Projects of Improvement in the shadow of Yellow Mountain

Britta Ingebretson

Wu yue guilai bu kan shan, huangshan guilai bu kan yue. “If you have seen the five famous mountains, you don't need to see any other mountain. [But] if you have seen Yellow Mountain, you don't need to see the five famous mountains.” This Chinese saying describes the legendary beauty of Yellow Mountain, which is located in southern Anhui province. Although Yellow Mountain (Huangshan) is spoken of as a singular 'mountain,' it actually is the highest peak of a low-lying and widespread mountain range which covers almost 3,800 square miles. The region, called Huangshan Municipality, has a population of 1.5 million and is roughly coterminous with the historic Huizhou region, which is officially recognized by the CCP as one of China's “traditional cultural areas,” with its own language, cuisine, and style of architecture. It is also the birthplace of Zhu Xi, who is widely credited with developing the philosophy of Neo-Confucianism. Huangshan Municipality (which I will refer to as Huangshan) conjures up images of “traditional” China, with peasants in in straw hats farm terraced rice paddies with water buffalo or pick tea on the mountain slopes near remote villages. While Huizhou is recognized nationally as a region rich in history, culture, and natural beauty, it is considered “underdeveloped” by the Chinese government. Tourism is its main industry, but aside from Yellow Mountain itself and two nearby villages, which have been declared UNESCO world heritage sites and which attract millions of Chinese tourists annually, most of Huangshan sees few tourists, and most young people migrate to large cities on the Eastern seaboard to find work, where they are looked down on as being “low-quality” by urbanites.

In my 22 months of ethnographic fieldwork in Huangshan, I explored these tensions through studying projects of “improvement” and “quality-raising” at various scales and sites in the region. At the broadest level, I examined how government officials in the Tunxi district, the administrative seat of Huangshan, attempted to make the city into a tourist destination. At the next level, I examined village government projects aimed at raising the “quality” (suzhi) of rural women. Women, as mothers and thus reproducers of China's next generation, were the target of most “quality-raising” campaigns, which ranged from prenatal care and child-rearing advice to Western classical music concerts. At the individual level, my research looked at women's self-improvement projects through yoga. While seemingly unconnected to state projects of quality-raising, I discovered that many women saw yoga as a quality-raising activity.

Through a summer grant from the Social Science Division, I was able to spend this summer working on the first chapter of my dissertation, which is about efforts by local officials to attract large-scale tourism to the Tunxi district. In this chapter, I look at how local officials reconcile their simultaneous roles both to promote Tunxi (and Huangshan in general) as a modern city while at the same time trying to capitalize on the region's primary appeal as a “respite” from the ills of modernity. Similarly, I analyze the sorts of work officials do to make values associated with the Neo-Confucian past that is the region's primary source of fame compatible with and commensurate to the 'scientific socialist' values of the modern CCP. One key area where this conflict is plays out is through language. The Huizhou language family is the smallest language family in China and only spoken in Huangshan. There are about 800,000 speakers who speak dozens of mutually unintelligable dialects. While the language is recognized by local officials as a unique “cultural treasure,” unlike architecture or cuisine, no effort is expended to promote  or preserve any of the numerous Huizhou dialects, and indeed the government is actively promoting Mandarin-speaking policies. This summer, with the help of a local research assistant, I analyzed recordings taken from a variety of events to examine patterns in language use: who speaks in dialect, and in what circumstances? Preliminary findings reveal that the explicit valorization of the local dialect expressed in interviews I conducted with officials did not match with how the dialect is spoken in daily life. My recordings revealed that dialect-speaking is rapidly dying out among young people, educated people, and urban women, regardless of language skills. Dialect usage is most common among old people, in rural areas, in informal, mostly working-class settings, and surprisingly, among elite men. First, among speakers under age 30 and in the city boundaries, Mandarin was spoken in an overwhelming majority of situations, especially in formal settings or by people with at least a high school education. This was the case even in informal settings and if everyone present was able to speak in dialect. Dialect-speaking young people only spoke in dialect with family members of older generations, switching into Mandarin to speak with family members of the same or younger generations, or with friends. While some younger dialect speakers would switch into dialect while bargaining for goods, most would not, preferring to conduct business in Mandarin even if it meant higher prices. Everyone, including elderly people who otherwise did not speak Mandarin, would speak Mandarin to young children, even if it meant codeswitching frequently. Mandarin was the default language public settings, especially in areas frequented by tourists. The only exception to these findings was the prevalence of dialect-speaking was among elite men during quasi-official socialization, such as office dinners after work. I argue that dialect speaking in this setting is indicative of an “old boys' network,” i.e., a traditional, male-dominated kinship network of power that is generally unavailable to women, young people, or outsiders, and which exist in contradiction to formal CCP notions of transparent, meritocratic, governance, and thus not an acceptable reason to officially value the dialect. Secondly, I would say that while in the abstract the dialect is valued as a part of local culture, its actual use impedes communication between locals and non-locals, such as tourists, and its status as a mainly peasant language means that outside of the old-boys network, its use is for most people associated with ruralness and a lack of education. This has created an odd situation where it is prestigious to know the dialect in the abstract, but not to actually speak it.

Britta Ingebretson is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Anthropology.