China and Inner Asia
Dasa P. Mortensen
Davidson College, United States
After the Chinese government banned logging along the Yangtze River in 1998, Zhongdian county officials in Yunnan province turned to ethnic tourism as an important new revenue source. They conceived of an imaginative marketing push, which led to the fabrication of a reified myth: Zhongdian as mystical “Shangri-la.” The county was renamed Shangri-la in 2001, and the government rebuilt Buddhist monasteries and temples, which had been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, and erected the world’s largest prayer wheel decorated with themes of socialist ethnic harmony. The Yunnan provincial government showcased Shangri-la as a model for how poor, rural Tibetan counties could successfully brand their “Tibetan-ness.” In 2014 a fire destroyed the “Old Town,” a scenic glorified village that was, in fact, predominantly new and contrived. Over the next three years, the Shangri-la county government worked with Tibetan residents to carefully reconstruct an imagined “Old” Shangri-la, complete with cobbled streets lined with cafés, shops, hotels, and discos. Who were the agents driving and controlling the marketing of Tibetan culture in the new “Old Town?” Based on data collected from fieldwork interviews and county government publications, this paper analyzes the degree to which Tibetans participated in the market-driven myth of “Shangri-la.” I argue that Han Chinese visions of Tibetan-ness were commodified in ways locals could only somewhat control. Shangri-la residents’ participation in racialized performances of Tibetan culture manifested as simultaneously coerced, inventive, coopted, and resigned.