South Yunnan | An Introduction to Xishuangbanna

Although the Chinese New Year is also called ‘Spring Festival’, it’s pretty chilly everywhere. Those living below the Yangze River have no heating system. So, during the holidays, it’s just natural to fly south. In China, during this holiday season, Xishuangbanna ranks high on the list of Chinese and expats.

During the winter months, Xishuangbanna’s temperatures peak to 25°C during the day. Mornings are foggy, but weather is dry and warm. Bordering on Burma and Laos, the region provides travelers with a foretaste of Southeast Asia. The Burmese shop owners in the capital city of Jinghong’s jade streets remind travelers that they have reached the southern edge of China. Foodies  enjoy the Thai influence of the dishes served in local restaurants where spices like lemongrass, mint or basil, virtually unknown in the rest of China will remind anyone that they are closer to Bangkok than Beijing.


All the signage are written in both Chinese characters and the new Dai script which resembles Burmese writing. The Dai people, which form the main ethnic group of the region, speak a dialect closer to the northern Thai language than standard Mandarin. In the streets, women from the different ethnic groups wear their traditional costumes. It almost feels as though Xishuangbanna is a chunk of Southeast Asia in China.


Although nearly a third of the population is Han Chinese,  Xishuangbanna is one of the most ethnically diverse autonomous prefecture, not only in Yunnan, but in the whole China. In the lowlands, you will find the Dai people who have ruled this region from the dawn of the 12th century until the Communists and took over the power in the early 1950s. In the uplands, you will find the Hani (also called the Akha or Aini), whom with the Dai and the Han form the bulk of the population. You will also find the Yi, the Bulang, the Jinuo, the Lahu, the Yao and the Wa whom, living most exclusively in higher elevations, are classified as ‘upland tribes’. They tend to be poorer than the Dai, Hani and Han. The rest of Xishuangbanna ethnic minority population is formed by non-native ethnic groups like the Miao, Bai, Zhuang and Hui that you will find in the cities.

Foreign travelers will find Xishuangbanna attractive, not only for its mild climate in winter, its ethnic diversity, cultural treasures and endless hiking possibilities, but also because the border town of Mohan 磨憨 at the southeastern tip at the prefecture, is the main border crossing point between Laos and China.


Beyond Tourism

The capital of Xishuangbanna, Jinghong 景洪, with its brand new international airport, is emerging as the main touristic hub in the Dai autonomous prefecture of Xishuangbanna. The city is growing fast and roads to the main tourist attractions are paved.

Travelers can easily be based in Jinghong, enjoy international food in the foreign street of Manting Road and make one-day or two-day trips to visit the prefecture.

Although tourism is developing very fast, many ethnic minority locals in the lowlands and the uplands do not rely on this emerging industry for their livelihoods. First because the Han Chinese migrants are controlling the tourism industry, then because rubber mono-culture in the lowlands and tea mono-culture in the uplands has become ethnic minorities’ main source of income.


Don’t get fooled by the green

Whether you’re on a Jinghong-bound bus or landing to Xishuangbanna prefecture’s capital city, you will be amazed by how green the landscape is.

Right before landing at Jinghong, you’ll fly over a lush green landscape of carefully planted rows of rubber trees. Although the Chinese government is counting rubber plantations as forest cover, this cash crop is not ‘natural’. Since the Communist took over in the early 1950s and introduced rubber trees, forest cover has receded dramatically. Between the 1950s and the early 1980s, rubber was cultivated exclusively in state-owned rubber farms by Han Chinese farmers. Ethnic minorities who were deemed to backward to cultivate rubber, were not allowed to cultivate it. Everything changed with the economic reforms of the 1980s. Ethnic minorities were allowed (and even forced) to plant rubber in order to fuel the economic reforms. In the 1990s and early 21st century, rubber imposed itself as the cash crop that lifted people out of poverty. Forest were cuts, wild animals killed, lifestyles changed forever. Today, if you observe Xishuangbanna’s landscape carefully, you are able to make the difference between the carefully planted rows of rubber trees and the remnants of the original forests.


Yet, even though plantations of rubber monoculture count as ‘forest cover’ in the official statistics, they have a serious environmental impact, contributing to loss of biodiversity, depletion of water supply and soil erosion. Southeast of the capital city of Jinghong, in a town called Menglun, there is a research center in the middle of botanic garden where a bunch of scholars are studying the effects of rubber monoculture on the region. The environmental consequences are serious and (will) have profound social impacts.

Anyway, in the lowlands, the remaining original forests are of two kinds : state-owned forests which are protected by government law and the Dai sacred forests.


The Dai sacred forests

The religion of the Dai people is a blend between polytheistic beliefs and Buddhism. According to the the Dai worldview, the soul of their deceased leaders become a devata, or spirit of the ancestor. This devata dwelve in a forest near each Dai village and when rituals are peformed regularly, the devata protects the village against natural catastrophes. As a protective force, the devata is a benevolent supra being. Should the community stop to perform the rituals to honor him and should any villager dare and trespass on the forest that is his dwelling place, the devata becomes malevolent, bringing death on whoever dares to step on his territory and unleashing natural catastrophes like flood or drought on the village.


An ongoing story

I went several time to Xishuangbanna, as a traveler and as a scholar. Over the next months, I will write more about this remarkable part of Yunnan, tell about the places that are worth the visit, write about the legends linked to the Dai sacred forests, talk about Pu’er tea and the Ancient Tea and Horse Road, and also talk about the environmental and social challenges the cultivation of rubber has created.