Tuesday, May 8, 2007
“I never realized just how many people are in China until I came to Hangzhou.”
A Chinese friend said that on our fourth and last day in Hangzhou, “the most beautiful city in China.” The city is considerably less beautiful when you can’t see its famous West Lake because of the thousands and thousands of black-haired heads in the way, or traffic that takes an hour and a half to go a mile or so. On Tuesday, May 1, the first day of the Chinese Labor Day holiday, it was chaos. As Chinese have become more and more affluent, they have begun to travel around their own country; when a holiday such as Labor Day rolls around, the country’s famous tourist cities become seething masses of tourist flags and cameras.
The first day we arrived in Hangzhou, the city still belonged to its residents. Labor Day was still three days away. That Saturday, after getting off the train and making our way to our hostel, we saw hundreds of surly police officers lining the streets, a few meters apart, their hands clasped behind their backs in exactly the same way, looking straight ahead with serious looks. We didn’t know what was going on—was Hangzhou always like this? Soon we learned that the city was holding a parade for its Third Annual International Cartoon Festival. The police, though, were treating the parade the same as any public march, which always had to be closely monitored and controlled. As cartoon characters marched down the street—Spiderman, Garfield, Mickey Mouse, as well as many, many unfamiliar ones—the hoards of police kept the screaming children strictly on the sidelines, and made sure nobody did anything subversive such as try to touch Minnie Mouse. Many kids did anyway, of course. In fact, it was remarkable how thoroughly the gruff police were ignored.
As the long line of characters walked past, waving at the children, I was very surprised to see, tucked in between a float of Disney characters and a line of creatures doing back flips, an ethnic minority contingent. There were several of them, some not Han Chinese dressed in ethnic clothing (as is common when displaying the country’s ethnicities) but actual members, it was clear, of China’s 55 minorities.
China is dotted with “ethnic theme parks,” places where visitors can walk amongst “authentic” ethnic houses, see people dressed in ethnic costumes, and eat ethnic food. I’ve been to such parks in Beijing, Shenzhen, and Nanning. In the National Congress, representatives from the country’s ethnicities usually wear their ethnic costumes, whereas Han Chinese always wear Western style suits. Such packaging and displaying of China’s ethnicities is part of the government’s obsession with control, an obsession that reaches into many aspects of people’s private lives—ethnic identity, religion, etc. (The F_a_l_u_n G_o_n_g never intended to become politicized, and never did anything to directly challenge the communist party; they simply became too well-organized, and their activities often extended beyond the control of the state.) China’s ethnic groups are neatly organized into 56 categories (including the Han), and regulating the 55 minorities to a straightforward display of “authentic” architecture, food, and costumes that can packaged and sold serves to eliminate uncomfortable ambiguities and keep them firmly in their place—happy squares in the patchwork of China.
This tendency to display extends to the business world. KFC in China, which is known for incorporating elements of “Chinese culture” into its restaurants (such as models of the Great Wall, Chinese architecture, and displays of folk art), has recently introduced a new hamburger that uses a sauce made from tomatoes and other spices. It is being marketed as a Miao sauce, the Miao being one of China’s ethnic minority groups. In an advertisement on TV for the hamburger, a Han Chinese backpacker hikes to a remote hut, in which a Miao couple, who happen to be wearing their bulky, colorful costumes, greet him. They give him delicious soup, and he loves it so much that he fakes problems that prevent him from leaving. Eventually he returns home, and is delighted to find the exact same sauce in the KFC hamburger.
As in some progressive countries, minority groups in China enjoy many special privileges in education and government—in some areas, a certain proportion of the local government must be comprised of members of the local minority, and many minorities have more opportunities to go to college than Han Chinese. In addition, some groups have managed to use the government’s obsession with control to their advantage, displaying what is expected of them while continuing their own activities and debates under the radar (see Sara Davis's interesting article, "Dance, Or Else: The Politics of Ethnic Culture on China’s Southwest Borders"). Yet putting ethnicities on display in such a blatant way—and including them in a parade specifically intended for cartoon characters—points to a deeper problem in China, a problem that has to do with where, and how, such minorities can be incorporated into a country that has never had a single race, nor a single homogenous culture, yet is constantly trying to develop unifying claims of history.