Gao, Yun (2010) Xishuangbanna in Southwest China - a fantasized place and the lived experience of the place. In: IASTE 2010 Working Paper Series. Urban Utopias: Regeneration, Renewal, and Planning, 228 . International Association for the Study of Traditional Environments, Beirut, Lebanon, pp. 23-36.

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“Xishuangbanna is a magic and beautiful place.” Whenever there is an introduction of the place, it almost always starts with the sentence. Xishuangbanna, where Dai ethnic group lives, locates at the Southwest borderland of China. Dai people is one of the 55 minority nationalities in China with unique culture. The popular images of Xishuangbannan in the media are the Dai golden Buddhist temples shining through the trees of the tropic forest, Dai bamboo houses on stilts by the river; and beautiful Dai girls with their colourful dresses in the Spreading Water Festival. In China’s reform era, hundreds and thousands of people have been drawn to Xishuangbanna because of those popular representations. To both domestic and international tourists, this place is full of myth and fantasy; just as the 1982 Chinese film “The Peacock Princess” depicted.

To Chinese domestic tourists, Xishuangbanna is also another version of “Shi Wai Tao Yuan – A Peach-Blossom Land outside This World”, a utopia. The term was used for the poetic imagery depicted in Tao Hua Yuan Ji by the famous Chinese poet Tao Yuanming in the Jin Dynasty (265-420). With the tourist industry developing rapidly in China, it is not surprise that ‘Shi Wai Tao Yuan’ has been identified as a real place in Guilin, Guangxi province. The advertisement for the place boasts ‘a charming rural location, folk customs and fascinating minority buildings and architecture’. Somehow, Xishuangbanna is a ‘Shi Wai Tao Yuan’ but a different one; because it lives in the myth and fantasy of a different culture, as the film ‘The Peacock Princess’ shows. This study will investigate the connection between exoticized Chinese literary representations of Xishuangbanna and the material transformations of the place since the 1990s when the tourist industry developed in the region.

One of the most popular tourist sites in Xishuangbanna is Dai Ethnic Park. It is consisted of five natural villages and their one-thousand year old Buddhist Temple. Different from a typical theme park, Dai Ethnic Park is still the villagers’ home and living space. Villagers, who used to be farmers, are increasingly giving up the farming and working in the tourist industry as contract workers. Under the tourists’ gaze and spectacle, villagers in the park organise the local performance for tourists, make the Dai handicraft for sell and cook the Dai food for visitors who live in their houses. Yet at the same time in the same space, they are also carrying on with their own life. This study will explore the tensions between nostalgia for a fantasized place and the lived experience of that place, and probably even more importantly, how this place has also been shaped by the culture favoured and produced by the local people.

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