By S. M. Hali

In my previous Op-Ed ‘Pakistan honoured at Kunming’, I had briefly mentioned the Chinese province of Yunnan’s “painstaking reconstruction and preservation of the culture of its ethnic groups”. However, this aspect of Yunnan’s success story merits greater detail since there is a lesson to be learnt for every country has ethnic minorities but not everyone has handled them as astutely.

China, a large united multi-national state, has the largest world population (over 1.3 billion), comprising 56 ethnic groups. According to the 2010 census, Han Chinese account for 91.51% while the 55 other ethnic groups make up the remaining 8.49% as minorities, who share China's vast lands but at the same time many live in their individual communities, spread over different regions, being most concentrated in the Southwest, Northwest and Northeast China. To ensure that the various ethnic groups live together in harmony, the national policy of regional autonomy for ethnic minorities has established five autonomous regions; Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Guangxi, Ningxia and Tibet, as well as numerous autonomous prefectures, counties, nationality townships and towns where the ethnic minorities granted regional autonomy are entitled to deal with their own affairs. Not every province is a success story, since despite the Chinese government’s policies to secure the equality and unity of ethnic groups, and promoting respect for their faith and customs, there has been sporadic discontent in some regions. Take for example the Xinjiang province, where restlessness was reported although it was not only quelled, but I have personally witnessed the reforms and developments to bring Xingjiang at par with the more prosperous Eastern China provinces and address the sources of disgruntlement.

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Yunnan’s success story needs to be told since it is unique. After our participation in the Kunming Fair, our provincial hosts toured us around, where we met and saw the various ethnic groups residing comfortably but also participating in the dwells of modern development, yet maintaining their traditional attire, customs, religion, language and ethnic diversity with freedom and pride. Yunnan has the second highest number of ethnic groups among the provinces and autonomous regions in China, after Xinjiang (which has forty-seven ethnic groups). The twenty-five ethnic groups of Yunnan, fifteen of which are specific to the province reside in compact communities. Ten ethnic minorities that inhabit border areas and river valleys include the Hui, Manchu, Bai, Naxi, Mongolian, Zhuang, Dai, Achang, Buyei and Shui; those in low mountainous areas are the Hani, Yao, Lahu, Va, Jingpo, Blang and Jino while those in high mountainous areas are Miao, Lisu, Tibetan, Pumi and Drung.

Our first exposure to them was at the Kunming Fair, where hundreds of the various ethnic groups, bedecked in their colourful traditional attire were lined up to greet visitors, playing their tribal and typical musical instruments. It was an impressive display but I dismissed it mentally as an elaborate PR exercise. I have seen similar “dog and pony” shows depicting the US Red Indians or other ethnic minorities in various parts of the world. In the evening, we were treated to the Grand Original Dance Show, “Dynamic Yunnan”, where not only myself but the other 102international media persons from various corners of the world were wonderstruck. “Dynamic Yunnan” provided a grand, original ethnic dance musical performed by genuine Yunnan ethnic minorities, who have left their villages to participate in the troupe. The show itself was so surrealistic, authentic and moving due to the costumes, stage props, lighting, music and stage design permeating a 3-dimensional aura that it left us spellbound and its conclusion brought the entire auditorium to its feet presenting a standing ovation. I have been to various shows around the world, including renowned Operas, dance-festivals, musical shows and Olympics and other international sports event galas, but the 110 minutes’ magnificent performance recreating the essence of religious rituals, traditional songs, classic folk dances and the richness of the culture of Yunnan minorities left us mesmerized. The proceeds from the US$ 60/- tickets and sale of DVDs is shared with the ethnic performers. We thought the show “Dynamic Yunnan” was a grand finale but every city we visited, we were exposed to the various ethnic settlements and sampled their presentations on stage and in welcome and farewell rituals; with the final performance of “Dreaming Tengchong”, depicting the ethnic culture, the Japanese occupation, war of resistance and progress through trade in another breathtaking presentation. The judicious handling of its ethnic minorities by Yunnan, making them a part of the mainstream, while retaining their traditional identity merits emulation.