What a relief. The houseflies have gone to bed.
The flies, the spiders, the farm cats, and the rain are constant reminders of where Lijiang Studio is. As are the bits of Naxi speech that constantly waft in from the nearby fields and farmyards. This is Naxi farming country, the valley and community of Lashihai, about an hour beyond Lijiang, over a mountain pass via an increasingly congested and very narrow two-lane highway filled with a line of breadloaf taxis and heavy trucks carrying gravel, rock, and lumber. It is not the easiest place to get to, but it is not the most difficult, either.
Wholly unlike the common language of Mandarin and all other regional variants of Chinese, Naxi is the main tongue of Lashihai. All my efforts to improve my language skills (one new word a day!) would have been of little use here, except that most all of the Naxi speak the common tongue, too. Their bilingualism intrigues me, since it represents a kind of bi-culturalism, and even bi-nationalism—these folks are at once Naxi and Chinese. But the contemporaneity of hybrid or multivalent identities that city people and other modern creatures get accustomed to seems somehow far away from Lashihai. After all, much of life around here goes on as it long has, maybe for centuries. Media penetration is minimal, social life is interwoven with daily and seasonal labor, foods are mostly local, and the cash economy leaves a comparatively light imprint. Life is slow, cyclical, weather-dependent, and, if the word still means anything at all, traditional. And yet, this is hardly a pre-modern environment. Most obviously, the Chinese state governs, and that includes administering large projects such as building an earthen dam for water control around Lashihai (also the name of the nearby lake) in the 1950s and again more recently, or, presently, building a new highway that will cut through the valley. Also, there are the schools. They now teach English beginning in the elementary grades, producing some rudimentary trilingualism among the younger Naxi. And there are the contemporary artists.
We blog, photograph, document, install, paint, draw, film, write, discuss, taste, study, take long walks, get inspired—a whole suite of behaviors that don’t have much to do with the life of the native people. Or, rather, didn’t used to have much to do with their life. But Jay Brown, American by birth and Chinese by adaptation, has been living on and off in Lashihai for nearly a decade. With the incremental improvements he, his neighbors, and his resident artists have made to the compound that is Lijiang Studio, one can really say he has moved in. As have the procession of resident artists who come for weeks or months at a time. For our brief time here, the China Drift crew, including we four Compass comrades, played the part of this relatively constant presence of artists.
It is easy to immediately pose here the same question that vexes artists back in cities like Chicago. And that is, what is our role in the process of gentrification and development? Except here, the forces are not entirely familiar, the fault lines less clear, and the minority people possibly being put at risk of displacement (culturally and/or spatially) seem rather savvy to the ways of power as seen in their adaptations to the loopholes around them. For example, as with other people in China, many of the Naxi around here build structures on lands that they know will be taken for new roads. Especially on such lands, in fact, in order to increase the compensation they will be due. It is the Chinese version of eminent domain—they can’t fight it, so they figure they’ll increase the value of their land by improving it before the road comes. To achieve this they will build without any regard for permits or legality, essentially changing “the facts on the ground.” And for decades they have existed semi-autonomously under the umbrella of the People’s Republic of China, and for centuries before that, under the waxing and waning reach of the imperial dynasties. Somehow they’ve managed to persist as a culture and a people. If the Naxi are a people who have negotiated contradictory social forces and locations successfully for generations, then what is going on perhaps is just another chapter in a continuous tale begun long ago, and at least co-authored by them rather than for them.
But do the visiting artists—let us just say, does the Lijiang Studio—have something to do with this development? Of course they and it do, but I think we should avoid the question of effect and impact. Those concerns are a smokescreen, an incubator of liberal guilt, and a distraction from the more important problem of grappling with ethical relations. The question I do want to ask is, what is the most responsible way to build a working relationship between visiting outsiders (who bring their own culture, and in the case of our six people coming together, our own society) and the Naxi of Lashihai? The answer is difficult to grasp positively, but fairly easy to identify in the negative. For example, the Ancient Town tourist market of Lijiang offers a model that seems most definitely undesirable and not worth replicating. Stall after stall, scores of them, offering “authorized” minority handicrafts, food stuffs, musical recordings, and assorted souvenirs, along with Naxi-led pony rides and costumed performers, reduce the relationship between visitors to one of seller and buyer, and the Naxi sellers themselves into competing retailers.
The arrangement at Lijiang Studio is very different. There, the visitors are expected to be producers primarily and consumers secondarily. We come to make, to create, to build, design, express, grow, and learn. Not to buy, and only to consume as our sustenance demands. There isn’t much of a place for such activity in the Ancient Town. So far, so good. But create what? Art objects and art images? Or a society, economy, and culture that brings people from the far corners of the earth into affectionate, mutually supportive, and productive contact? If it is the former, exclusively, then we might as well forget the whole project and go back to the Western-oriented hang-outs in Lijiang. Thankfully, and it is pretty obvious once you are there, Lijiang Studio leans heavily towards the latter set of possibilities. But how do visitors—people who are known in advance to be leaving at some point in the future, whether that’s weeks, months, or years, and probably are not returning—help to create the worlds implied by the latter?
One way to think about it is to understand that investments are always limited. There aren’t too many examples of unlimited investment in this world. Therefore the limited inputs of any given resident artist should not by itself be reason to discount the truth of their contribution. On the concrete level, I’m afraid to offer any suggestions on “what to do.” Partly, that is because I am not familiar enough with the workings of the Studio and the Lashihai milieu to confidently prescribe a course of action, having only spent a few days there. But also it is because I believe that mapping the appropriate ethical relations is a site-specific project in the most literal sense, meaning such a map is specific to each one of us, and follows the contours of not only our skill sets and life histories, but also of our own spiritual callings. That is not to say that there aren’t any models. At the Lijiang Studio, Jay Brown has been mapping these relations according to his callings for years now, creating a model, with the help of his Naxi neighbors and resident artists. We on the Drift were fortunate to travel the territory with him for a little while, adding our footnotes to the map he has been drawing.