Nanning Reminiscences and Kunming Impressions
As many of you will already know, I have recently moved from my former residence of Nanning, the capital of the Guanxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. This region, like Tibet and Mongolia and various other regions scattered around the Chinese territory, is called an autonomous region as there are a significant amount of “minority”* (non-Han Chinese), in this case the Zhuang, a people related to the majority ethnic group in Thailand, people living here. Non-Han peoples in China (to varying degrees) have customs and culture wholly different from the Chinese. And their languages come from entirely different families. This is more or less common knowledge to the average Westerner when speaking about Mongolians or Tibetans, but their are many other ethnicities living in China that share the same condition at Tibetans, on the cultural margins of a nationalistic Chinese state.
In Nanning, I met various members of non-Han ethnic groups, all of whom had been assimilated to the point of neither speaking or understanding the language of their group, nor were any of them able to speak at length on their ethic groups’ cultural practices. Many would kind of make an uncomfortable laugh and state that only their great great grandparents know this stuff, in response to my (probably impolite) questions.
Upon arriving in Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province, I felt that this situation was one of many differences. Non-Han Culture is very evident here. To quote a friend, traveling to a different Chinese province is like traveling to another country. The size of provinces are similar to European countries. The people speak a slew of different languages (excepting the Northeast-booorrrinngg). The food is always different, and in my experience the people carry themselves differently. China is only now attaining the ability for the majority of the population to afford moving to another place. In the thousands of years of Chinese cultural development without modern communication and transportation, local identity developed richly. The 12 hour (900km) overnight train ride took me from the Cantonese tropical low-lands of Nanning, where bananas are sold for as low as .8 RMB a kilo, to the Yunnan Plateau (elevation 1,850m), where I’ve been quoted 7.5 RMB a kilo (I declined).
Yunnan serves up a particularly unique example of China’s diversity, smudged halfway up the Tibetan Plateau and riding the border of Southeast Asia. The culture of the people ranges from laid back (in the Chinese form) in the centrally-located capital of Kunming to extremely laid-back as you radiate away from the city to the prefectures bordering Tibet, Myanmar, Laos and Vietnam. The province also holds the most diverse array of ethnicities (+25). I find it hard to generalize on the food, because it varies so much by which area of the province you are in, but it is certainly heavier and oilier (Sichuan influence?) than the form of Cantonese cooking seen in Nanning. And there is a notable inclusion of cheese (乳饼) traditionally made from goat milk, though these days it’s usually made from cow’s milk** in the cuisine of the Bai People, as dairy, in general, and cheese, in specific, are very rare to Chinese cuisine (most East Asian cuisine?)
A Chinese anecdote describes the uniqueness of Yunnan, as imagined in the perspective of Chinese from outside of Yunnan, and often printed in tourism literature. It is often called the Eighteen Oddities of Yunnan in English (云南十八怪), and it gives an idea of the outsider imagination of Yunnan as beautiful, mystical and mysterious place (神秘). Here are a few of the interesting ones:
- Eggs are tied up sold in rope-like clusters
- Rain here but sunshine there – the weather is often variable between areas just a few kilometers apart (because of the high mountains and steep valleys)
- Children are raised by men – Yunnan women have a reputation for being hard-working, thus many men stay home to take care of their children
- Automobiles move in the clouds – many roads are high in the mountains
- Trains go abroad but not inland
- Stone grows in the clouds – Yunnan’s Shilin, or Stone Forest resembles stalagmites growing out of the ground
- People sing rather than speak
- Fresh fruits and vegetables are available in all four seasons
- Three mosquitos make up a dish – mosquitoes are so large that it is said that just three are large enough to make a meal
*I dislike this term as it describes all of these various ethnicities only in their relation to the modern Chinese state, which I find as distasteful as the terms “the Orient” or “the Far East.”
**Mozzarella of the East: Cheese-making and Bai culture by Bryan Allen and Silvia Allen (pdf)