Nowhere is the persistence of Orientalist ways of viewing the non-Western Other so obvious than in tourism brochures, as I was reminded when reading an article titled “Game of Love, Chinese Style” in the most recent issue of the Australian travel magazine Arrivals and Departures.
When I saw the title “Game of Love, Chinese Style” on the front page, I was intrigued. What sort of “game of love” could be labeled as “Chinese style”? The subheading provides more detail: “Undisturbed by modernity, China’s matriarchal Naxi minority exist in a rare time-warped world.” The destination featured in the article, Baisha, is a small town in China’s southwest province Yunnan and home of the Naxi ethnic minority. The way it is presented, however, makes Baisha an icon of China as a whole: forever old and trapped in a timeless world cut off from modernity.
The article centers on the custom of the “walking marriage,” which supposedly means that “men never marry and women wear the pants.” “Walking marriage” is actually a custom of the Mosuo, an ethnic group related to the Naxi and often presented as the only matriarchal society in the world. In this tradition men and women never leave the maternal household and men visit their female partners only at night. Children born of such relationships stay with the mother’s extended family. The practice of the “walking marriage” is a major difference between the Mosuo and the Naxi. However, the author is apparently unaware of this when he says “Naxi and Mosuo women are expected to take the lead in the game of love.”
According to the article, in Naxi society, women do most of the work while men are regarded as “slovenly.” The source for this characterization turns out to be a non-Naxi and a former school teacher from Yunnan’s capital Kunming. If the author had done any research, why did he need to source this comment from an outsider and an urban intellectual? More condescending and contemptuous quotes follow: 50% of Naxi men are judged to be lazy “like a pig” by the same school-teacher.
Only towards the end of the article does the author acknowledge that “male Naxi elders are renowned calligraphers, gardeners and skilled musicians.” Their musical collectives are said to be “famous for the “three olds”: old men (few players are under 80 years of age), old instruments and old songs.”
Oldness and timelessness thus are the overarching themes running through the text and the photos. For instance, the reader is also introduced to an old man who claims himself to be “old and ugly” but whom the author considers a “handsome octogenarian” who “in many ways typifies China’s humble beauty.” All the images of “loose cotton pants,” “1950s Mao jacket,” “an angel-hair tobacco pipe” and “his wispy silver beard” are echoed in the photos. It is not only the people featured in the article who are old, the city of Baisha is old, too: “a town virtually unchanged since the 11th century;” a place where “old is good, old is beautiful, and old is something to be treasured;” and the home of a “time-locked culture.”
Although the article is about the matriarchal Naxi group, women are back-grounded in the text and pictures. Although there is the titillating piece of information that Naxi women “take the lead in the game of love,” they certainly don’t have a prominent position anywhere in the text or the pictures.
The image of Baisha as a whole is represented as a showcase of people and things that exist unchanged forever. Being taken out of the context of “rapidly modernizing China,” the timeless image of Baisha is thus more about the author’s fantasies than Baisha’s realities, one of which is that its matriarchal customs are unavoidably being challenged by modernization – including tourism. For instance, the custom of the “walking marriage” has actually become an excuse for the emergence of a red light district catering to tourists. Strangely enough, this sort of change, among other changes that are brought about by tourism to Mosuo Naxi, is absent from this article. The absence of all traces of modernization in Baisha matches the Western tourism imagery of China and the East at large. This Occidental construction of the Orient is best understood with reference to Said’s concept of Orientalism. It is grounded in Western dominance and authority over the East which has in turn produced a stereotypical Oriental image that can hardly be subverted. It is no wonder that China, despite its accelerating pace of modernization, remains “the ageless reign” in travel writing.