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.
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)
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
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
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
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).