A trip to Qinghai
This is the 1510 Digest, a weekly roundup of recent essays and articles published on the Chinese web, with links to translations on the Marco Polo Project.
This week’s digest takes us on a trip to the West, to a less familiar part of China. The large inland province of Qinghai is a traditional point of contact between Tibetan, Central Asian Muslim, Mongolian and Han Chinese cultures; but with the lowest GDP of all Chinese regions and the second lowest GDP per capita, it is among the least developed parts of the country. ‘Memories of Qinghai’, Carrie S’s short travel narrative reflects on the contrast between cultural wealth and economic poverty, giving us insight into the way an East coast dweller may look at Western China. Li Yehang’s ‘Trip to Qinghai’ focuses more specifically on the practice of Tibetan Buddhism and its broader connection to the Qinghai environment.
Memories of Qinghai
By Carrie S, 30 October 2012
Poverty is the first thing that Carrie S notices when approaching and reaching Qinghai – a poverty she says people from the coast are no longer familiar with. Later, in the capital city of Xining, what strikes her more precisely is the contrast between the dilapidated 3 star hotel she stays at – a failed attempt at reproducing the developments of Eastern China – and the dynamic secret life of halal foodstalls across the street, and the cultural vitality of the Muslim city – includes the religious assertiveness of Hui women wearing headscarves.
On her visit to the plateau, she notes that the rich resources, rare plants, or large photovoltaic installations often do not benefit the locals – who, in the case of solar energy plants, don’t even understand what these fields of black panels might be. Yet she also notes an interest for maintaining traditional ethnic cultures, and hopes that a balance can be maintained between modern civilization and a traditional lifestyle in harmony with the local ecology.
Her post finishes with a sentimental declaration of love to the people and land of Qinghai, wishing that they can escape poverty, while maintaining their traditions. But this wish is accompanied by an – ironic? – acknownledgement of how she herself misses the comfort of coastal cities, lattes and high-speed rail travel.
A trip to Qinghai
By Li Yehang, 07 August 2012
A visit to Qinghai with a friend – a Buddhist monk attending religious ceremonies related to a funeral – is an occasion for Li Yehang to reflect on the origins and evolution of the local religion.
Li Yehang is a Chinese Christian, and often writes about religious issues. His position on Tibetan Buddhism is mixed. He does not share the prejudices of other Buddhists, but sees potential dangers in that particular form of religious practice. Many people have joined the religion as a reaction to the complexities of the modern world, in order to get a sense of belonging. For Li Yehang, such a motivation to join a religion can often go wrong, and lead to idolatry. This is particularly risky in the case of Tibetan Buddhism, which invites practitioners to follow the teachings of a guru to reach enlightenment, with the risk of personality cult developing.
As he travels through Qinghai, Li Yehang is impressed by the vastness and emptiness of the landscape – large expanses of grass, with no town on the horizon. He reflects on the way this environment shaped the religious traditions of the place, and interprets Tibetan Buddhism as a practice to prevent madnesss on the vast emptiness of the Qinghai/Tibetan plateau. Three characteristics emerge from his reflection:
- The first is renouncing knowledge. The large amount of knowledge we have in the modern world is precious when dealing with the complexities of city life, but in such a simple environment, it would more likely lead to frustration and trouble.
- The second is the role of the monks. Confronted with the unchanging nature of the Qinghai environment, people are likely to develop various fantasies of an afterlife. To prevent fantasy taking over, monks guarding the system are necessary. The nomads don’t need monks to teach them abstract truths, but to maintain a stable and efficient system channelling their fantasy.
- Finally, it is important that no one amasses a fortune, as this would disrupt friendships and trust bonds, which are most precious in such a setting. So when someone makes extra money, from the sale of milk or a yak, this should be given as alms to the monks.
As the trip takes him higher up the mountain, Li Yehang starts experiencing altitude sickness, and notices changes in the features of the people, as well as the demography – most are children or grand-parents, but most of the young people are gone. This observation leads him to reflect on the way development and capitalism have disrupted the traditional balance of the culture. Mining and herding fortunes have bred inequalities, which damaged friendships and trust. The young people who went to the cities starting seeking fun, and forgetting old traditions. And in the cities, a new trend emerged of businessmen joining the religion to make contacts, and giving donations in order to seem generous – disrupting the whole system, and encouraging fame- and money-seeking among the monks. After suffering persecutions under the Cultural Revolution, Tibetan Buddhism has grown back; but its form is changing under the influence of modernity, and some of these new practices are in contradiction with the roots of the religion.
All articles in this digest and a large range of other Chinese readings are accessible at Marcopoloproject.org. Some are available in English, French and Spanish translation. (You can join the project if you’d like to help with translations.)
Danwei is an affiliate of the Australian Centre on China in the World at The Australian National University. This posting is a result of one project that is part of that on-going collaboration.