China has been featuring in our consciousness every week of late: whether it is concern about that country’s role in our economy or national infrastructure (as exemplified by the ground-breaking of the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) project last week), our regional security, in the everyday goods we use or in popular culture (Wolf Warriors 2, which according to reviews highlight China’s capacity to save the world, is China’s highest grossing film ever).
In international geopolitics too, China takes centre stage, with much of the world suspicious of its apparent desire to dominate the world: from allegedly orchestrating cyberattacks to disrupt the stability of others, asserting its nine-dashed line, building airstrips on contested waters and sending warships on patrol in controversial waters. (However, perhaps in recent weeks these have been superseded in their perceived belligerence by the threats of nuclear war being exchanged between the leaders of the United States and North Korea, in which China’s role has been one of relative moderation.)
Last week I visited a small sliver of Yunnan, one of China’s 34 provincial-level administrative units, which is larger and more populous than Malaysia, and from where apparently some relatives of mine on the Terengganu side had married into the descendants of Muslim Yunnanese settlers who supposedly came with Admiral Zheng He in the fifteenth century.
Four things stood out for me in particular.
First, the stunning beauty of the natural surroundings. If you imagine those watercolours of rural China when you’re feasting on your favourite roast duck anywhere in the world, it is in Yunnan where they come alive. At the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain near Lijiang there was an impossibly teal lake traversed by yaks (an oft-recurring beast throughout) and pristine meadows bordered by spruce forests, climaxing with a cultural show set against the most spectacular mountainous backdrop. Here, hundreds of actors joined dozens of horses, a horde of drummers and a purpose-built artificial waterfall to tell the ancient myths and stories of the various peoples of the region (though one has to surmise much from the distorted subtitles).
That was the second educational aspect of the trip: the visibility of ethnic minorities. At Lijiang, our tour guide (a local one is required for each area) proudly proclaimed his minority status as a Naxi – one of the 56 ethnic groups officially recognised by the government numbering 300,000 people (although a pin drop in China’s population, that’s still more than the number of Bidayuh in Sarawak) – along with the humorous, if slightly quaint, gender stereotypes and perplexing romantically-induced accounts of suicide. Driving further north (and up) into the ‘Lost Horizon’ of Shangri-La, the roads increasingly became dotted with stupas as we arrived into Tibetan cultural terrain.
This provided the context for the third highlight of the visit. Everyone knows that this communist country has embraced capitalism, but at the ‘Little Potala’ of Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery the ideological cacophony reached new heights (literally). At the entrance, a large billboard adorned by the hammer and sickle depicting the visit and donation of Communist Party official belied the fact that the religious site was extensively damaged by the communists during the Cultural Revolution. Inside, Buddhist symbols including the swastika (that for most of the Western world still only evokes Nazism) decorated walls alongside images and statues of both grotesque and serene deities. Among the offerings of recent worshippers was the epitome of Western capitalism: cans of Coca-Cola, bought outside with currency emblazoned with the architect of the communist project.
The fourth impact was hearing our tour guides speak of their future prospects. Tourism and hospitality are already attractive sectors to be in, and the new highways under construction that will link the already industrialised cities in the east to the monasteries and potters maintaining an ancient tradition in the southwest is a connectivity that they fully approve.
There is perhaps no better metaphor for the pace of change, and the ferocious need for multiple stakeholders to move the same direction, as at the narrowest point of the Jinsha River (a tributary of the Yangtze), where an unbelievable volume of water accelerates in a wild frenzy creating rapids and eddies, revealing only a rock where a tiger mythically jumped across.
On the packed Air Asia flight from Kunming to Kuala Lumpur, I wondered if the overwhelmingly Chinese passengers would be as enamoured by the story of the Gunung Angsi weretiger who lost his tail to create Bukit Putus in Negeri Sembilan. Certainly, the geology isn’t as dramatic, but with the ECRL, they would be able to crisscross our peninsula with relative ease as they seek out our minority peculiarities.
First published in Conservatively Speaking Freely, theborneopost.com and themalaymailonline.com, 18 August 2017.