositions, illustrated by tourist advertisement and travel description. Hence, the destination has already taken shape before the tourist even arrives. A popular documentary entitled China: Beyond the Clouds, released in 1994 in the UK and later throughout Europe, captures the dramatic scenery of Lijiang and the surrounding landscape, while also portraying the harsh realities of the Naxi people. The effects of this film should not be underestimated in creating an expectation for European travelers, seeking the remote and exotic. Likewise, the myth of a Shangri-La-much like that of Timbuktu-permeates the Western emphasis, harkening the spirit of Joseph Rock and Peter Goullart. (Coincidentally, Shangri-La is not far from Lijiang.) On the domestic side, while the exotic still informs marketing, the larger emphasis is on escape from the frenetic city pace. An advertisement from the Shanghai Star (2002: August 1) entices:

When you get tired of the busy urban life, why not slow down a bit? Lijiang, a poetic place in South China's Yunnan Province, offers a heavenly escape from earthly troubles and anxieties….Unlike the city's skyscrapers, its quiet beauty is close to nature. (para. 1)

Once a popular destination for Western backpackers, Lijiang domestic tourism has far outpaced international, as Han tourists comprise much of the Asian tourist market. Some consider this "Hanization" to be a form of "inner colonialism," a process to civilize periphery peoples (Oakes, 1998, 84). In the case of Lijiang, the Chinese government purposely encouraged this process.

The contestation between domestic and international tourists is evident in the travel literature. Lonely Planet (targeted to Westerners) warns, "[d]on't let the crowds - or any grumpy travellers you may meet on your way here - discourage a trip. Get up early and it will be just you, Lìjiāng and a handful of intrepid photographers. Just make sure you get the hell out of Dodge by 8.30am, when the tour group [primarily Han] onslaught begins" (Introducing Lijiang).

Both domestic and international tourists consume the site-the souvenirs, musical concerts, overnight stays in traditional guest houses. At the same time-and much overlooked-tourists produce the space. Through photography, visitors are able to select scenes, capturing iconic images and creating a stage to match expectations. Historic buildings, nature, Naxi ethnicity, etc. become props for the tourist gaze, reinforcing those predisposed perceptions. Throughout Old Town, a number of sites have been constructed specifically for photos, such as a newly constructed wall etched with Dongba hieroglyphics. These photographs take on a socio-spatial connection as photos are shared with friends and family back home-the images are thus reproduced in their minds as well. This form of reifying also takes place through the purchase of Naxi souvenirs and cultural capital practices of participating in native music and dance. Incorporating shopping into consumption provides tourists the opportunity to engage with the townspeople (even if merchants aren't Naxi), creating socio-spatial connections among those they share with. Likewise attending music concerts is largely for the purpose of cultural capital, even if it's appreciated. It becomes a conversation piece back home. These experiences shape the vernacular landscape, the everyday lived space in Lijiang and the imagined space among its guests.

Predisposition to attempt to read an authenticity into the landscape can create a conflict between the imagination and the everyday, the expected and the perceived. Su and Teo (2009) conducted extensive interviews of both domestic and international tourists to the Old Town, finding notable differences in expectations and experiences. In accord with the advertisement and marketing, Su and Teo found that domestic tourists desired a peaceful setting far removed from city life. The pastoral myth of the unadulterated rural was also highlighted (102). International tourists, on the other hand, "prioritized authenticity over escape" (102). A number of respondents criticized the built environment, one respondent notably complaining it was "Disney does China…utterly drained of all authenticity" (102).

Tensions in the Material and Vernacular Landscapes

Material spaces include the tangibles: residential buildings (hundreds of which have been adapted as tourist shops), the newly-built Mu Palace, cobblestone streets, canals. The vernacular includes costume, religion, music, language, and so on. The question of authenticity can be applied to both-and through the eyes of various stakeholders. As tourists take photographs of Naxi clothing, it becomes costume. Dongba rituals, once a religious expression, now are "staged performance done for touristic purposes rather than as a form of worship" (Su & Teo, 2009, 72). Likewise, Naxi hieroglyphics are found on key chains, greeting cards, and other souvenirs, though very few people can understand them (72-73). But the processes of commodification and theatrics, on another level, help preserve heritage. As professional musicians perform Naxi music for tourists, the music is kept alive. While architecture is regulated and sometimes very recent, it is again kept alive against a surrounding sea of white bathroom-tile housing in the New City. In a stream of constant change (or as Aitchison termed, "constant state of transition"), the desire to situate Lijiang in the past-as heritage sites attempt to do-is an impossibility; instead, space inevitably becomes a hybrid of old and new, West and Han and Naxi.

The social processes that occur in Lijiang are visible throughout the town, but are specially notable at the market and Cuiwen Lane. For foreign tourists seeking an authentic experience, the market provides a place to see the "real" China-at least one they expected: a hodgepodge of unusual fruits and vegetables, whole animals on the counters, birds in cages, fish on the cutting board, gills still flapping as customers motion which parts to cut. Domestic tourists, understandably, bypass the markets, as they are not, relatively, exotic. It lacks the spectacle of "othering." Su and Teo (2009) discuss the evolution of Cuiwen Lane, both historically and even throughout the day:

In the morning, some international tourists come to the bars for Western breakfast, including coffee and sandwiches. By noon, international tourists start to withdraw and domestic independent tourists start to fill the spaces in the bars....At night, Cuiwen Lane becomes a space of consumption for conspicuous tourists….It is economic power that determines the use of space in Cuiwen Lane. (119)

Catering to the large groups of domestic tourists, the lane has transformed itself from a space for Western backpackers to one for Han. This is particularly evident in the dominance of Mandarin in the tourists space, transforming the space from the more international attraction of the past to one more domestic (119-120).

As domestic tourists far outnumber international, the implications are a catering to the expectations of the Han tourists, creating a Mandarin space and alienating some international tourists expecting the comforts and familiarity of home. Competition for space and struggles of power occur on a multiplicity of scales, not only among tourists, but among proprietors-many are not from Yunnan, let alone Naxi. In the end, different purchasing power largely determines the social space.

While tourism development often relies on predisposed notions of 'primitive' and 'exotic', it is important to consider the local populations and their desires. In fact, tourism can be incorporated by locals to achieve a more comfortable, progressive life, and the researcher must be careful not to discount those wishes.


A spatial analysis provides a framework for analyzing power relations in the tourist space of Lijiang, as space embodies both the outcome of social dynamics and the inputs to those structures. This hegemonic dynamic is discussed by Massey (1993), as she describes it as "full of power and symbolism, a complex web of relations of domination and subordination, of solidarity and co-operation" (145). While various tourists joust for (social) space, the locals exist in dialectical tension with both groups. Su and Teo (2009), drawing on Britton (1980; 1982), relay the notion that tourism destinations in the developing world are "outcomes of the process of capital accumulation by transnational corporations wielding strong economic power in a globally interconnected world" (3). Britton (1982) cites a hegemonic relationship between global tourism corporations and developing countries, arguing that enterprise that imposes on "peripheral destinations…reinforces dependency on, and vulnerability to, developed countries" (355). Bianchi (2002) likewise states that "tourism contribute[es] directly toward an extension of metropolitan dominance over weaker destination peripheries and ultimately leads to a loss of self-reliance" (270). In this view, neo-colonialization has manifested itself in global tourism. Other research, however, such as Agnew and Duncan's The Power of Place (1989) and Cosgrove and Daniels's The Iconography of Landscape (1988) assert that those marginalized peoples do in fact contest the social structures and are able to negotiate the power relations. Thus, while social structures can limit one's authority, they are not fully deterministic, and the cultural exchange occurs in both directions (transculturation). Within the Old Town, this transcultruation is lived.

Historically the Old Town was of course designed for the locals. Now, few shops cater to the locals and due to the dense flow of tourists, high rents have displaced many locals from participating in the markets. Some locals have rented their shops and houses to outsiders, choosing instead to live in the New Town. Others have left due to the noise, crowding, and touristification of the town (142), as the locals have become attractions and photo-ops for outsiders. Again, this is a two-edged sword, as (some) locals gain financial benefits, but are pushed out of the home town. These demographic shifts have been significant, as Su and Teo relay that the Naxi population in the Old Town is roughly half its previous amount (145). In this terrain of struggle and resistance, women involved in the tourist imagery are required by local governments to wear Naxi garb, something they at first resisted but have since accepted (136). However, some resistance is achieved as they remove their costumed attire after the workday finishes. Thus, along gender lines, women have become eroticized and ethnicized for the expectations and pleasure of male tourists. Locals are not passive receivers though, and they assert their authority in little ways, such as learning the Naxi language and staking out social space in the town's bars. Financial and social improvements, additionally, have benefited the locals. Surveying locals, Su and Teo found that "respondents have pointed to…the fact that tourism development enhances locals' pride in Lijiang Ancient Town and strengthens their place attachment to their hometown" (150). "Commodification potentially empowers the locals to 'effectively maintain a sense of autonomy' by integrating them into the tourism system and reviving local tradition" (Oakes, 1993, 58-59, qtd. in Su & Teo, 2009, 34). Nevertheless, the lived space of human activities has dramatically changed (even if physically preserved) and the Old Town has become a sanitized hollow shell that veils conflicts, conflicts that tourists rarely see.


Descending into the valley pass upon entering Lijiang (not for the first time), Goullart (1957) records, "The fields were green with winter wheat, and between them ran deep, crystal-clear streams of icy water. Dark water plants waved in them like strands of hair. The water from glaciers divided and sub-divided into innumerable streams and canals, and make Likiang plain one of the best irrigated areas in the world. The gurgling of these swift brooks, the singing of larks and other birds was like the music of gods. The road twisted in and out of hamlets. Likiang itself could not be seen: it was hidden behind a small hill" (13).

Emanating from a centrally-operated, growing world power, the politics of heritage tourism is especially pronounced in China. This case study of Old Town, Lijiang reveals the tensions among the state, tourists, and locals, and how those tensions are materialized and represented in space, both in the material and vernacular. In Lijiang, forces of globalization have created a hybridized space, visibly displayed in the congestion of Sifang Square or within any given bar on Cuiwen Lane. Unlike many themed spaces, though, hegemonic struggles in historical sites are embedded in both the financial and historical, tourism and conservation, among many of the dialectical relationships situated at the nexus of Lijiang. These relationships can be employed to understand the processes of change in the built landscapes and how those landscapes (vernacular and material) continue to shape the identity of the local Naxi minority group, in very real ways. Moreover, these "dialectical struggles of power and resistance" in fact continuously produce that space (Aitchison, 1999, 25). Theories of grouping and identity provide a more nuanced and critical view with regards to understanding those processes and discussing the stakeholders, recognizing the many contradictions and connections within each group and between. This emphasis on the everyday experiences of these stakeholders, particularly the locals, offers a "livelihoods" approach, allowing us to move away from a top-down globalization framework and toward locality and the extraordinary-ordinary lives people live and how those marginalized find ways to subvert the powerful through their own counter narrative.

The "forgotten kingdom" of Goullart and Rock was in fact-as historical analysis reveals-not forgotten, but continuously in tension with outside forces. These forces continue to dialectically shape one other, partly solidifying group identity and partly thawing that identity, but always transforming-revealing as much about the other as the self. In this sense, the place is a mirror to that self, as our predispositions and purposes find in place what we sought for, and other dimensions of the place, embedded in Soja's trialectics of historicality, sociality, and spatiality, can be hidden in a mountainous fog, occasionally lifting, the authentic real hidden "just beyond a small hill."