Lijiang is not just any provincial Chinese town. Its ancient town attracts hordes of tourists from China and abroad. After the earthquake that devastated the old wooden buildings completely in 1996, the ancient town was rebuilt in authentic Naxi style, an achievement that earned Lijiang a place on the world heritage list of UNESCO. So, ironically, it is thanks to the ethnic cultural heritage that the town has become an international hubbub, a bubble of global culture, where the locals drift into dreams larger than life.
But beneath the grooving surface, the basics of life remain provincial. This means, among other things, cool men and shy women.
Here is the problem of the small town moral in a nutshell: women who grow up with the certainty that they do not count, and men who imagine themselves as the most perfect of all creatures on earth. Even though this thought pattern is not restricted to provincial areas, in cities women and men are likely to find more choice in how to imagine themselves. That said, marriage remains the desired status in adult life, especially as it is no longer an obvious future perspective, partly due to the one-child policy and its consequential deeply disturbed male-female ratio. In some areas, there are as many as 140 men to every 100 women. Another part of the explanation is the massive migration to cities that leads to the loosening of old social bonds. Still another reason, closely linked to the rapid urbanization, is the modern, increasingly career-oriented lifestyle that leaves little room for socializing among young adults. This all makes finding a partner hard work for both sexes.
When scarcity is at play and the fear for a lonely future – that is: a pitiful social status - lurks just behind the corner, sticking to traditional role models feels the safest option. The names of Chinese girls tell enough: they carry meanings like ‘beauty’, ‘modesty’, ‘sweetness’, ‘calm’ or ‘peace’. The association is one of a life depending on a husband. A girl is expected to join a man, be beautiful and never argue. The names of boys, on the contrary, feed the emperor fantasy: ‘the great bear’, ‘the thinker’, or ‘he who will overwin’. As an old Chinese poem says: ‘Birth of a son is a source of joy / Birth of a daughter is a source of shame.’
By Elisa Veini
Elisa Veini is cultural anthropologist, writer and communication specialist. For two decades, she has made documentary projects together with photographer and cineaste Paul van der Stap. They are based in the Netherlands. Their newest project is Material Life Noisy: China in contrasts about cultural and social change in China. In 2013, they published a book-a-like magazine of the project, and a selection of the photographs is being exhibited in Amsterdam this spring.