Lately there has been a lot of discussion on the various e-lists that I subscribe to about the issue of Tibet. I think there are two extreme views people tend to adopt vis-a-vis China's minority policies. The first is that the PRC has set up an unfair political system for Han Chinese to exploit the minorities, monopolize their resources, and colonize their lands, while at the same time effectively wiping out their original culture, religious, and value systems. The other is that the PRC "liberated" the minorities from feudalism, slavery, superstition, backwardness, poverty--you name it--and gave them wonderful things like education and modernity, while also taking pains to preserve their beautiful cultures. Perhaps the truth lies somewhere in between? Perhaps this is the very nature, the very essence of all human civilization? A story told by all nations and empires as they weave their weary warpaths of destructive creation?
Two days ago for the NYU program in Shanghai we watched a film about a Miao village in Guizhou, directed by Christine Choy, an award-winning documentary filmmaker who teaches at NYU and is currently teaching for our program. The film, called "Sparrow Village," focuses on the lives of young girls in a mountainous Miao village who make a three-hour trek every week to the nearest school to be educated. The cost of education for these women is steep by Miao terms--100 RMB per year (and to think how much one spends here in Shanghai on a typical night on the town might buy a year's worth of education for several young Miao students). In school they learn to read and write, but they also learn about things like cities, concrete buildings, and highways, which of course they never experience unless they leave the village and make their way to the coastal towns and cities. There were plenty of beautiful images of the mountainous scenery of Guizhou, the fine, clear rivers, the lush and verdant fields, and the singing and dancing Miao people dressed in their colorful costumes. The film focused on one girl whose family was struggling to provide her with the money for her education, which she desperately desired to continue. In one scene near the end of the film we see her and her mother setting up on the dusty roadside of a nearby town to sell baskets her father wove--though they know they can't compete with the machine-made baskets that others are selling.
After the film was over, Christine gave a talk to our students about how the village has changed since she made this film. Eventually a highway was built, the area became more accessible, and flocks of Chinese and foreign tourists arrived to gawk at the pretty minorities and hear them sing and watch them dance. They brought their cameras and took plenty of photos, and tossed the dead batteries into the fields that the Miao spend endless hours of toil cultivating. They tossed their empty bottles, bags, and other rubbish on the ground, leaving mountainous piles of rubbish that the Miao have no way to dispose of. Of course they brought their money, and bought up the garments that the Miao women spend months and months stitching, for the price of a year's education for their children--what a great deal for the Miao! And then sold them in the cities for 10 to 50 times what they paid the Miao for them. And then the garments were bought up by collectors and brought to the antique markets of the West, where people paid 100 to 500 times or more what the Miao earned for these garments.
As for the girl, she took that highway east and made her way to Shanghai, where she was promised more education in a local school. Instead, she ended up working at a restaurant, doing 12 hour shifts six or seven days a week. She was too ashamed to tell her parents what had happened to her. Eventually she made her way back to her home village.
And the Miao continue to do their song and dance for the Chinese and foreign tourists.