Ethnic Culture Struggles to Survive in Guangxi, China

“Trip to Chengyang”, published at Panda Guides on November 6, 2015

On the ride into Chengyang, this spring the minibus bounced over rocks and bumps. Along the side of the road, I could see a trail of mud leading down into the Linxi River. Piles of dirt lined the road that hugged the hillside. It was in terrible condition due to a combination of springtime rains that caused landslides and construction work to build a new pass into town.

I thought I was being ripped off when the minibus driver outside the long-distance bus station in Sanjiang demanded 10 RMB instead of the 6 RMB I had paid four years ago. As I held onto the seat in front of me to keep my head from bumping the ceiling, I could see it was no scam; the poor road conditions demanded a higher fee. (Travel tip: Most of the buses to Chengyang leave Sanjiang from the bus station on the west side across the 321 National Road bridge, not from the station on the east side, where buses from Guilin and other cities arrive.)

After a long, uncomfortable ride, we arrived at the famous Chengyang Wind and Rain Bridge. The century-old wooden bridge welcomes visitors with its ornate wooden architecture and intricately carved woodwork on eaves. Wind and rain bridges and wooden drum towers are the emblematic characteristics of the Dong ethnic group in tourism promotion, attracting visitors from around the country and world to rural towns in the terraced hills of Guizhou and western Guangxi.

One day I was hiking in the hills outside the village when an old woman who had been tending to the tea crops came up behind me on the trail. In the valley below there were wooden houses and flowing water. All around us were terraced hills and forests. “It’s beautiful here,” I told the old woman.

“It’s not pretty,” she said, shaking her head.

“The mountains… The homes…” I said.

“Not pretty.”

She and other wrinkled women with children and grandchildren work in the fields every day, wielding hoes almost as tall as their bodies, and many of them walk with slumped backs. To them, these mountains and fields aren’t the pristine scenic areas tourists see, they are their work places. Their romanticized wooden homes don’t just represent traditional culture, but also material poverty.

Read full article: Trip to Chengyang

Photo by Mitchell Blatt.