Beijing is a city of concentric circles. Ring Roads, they’re called. 人民 University lies directly on the Third Ring and is my home for the next four months. I publish on a weekly basis, with the latest post below! 好久不见！
Picture a Chinese person in your head. You have most likely just pictured someone who belongs to the majority ethnic group; the Han ethnic group that is overwhelmingly China’s largest ethnic category and enjoys a wide margin of power. I’ve heard conflicting statistics but we’ll put the percentage of Han Chinese at around 92%. That’s vast. But when you consider the whole population size of China (1.37 billion), 8% of that population is still a lot of people. Roughly 110 million people. To put that into context, that’s twice the population size of England. My point is: the image most of us have conjured up in our heads of China is one dimensional.
There are fifty-five recognized minority ethnic groups in China, such as the Islamic Turk descendants in the Northwest province of Xinjiang, the Miao in Guizhou province and the ethnic Mongols in the Northeast. These distinct groups share their own dialects, garb and many have populations that spill outside of the Chinese borders. My first introduction to the many hues that make up China was eight years ago, on a family trip to Yunnan province. It’s a large Southern province that shares its borders with Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar. It is also the most ethnically diverse province in China, with a stunning 38% of its population identifying as non-Han Chinese. You take a trip to a province like Yunnan and it completely alters your understanding of what it means to be Chinese. I was particularly struck by the opportunity to spend time in communities that have Tibetan origins. Their interpretation of Buddhism, their food sources, their facial features differed so much from what I thought I knew China was. This is after years of living in Hong Kong and traveling around other provinces in the mainland. The feeling of discovery I felt at age thirteen has remained with me and was something I yearned to explore in my few months living in Beijing.
So when my parents generously made plans to visit me during my spring holiday last week, I asked if we might be able to go back. We traveled to the province above Yunnan, called Sichuan (Not “Szechuan”, not “Seeshuan”. It’s suh-choo-an). It is best known for spicy food that features a chili that turns your lips and tongue numb, and for its growing panda-centric tourist industry. However I was not interested in touring the Han-populated cities and sampling cuisines. I wanted to go west, west, west. As far into the Tibetan plateau as time and safe altitude acclimation would allow. It is the part of China where people mention that their cousins just moved to Lhasa (capital of Tibet) for better job opportunities and towns are built in the shadow of mountains two-thirds the size of Everest. The further inland you drive, the more Tibetan the names of towns sound, the more prayer flags you see adorning the hills. It’s exactly what I wanted.
We were only there a week, but it’s so easy to lose yourself in the beauty of the landscape and warmth of the people. We were walking around with a look of sheer bewilderment on our faces. As an ethnic group, Tibetans are quite striking. Their skin is leathery and the apples of their cheeks are a perpetual maroon from concentrated sun exposure. As it partially lies on the Tibetan plateau, Sichuan has some of the highest altitudes in the country and it shows. The livestock is almost exclusively yak or yak-hybrid, and much like the buffalo of North America, no part of the yak is wasted. Needless to say, we ate a lot of yak.
To the untrained eye, Tibetan writing resembles Hindi or Sanskrit, a language that is worlds away from Mandarin or Cantonese. And the influence of Buddhism in the region is palpable. To steal someone else’s story: an acquaintance we made had hired a few construction workers to do some work on her house. But she found that they wouldn’t go forward with their work if they couldn’t find an outlet to plug in their TV. After bickering back and forth, they finally found a satellite radio that did the trick. The laborers wanted to spend their lunch breaks listening to multi-hour public readings by their lama, their spiritual leader, and in this way always remain connected to their faith. Theirs is a faith that fosters human commitment to their vast and dramatic land, to other living beings, and to their own spiritual growth.
Among all these contrasts, there are numerous connecting strands running between this region and the rest of China. Despite being incredibly rural, the infrastructure of the roads was phenomenal. This is a region that seven years ago, was ravaged by one of the worst earthquakes in recent Chinese history. The death toll rose above 85,000 people. But getting from 1,000 meters to 4,000+ in a car was a non-issue. In fact, we didn’t see a single beat-up old car. My dad even claims he saw a Tesla. There is poverty of course, but it doesn’t hold a candle to many regions in Southern Asia or South America with similar geographic and demographic circumstances. Whether it be local or federal, government investment and intervention is apparent. Framed pictures of government officials ornamented the door frames, and once in a while we would catch glimpses of Chairman Mao, peeking at us behind a window or living room corner.
To anyone who’s spoken to me in person or perused through previous posts, it’s clear that I love my life in Beijing. But returning to this city after a week in Sichuan is, well odd. I won’t delve into the question of whether ethnic Tibetans are Chinese or not, but regardless, this region is intrinsically linked to China. What does China’s future look like? Is it an economically inclusive future? Who will we think of when we say the word “Chinese” in fifty or one hundred years? What will they look like? What motivates them? Do they believe in a unified China? I could spend all night tacking on questions to this list. I can only hope to stay long enough that I might be able to grasp some of the answers.