Saturday, June 30, 2012

Back from China

I'm still sifting through photos from my trip to China (1400; target after sifting; 600-700), but here are a few. It seems like a very long trip, though I was only in China for 13 days, and Hong Kong for another 5. I think it's not just because of the forced blogging and Facebook fast! Perhaps because it was many different kinds of trips and destinations?
There was the trip to the Tibetan Plateau with the "Everyday Religion and Sustainable Environments in the Himalaya" project, complement to earlier trips to Nepal and northern India - these above are alpine flowers I pressed after a hike in the environs of the ethnic Tibetan town of Shangrila, altitude 3200m. (Before 2001 it was called རྒྱལ་ཐང་རྫོང་ or 中甸.) And here is our Indian-Nepali-Chinese Tibetan-American-Australian research group, amplified by women from the village of Daba, and the view of Daba seen the following morning from the yurt where I slept. We did good work, and also turned a monster prayer wheel (3 rotations = 2.4 billion om mani padme hum), visited a tangka painting school, the recently rebuilt Tibetan Buddhist monastery of Songzanlin, and the wildly powerful churning waters of the Yangtse at Tiger Leaping Gorge. The whole area has become a major tourist destination for domestic Chinese tourists escaping the heat and uniformity of Han Chinese cities. The tours usually start in the picturesque 17th century town of Lijiang,

a success story of the Naxi people who rose from a devastating earth- quake in 1996 to become China's first UNESCO World Heritage site and premier tourist destination. I spent 2 nights there before our meeting. Not everyone likes Lijiang, though; an American scholar we met lamented its "Disenyfication" and the "zombification" of its culture.
He felt the same happening to Shangrila - behold the Chinese stone bridges and metal-trussed Tibetan temples being built around its main square. It is an interesting question what's going on here. China is proud of being a multi-ethnic land, and Yunnan is home to more minority peoples than any other province... And its ethnic Tibetans aren't like those rowdy combustible types in Tibet. They're even allowed to post pictures of the Dalai Lama - as among the assembled holy figures in the minibus which drove us around; next to him is the Chinese-appointed reincarnation of the Panchen Lama. As a reward for good behavior lots of money flows in, many temples razed during the Cultural Revolution(by Tibetan Maoists, glad to be freed of monastic feudalism!) are being rebuilt. But, our source told us, Songzanlin is but "a shell," with few monks and no Tantric initiations. In these parts, he said provocatively, "religion is dead." Everyday religion may survive but its vitality depends on the institutions whose backs have been broken by communism.

I'll doubtless have reflections on that topic to share eventually - the Himalayan region does certainly offer a wealth of research topics! - but the order of the day is "Mark's first trip to China," so I'll keep moving outward from the trip at its center. I made my way slowly to Shangrila, stopping first in Lijiang, and the 3 nights before that in Kunming, which I explored quite comprehensively on foot. A small city of 7 million, Kunming lies at 2000m and is known as the city of eternal Spring for its clement weather. Historically and again today it's a hub of peoples from the Tibetan Plateau to Southeast Asia. It was my first China experience, quickly overcoming any scruples I'd brought with me.
Lily pads and morning tai chi dancers in Green Lake Park, a billboard with a homeless person, a Tang dynasty pagoda, the new city center. And below: a street overlooked by the city planners, a street sutra, immortals at Zhenqing Daoist temples, incense at Yuantong temple and Tibetan dances in the ethnic dance spectacular "Dynamic Yunnan."There's definitely a bias to my touring! There's plenty I didn't see (or photograph: I peeked into the giant Carrefour and the international luxury brand malls), and of course, walking from the city center, I didn't get to the unthinkably vast standardized housing projects I saw from the plane where most Kunmingers evidently live. The closest I came were
some towers under construction from the taxi window on my way to Quiongzhu temple in the hills to the city's west, where I snuck some photos of the near life-sized 500 Luohan (arhats) which somehow managed to survive the Cultural Revolution - perhaps because the caricaturing sculptor was disciplined by his abbot for impertinence!
And that wraps up the Yunnan part of my trip; I'll save Hong Kong- Shenzhen-Guangzhou for tomorrow. But I trust you get a sense of some of the historical, geographical, cultural questions raised... What's up with the gleaming new temples among the gleaming new towers and shops of the new China? Zombie or immortal? A new age of the arhat?

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