The Tourist Encounter: Commodification of Ethnicity in Yunnan, China

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Ethnic variation is an important tourist attraction in Yunnan, China. Ethnicity is an identity made relevant in interaction; it does not exist by itself. Tourist encounters have impact on how members of ethnic groups perceive themselves, how they represent themselves vis-a-vis the tourists, what economic benefits they gain, and how these experiences change the cultural content associated with their ethnic group. The tourist encounter is significantly affected by the commercial interests of the tourist industry and the politico-ideological interests of the Government. In trying to promote commercial interests tourist agencies project images of the people to be visited as radically different (the more primitive and exotic the representation, the more attraction it is to the tourists – Chinese as well as foreigners). For politico ideological reasons the Government represents ethnic variations as stages in social evolution according to ideas from Morgan, Engels, and Stalin, representations that have to be understood against the background of these evolutionary ideas in Marxist ideology. Some groups, e.g. Mosuo are described as living fossils from the transition to the stage of Barbary. Other groups are placed higher up on the evolutionary ladder. The Government’s ideological use of ethnic difference and the tourist industry’s commodification of ethnicity have far-reaching cultural, economic and ecologic consequenses that will be discussed with reference to empirical material from the matrilineal Mosuo, from the so-called ethnic park on Mount Jinuo, and from the mountain Khawagabo, a sacred mountain in Tibetan Buddhism. The cases illustrate different aspects of the tourist encounter, from ideas behind the Government’s representation of cultural evolution of the Jinuo, to the tourist industry’s play on sexual associations in the sale of visits to the Mosuo, and transformation from subsistence farming to marked dependent economy of a Tibetan village.


Keywords: Ethnic Tourism, Representing Ethnicity, commodifying Ethnicity, Economic Change, Yunnan
Stream: Identity and Belonging; the Politics of Diversity; Globalisation
Presentation Type: 30 minute Paper Presentation in English
Paper: Tourist Encounter, The


Prof. Gunnar Haaland

Professor, Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen
Bergen, Norway

I was borne in 1938 in Randaberg, Norway, and was awarded my Ph.D in Social Anthropology in 1966. My theoretical orientations have focused on Human Ecology, Economic Anthropology, Ethnic relations, and Socio-cultural Evolution. I have pursued these theoretical orientations in both applied and basic research in several countries in Africa and Asia, most importantly Sudan and Bangladesh. Particularly my publications on ‘ethnic processes’ and on ‘pastoral production systems’ are frequently found quoted on the ISI Web of Science Index.
In 1967 I was employed as lecturer, and from 1988 until present as Professor at Department of Social Anthropology, University of Bergen. On leave of absence from these institutions I have been employed two years as lecturer at the University of Karthoum, Sudan, and two years as Director of the Social Sciences at The International Livestock Centre for Africa in Addis Abbeba. In connection with planning and implementation of regional agro-pastoral development projects I have worked as Socio-Economic Consultant for The World Bank, FAO, IFAD, ILO as well as NGO’s, and bilateral development agencies in about 20 countries in Africa and Asia. Over the last ten years I have been heavily involved in cooperation with universities in Africa (Sudan, Ethiopia and Uganda) and in Asia (Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand and China) and in Peru. Over the last six years I have travelled extensively to Yunnan, Inner Mongolia and Tibet in China, to Nepal, to Bangladesh, to Ethiopia, to Uganda, to Peru and Colombia in connection with field supervision of students from these areas.

Ref: D08P0083