Zhaoxing in Guizhou : on remotness and China-style mass tourism

View of Zhaoxing

View of Zhaoxing

During a recent journey to Zhaoxing (肇兴), a small cluster of Dong ethnic villages in southeast Guizhou, I started questioning two things : what does ‘remote’ means (and was Zhaoxing a remote place or not) and how Chinese-style development of tourism in villages like Zhaoxing contribute to improving local people’s way of life?

Before elaborating on this, let’s look at Zhaoxing. This recently renovated village in Guizhou, near the border of Hunan and Guangxi province, is very similar to Xijiang (西江), a one-thousand-household village near Kaili, just five hours north.

Recent Make-over 

The hyper-real new part of Zhaoxing

The hyper-real new part of Zhaoxing

When I visited in March 2014, it was obvious that the entire village had gone through an expensive face-lift. I am not talking about the highway or the massive entrance gate (where visitors are required to get off the bus and pay a 100 RMB entrance fee). I am talking about an artificial pond around which is articulated a new ‘fake village’ that will likely become an entertainment district with bars, KTV and trinket stores.

Beyond this newly constructed village, built according to the local Dong architecture, a brand new paved road cut through the village of Zhaoxing where guesthouses have flourished. There is a plethora of basic accommodations in the village ( look for the sign ‘宾馆’ binguan or ‘客栈’ kezhan).

At night, the Dong drum towers (鼓楼) and the village’s Wind and Rain bridges (风雨桥) are tastefully lit up (I mean no flashy, tacky strings of LED lights) and public lighting help visitors meandering through the narrow streets. Two thumbs up.

Not too commercialised (yet)

One of the village's drum tower at dusk.

One of the village’s drum tower at dusk.

While the 100 RMB entrance fee is an undeniable step towards the commodification and commercialisation of a place, Zhaoxing, although it has long been a tourist destination, most shops caters to locals.

There are a few ‘handicrafts’ shops where visitors can stack up on souvenirs, but compared to Xijiang (西江), Zhaoxing is relatively untouched by commercialisation.

There is a trend in the development of Chinese-style mass-tourism. A previously remote place is ‘developed’ : roads are built, the village goes through a phase of renovation, an expensive entrance fee is charged to visitors (to pay for roads and renovation work), a parking lot is built. Everything is in place for bus-loads of Chinese tourists to invade the place. And since many urban tourists can bear the silence of the countryside, an entertainment district with bars and karaoke is set up as well as trinket stores that sell souvenir to tourists. This pattern I describe is hardly a caricature of the truth. Look at Fenghuang, Lijiang, Xijiang, Dali, Heshun

Zhaoxing and beyond

View of Zhaoxing, Guizhou

View of Zhaoxing, Guizhou

This is not the first time I talk about Dong villages in this blog. I have already surveyed other places in this region known as the “Corridor of the Dong” : the villages of Gaozeng (高增) and Xiaohuang (小黄) in the nearby Congjiang (从江) region, the cluster of Dong hamlets of Chengyang (程阳) in Guangxi province and the countryside of Tongdao (通道) in nearby Hunan province.

So, it will come to no surprise that there are five drum towers (鼓楼) and five Wind and Rain bridges (风雨桥). The Wind and Rain bridges are nice, but not nearly as impressive as the Yongji bridge of Chengyang or the Puxiu and Huilong bridges near Tongdao.

The name of the five drum towers (Xintuan 信团, Zhituan 智团, Lituan 礼团, Yituan 义团 and Rentuan 仁团) tell us more about the social composition of the village. Even though the village looks like one big village to the foreign eye, it is divided into five sections. In each section live one community or tuan 团 which is composed of at least two clans (one clan is defined as a group of people bearing the same surname). The five different communities of Zhaoxing have named themselves ‘faith’ (信), ‘wisdom’ (智), ‘propriety’ (礼), ‘rightousness’ (义) and ‘benevolence’ (仁) which are the five virtues of Confucianism.

Visitors can go hike in the paddy fields or follow one of the road that stretches across the hills to get a bird-eye view of the village (photographers will love that). You can even go up to the village of Tang’an (堂安) : it’s a 8 km hike, but you can also hire a micro-bus by the bus station.

On remoteness and mass-tourism

A Wind and Rain bridge and a drum tower in Zhaoxing, Guizhou

A Wind and Rain bridge and a drum tower in Zhaoxing, Guizhou

On my post about the ancient Ming garrison of Longli 隆里, just 2-3 hours north of Zhaoxing, I noted that there is an airport in Liping, with regular flights to Guiyang, Shanghai and Guangzhou. From there, it’s a 1h30 ride to Zhaoxing. If you think Zhaoxing is remote, please explain to me in a comment.

On the bus from Liping (黎平) to Zhaoxing (肇兴), a Dong ethnic village in southeastern Guizhou province, I met a student in tourism from Guiyang University who explained to me that development of tourism fosters development of remote ethnic areas. In his discourse, the term ‘development’ was synonym of building roads and linking remote, backwards areas of China to modern towns and cities.

Zhaoxing is an example of this politics of development. While locals welcome the investment made (i.e. the highway that cut travel time to Liping (黎平) , bus that unloads hordes of tourists during the high season), Zhaoxing villagers do not benefit directly from your financial contribution (i.e. the 100 RMB). Locals who opened a business have to take loans from banks and improvised themselves hotel managers.

Xiaohuang (小黄), another Dong village near Congjiang (roughly two hours from Zhaoxing) that I presented as ‘untouched by tourism’ is now being ‘renovated’, getting ready to see hordes of tourists with fancy camera and transformed into a money-making machine.

How to get there

Meat hung to dry on one of Zhaoxing's Wind and Rain bridges

Meat hung to dry on one of Zhaoxing’s Wind and Rain bridges

By air : from Liping airport, there are daily flights to and from Guiyang, 4 weekly flights to and from Guangzhou and two weekly to and from Shanghai Pudong. You will have to transfer by bus from Liping main bus station or hire a taxi.

By bus from Liping : there are 9 buses daily (almost one every hour to hour-and-half) starting at 7:20 AM, the last one leaves at 4:30 PM or 5 PM (sometimes). The journey lasts 1.5 hour. To Liping, there are buses from Guiyang and Kaili (around 5 hours) or from Guilin (depart from Qintan bus station – 5 hours) or Sanjiang (2-3 hours).

By bus from Congjiang : there are 2 or 3 direct connection from Congjiang, around 1.5 to 2 hours.


See more pictures of the Land of the Dong people (侗族之乡).

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There are 5 comments

  1. Josh

    I visited Zhaoxing in 2009. At the time, they were in the early stages of reconstruction, presumably building the entertainment district you describe. Lovely old wooden buildings were being torn down to create modern recreations. The first shops to open in the new district were selling “ethnic” trinkets made in India, which, besides bearing no connection to Dong culture, were demeaning in their generic representation of a primitive barbarousness. Tourists from tour buses were being funneled there, bypassing textile shops owned by locals that sold authentic Dong handicrafts. The fact is, the village already had a thriving economy based on a more sustainable backpacker tourism. There were plenty of locally owned guesthouses, and restaurants built in the traditional style. Yet the plans for the new town center included massive modern hotels. Of course, towns should be free to choose to develop in a way that allows them to profit from mass tourism, if that is what they desire, and if the profits indeed go to the townsfolk. However, I have good reason to doubt that is what happened in Zhaoxing. Posters were displayed on nearly every house in town that demanded that locals support the redevelopment campaign (in part by displaying said posters), or else be remembered as “the villains of history.” An old man I spoke with one night said that villagers were prohibited from performing their traditional music and dance except at sanctioned events which invariably were celebrations to glorify the party officials and their redevelopment campaigns. Still, I doubt the beauty of the town has been completely destroyed, and a few hours of hiking outside Zhaoxing will still take you to numerous small Dong villages that are likely never visited by the tour bus crowds.

  2. Mans

    Dear Gaetan,
    You’re right. As a westerner, I want things authentic, original, well preserved, not altered. Maybe that’s not realistic.
    In 2002 there already are new-build hostels in Dong style. Not only in Zhaoxing. Their colour of wood still honey. The traditional building a fun experience with squeaking floorboards and plank walls as thin as paper so you could clearly hear your neighbor speak. Two bathrooms (one for woman, one for men) on the ground floor, their corners full of spider webs and trough cracks between the planks you could see just outside. Next to the bathroom door a gas cylinder for the boiler.
    On the village market you encounter the female innkeeper with an alive brown feathered chicken under her arm. The poor animal slaughtered and cleaned outside on the terrace of the inn. Being a part of a lovely dinner in the evening.
    And everywhere swarms of souvenir selling women around you, trying to earn some money. The news of the arrival of new tourists spreads quickly. The small square – pattern inlaid with pebbles – quickly filled with most older Dong women in traditional dress who expose their handcraft on a rug on the floor. Well, maybe not all by hand, did the Dong have a small souvenir factory operated by Dong and with Dong employees only.
    It is autumn. Around the village are farmers busy harvesting the rice fields. The whole family helps. And a single water buffalo. A rich possession. In the evening they drive with all sorts of verhicles the yield in burlap sacks to the village. To stowe their winter stock in the small houses. Even the old people are helping. It’s unbelievalble how they lift a bamboo stick on their small shoulder. A stick with on each side with a heavy bag.
    Well, all things change in the world. But it is wonderful to have these memories.
    Gaetan, love your Internet site!

  3. Mans

    So sorry to read this. We have visited the village in 2002. We were overwhelmed by its rural beauty, its originality. Workmen were quite busy with one of the rare concrete buildings, to provide them with rough planks on the outside to let it melt among the other wooden structures. Maybe it was the beginning of the ‘modernization’. What a waste of such a beautiful place…

    1. Gaetan

      I am sure that back in 2002 it was a wonderful place. Unfortunately with the development of domestic tourism, many villages like Zhaoxing are being transformed into money-making machines. It’s good for locals who can make money through their hostels and selling stuff to tourists, but as foreigners we are always looking for ‘authenticity’.

  4. pbrasser

    2014 June, we arrived and were horrified, in the hope that it was only the entrance, we paid 100 RMB each, in the ‘village’ the old historical houses were dwarfed by new ones. the pavement was replaced by,a new layer of concrete, tastefully decorated with peddles. obviously it will cater for many tourist who will enjoy it. But it had nothing to do anymore with an historical village. More with commerce at any price
    We had a good lunch and decided this is not what we came for, and one and half hour later we were gone.
    If you look at the infrastructure been build around the park Zhaoxing, the people who running this must anticipate thousands of visitors on a daily basis in the future

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