How a distant ethnic group is torn between tradition and modernity

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During the summer vacation after my first year of master’s degree in anthropology, my advisor suggested that I go study the Mang people, a minority group living near the Sino-Vietnamese border. Even today, very little is known about this group, whose small population has made their home in the region’s mountain forests.

There are only about 700 Mang people in China (??), most of whom live in Jinshuihe County (??), Honghe, in the southwestern province of Yunnan. Traditionally, the Mang led an isolated existence as farmers, without access to electricity, clean water and basic sanitation. But with the support of the government poverty reduction efforts since 2008, this impoverished community has succeeded in adopting a more prosperous way of life.

The Mang people once depended on slash-and-burn methods for growing rice and corn, as well as hunting, gathering and fishing as additional sources of food. This way of life led them to periodically migrate from mountain forests, for example when the soil became less fertile. To more sedentary minority ethnic groups living nearby, such as the Hani (??) and Dai (??) – they were like ghosts, wandering homeless.

After migrating permanently from the forest, the Mang community split into three village teams – the administrative units governing the villages. In 2009, the Mang were classified as part of the Bulang ethnic minority (??), becoming the last minority group within Chinese borders to get official recognition.

At the time, I was curious how the Mang had changed after experiencing rapid modernization. I left Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, and finally reached Nanke Village in Jinshuihe County – in the heart of the mountains – on my third day of travel. Covering an area of ​​115 square kilometers, Nanke includes 10 groups of villagers.

As part of poverty reduction efforts in 2008, villagers reclaimed part of the Nanke River (??) and flattened a small hill to make room for construction projects. Locals built a small three-story structure to house the village committee, as well as a new colorful steel market with a tiled roof. They also added a new entrance to the village primary school. When I got to Nanke the first thing I saw were brick buildings – but I slowly realized as I walked through the village nestled between these modern structures stood many ruined huts made of mud and supported by wooden planks.

Nearby, on a slope overlooking the Nanke village committee building, is the new village of Mang, less than a 20-minute walk away. Compared to Nanke, the two-story government-sponsored buildings erected here looked more neat, but behind this cluster of white-tiled-walled residences were shacks housing young people who had left their parents’ homes. They were waiting for the next wave of poverty reduction projects – with no idea when it would come.

A Mang woman in Yunnan province dressed in traditional clothes

A Mang woman in Yunnan province dressed in traditional clothes

In addition to helping build the new village of Mang, the relief projects also encouraged the Mang community to plant cash crops, especially sugar cane. With these changes in their livelihoods, they began to interact more with the outside world. In the past, their main contact with foreigners was through bartering in markets, but the arrival of television, modern health care, pension insurance, schools and sugarcane cultivation has since deepened considerably. these interactions.

For much of their history, the way of life of the Mang people has revolved around subsistence farming. Beyond that, a small portion of their produce was traded in the market for basic necessities that they couldn’t produce on their own, such as salt and clothing. While their rapid transition to modern society improved their living conditions, it also destroyed their traditional way of life, leading to schisms within the Mang community.

When relief measures were first put in place, many residents were ready to stay in the village and work in agricultural production. In my interviews with these people for several months, many said that they believed that they could benefit from the policy, and that as long as they could find suitable cash crops, they would inevitably be lifted out of poverty and become rich. . However, their location deep in the mountains made it extremely difficult to cultivate sugar cane, while the income from the project was sufficient to cover basic provisions.

After getting to know the outside world, some young Mang people started seeing their hometown as impoverished, stuffy and dirty, so they started to migrate to Shanghai, Beijing, the southern city of Guangdong and other places to find work. But their lack of skills has forced them to rely on their fellow citizens to initiate them into the assembly line trades for a meager remuneration. Unable to adapt to the outside world, some have returned to the village, but new generations of young adults often still seek new life elsewhere.

A villager whom I will call Luo San was born in 1993 and is the third brother of the chief of Mang New Village. Luo left in September 2015 for Dongguan, a city in Guangdong province (southern China), to stay with another villager who had found work there. When I visited Mang New Village in February last year, the village chief and his mother said that neighboring Jinping County had a vacant position in a public institution where the hiring policies favored the people. Mang, and they were hoping Luo would run for the job. Despite the low salary, it was a stable job, but Luo refused it because he did not want to return to the village. He has since refused to answer phone calls from his family.

The young adults I have met who leave their homes in search of a job all come back because of the same problem: ID cards. In China, citizens must be 16 years old to apply for their identity card, the information of which is essential for signing an employment contract, buying a cell phone or buying plane and train tickets.

However, many young Mang leave the village as minors. Since it is difficult to get an ID card far from their hometown, they return to Yunnan and wait for the three-month process to end. These young people find it tiresome to spend so much time at home: life is boring, and there are no 4G mobile phone signals or internet cafes. They can complain about living elsewhere – saying that Guangdong is hot, wages are low, and people there are swindling them – but they leave town as soon as they get their IDs, taking them with them. a handful of other villagers.

Most Mang people feel caught between staying in the village and moving to the city. In this context, it is as difficult for the villagers to maintain their traditional way of life as it is to adapt to life outside. Their fight is the same: a recurring conflict between tradition and modernity. A decade after the start of poverty reduction projects, modernization remains as alarming and disconcerting as it always has been.

This article originally appeared on the news site Sixth tone. It was written by Tao Anli, translated by Katherine Tse, and edited by Lu Hua and Matthew Walsh.

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