More than a thousand years before Lijiang became a mecca for backpackers and tour groups, it was a base of operations for the Naaxi. The Naaxi trace their descent from ethnically Tibetan Quiang tribes, and some three hundred thousand Naaxi still live in Lijiang. You will often see them sorting metal from paper near the trash, or carrying huge withered piles of bok choy, or peddling yak cheese flat bread along the road side. Sometimes you will see them just hanging out. ( I wonder if these are the lucky ones, who owned property when the deluge of investment money poured into Lijiang. The class division among the Naaxi is stark, I’m told. Those who owned property drive new Audis and send their daughters to study in Paris and Beijing. Those that did not are ruinously poor ).
Alternatively, if you are a young and pretty Naaxi girl, you can earn a living by dressing yourself in a traditional costume and standing in front of an “authentic Naaxi” restaurant. You see a lot of this in the touristy areas. But this condescending attitude of mine is in need of some empirical supports. It could be that I’m like the man looking out his bedroom window, who sees a woman swerving down the road, unable to keep her balance. He accuses her of being a lousy and reckless drunk. Had the man ever opened the window, he would have felt the hurricane force winds that conspired to knock the struggling woman off her feet.
I met a guy today who, like me, was in search of a vantage point to photograph the old city of Lijiang from above. His name was Michael and he is riding his bicycle from Singapore to Paris. He’s been on the road for five months. He made a comment that I have heard hundreds of times, in various forms, but this time it itched. He said he often passes through “villages” where you can see how people “really live.”
What exactly does it mean to “really live”? Are the Naaxi women in traditional costumes, hawking blackberries in old town somehow living a less authentic life than their relatives in that “real village”, isolated, wearied, slumped over a potato patch beneath the searing sub-tropical sun? What makes the latter life more “real”? It seems the appearance of white faces and youth hostels on the scene abolishes hopes of authenticity. When someone performs their own culture for money it is less real than subconsciously living the culture, unaware that it is, in fact, a “culture.” Why is this? Do we (tourists) know if the young Naaxi girl in traditional dress, drumming up business for a restaurant, would trade her life to be slumped over that “authentic” potato patch?
We theorize that capitalism abolishes authentic culture by reducing everything to a monetary unit. But in seven hundred years our own crass monuments will inspire a shock no less jolting than the temples of Angkor Wat or Macchu Picchu do for us today. The future people will tremble and point, and with jaws agape, announce those famous words: “those people really lived!”