Stanford historian talks about China's "ethnic" parks





Tucked away in China’s steamy tropical southwest are the villages of the Dai people, famous throughout the country for a raucous annual tradition: a water-splashing festival where the Dai douse one another for three days in the streets using any container they can get their hands on — buckets, wash basins, teacups, balloons, water guns.

But in Manzha and four surrounding villages, the springtime festival has taken on added significance — or insignificance, depending on how you look at it. Imagine a nonstop Mardi Gras with fire hoses: at a site called the Dai Minority Park, water-splashing extravaganzas take place every day....

The Dai park, with its wooden stilt homes, groomed palm trees and elephant statues, is part of an increasingly popular form of entertainment in China — the ethnic theme playground, where middle-class Han come to experience what they consider the most exotic elements of their vast nation. There is no comprehensive count of these Disneyland-like parks, but people in the industry say the number is growing, as are visitors. The Dai park, whose grounds encompass 333 actual Dai households, attracts a half-million tourists a year paying $15 each....

“They’re one piece in the puzzle of the larger project of how China wants to represent itself as a multiethnic state,” said Thomas S. Mullaney, a historian at Stanford University who studies China’s ethnic taxonomy. “The end goal is political, which is territorial unity. Parks like that, even if they’re kitschy, kind of like Legoland, they still play and occupy a political position.”

China’s 1.3 billion people are officially 96 percent Han; the rest range from Tibetans to Naxi to Manchus, categories fixed after the 1949 Communist revolution. The companies running the parks are generally Han-owned, say industry workers. The Dai park was started by a Han businessman from Guangdong Province in the late 1990s and sold to a state-run rubber company in 1999....


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