“You can’t be mayor in China…”
(A feel-good China story.)
At the Chinese embassy in Bangkok, nobody wanted to see my official letter of invitation to be mayor of Danzhai, a county of 182,000, in remote southeast Guizhou Province, or Qiándōngnán 黔东南, as it is locally known.
“Just put that away,” I was told on the two occasions I tried to present it to embassy staff. “You can’t be mayor in China.”
For the record, I was mayor of Danzhai Wanda Village, and in fact, 63 rotating mayors preceded me, most of them Chinese social media influencers. That serendipitously made me mayor No. 64, I realized, as I wielded a spade and pretended to plant a red bayberry tree in my own honor in the middle of a terraced tea plantation.
“How do you get to be mayor in China?” was the question I was repeatedly asked both before and after my official duties drew to a close in the first week of December. The answer reposes in a few throwaway lines I wrote for an unpublished book on impulsively traveling rough to Guiyang from Yangshuo as a Lonely Planet writer in 1991, and which still lingered in an essay on my website.
Guizhou in 1991
It was a trip that left me stranded in a Dong minority village in Guizhou for two days and in another Dong village for another day before I finally reached Kaili, where I was able to find a bus to continue on to Guiyang.
“It was dusk, and the girls were brushing out their hair in the village square,” I wrote of my first day in Guizhou. “When I asked them for a photograph, they giggled in Chinese, ‘Go ahead,’ before returning to a lilting, tonal dialect that belonged more to the streets of Bangkok than to Beijing. Later, in the last light of day, I washed in a shallow stream, bought some vegetables and pork at the market, and the family who’d rented me a room for less than a dollar a night cooked me dinner. I didn’t reach Guiyang for another four days — a bone-jarring journey on a succession of clapped out buses that I could have avoided if I’d been less adventurous and taken the twelve-hour train trip.”
Some 27 years later, that paragraph threw me a totally unexpected curveball in the form of an email with the curious subject line, “Welcome to Return to Guizhou after 25 Years and Be Mayor.”
I dutifully ticked it as spam. But several hours later in an idle moment, I returned to it, and scrutinized the credentials of the sender, who claimed to be director of international communications of Wanda Group.
It read in part, “The reason I am sending you this unsolicited email is Wanda has been working on a poverty alleviation program [in] Danzhai, Guizhou, one of the poorest provinces in China. Wanda has built a vocational college, a tourist village and a poverty relief fund to address the county’s long-term, medium-term and short-term developmental needs. The total investment is close to 2 billion yuan and there have been positive results one year since the program’s inception.
“This is not a human zoo.”
“I learned that you visited Guizhou in 1991 and we would love to invite you back to see how this place has changed after about three decades. You know China and China travel well, so you are the perfect candidate to give Wanda advice on how to make the tourist village better. More tourists means more locals will benefit, whether they are tea and rice growers, chicken farmers, taxi drivers, handicraftsmen and hotel owners.
“We have a rotating mayor scheme which fits you well. If you like, you could be a mayor for a week, visit various places, talk to ordinary locals, give them suggestions and help them out of poverty one way or another.”
This led to a flurry of emails, in which I demanded that the writer, Yang Zhuo, provide proof that he was who he said was. Within two days, I had concluded he was and that Wanda had indeed built an “ethnic village” in Qiandongnan.
I wrote to Yang and said, “OK, I’m interested, but you have to convince me that this is not some kind of minority theme park, like the ones in Xishuangbanna where the Dai minority do the water-splashing festival 365 days a year.”
Yang promised that Danzhai was a genuine effort in poverty alleviation. He said, “This is not a human zoo.”
The 64th Mayor of Danzhai
He was not lying, and I can report that Danzhai is most definitely not a “human zoo.” But to be honest, it is not a genuine Miao minority village either. It is no more than two years old and consists of a shop- and restaurant-lined, slate-paved high street punctuated by three village squares, where DJs face off with Miao minority dancers at high decibels on a nightly basis. Its population mostly lives in the nearby county seat of Dānzhài Xiànchéng 丹寨县成, or in any of the approximately 120 Miao and Shui minority villages in the county, making Danzhai Wanda Village something of a newly constructed tourist attraction market town.
This made me uncomfortable on first arrival. Did we really need the video game arcade, the tacky archery stall, and the cock- and bull-fighting arenas? Did we even need the obligatory bar street that I never had a chance to visit?
No, was obviously the answer, until you factored in the fact that despite wintry, drizzling weather and heavy fog, on my only weekend in the village, it bustled with Chinese tourists, and the high street thronged with long processions of proud Miao in full traditional attire.
By day two I began to wonder whether I was witness to a resurgence of ethnic pride in what is one of China’s last frontiers of infrastructure rollout or whether I was seeing a last gasp of tradition before it was rendered theater by the imperatives of commercialism and tourism.
The death or revival of traditional minority culture?
I asked Huáng Xiǎohǎi 黄小海, 61, a quietly self-deprecating photographer and occasional contributor to Xinhua who has been documenting the Miao in Qiandongnan for 25 years, amassing hundreds of thousands of images, and he sighed as he pondered the question.
“It’s difficult,” he said. “I ask myself the same question. So many of these young Miao people went to Guangdong and other parts of east-coast China to work and make money, and it changed them. Now they’re returning because there are roads and electricity and internet, but they have to relearn their culture. If you look closely when they’re traditionally dressed, you’ll notice that most of them have abandoned their traditional wooden shoes, and often, when the women are dancing, they’re taking selfies of themselves as they do so.”
He wrinkled his brow and shrugged. “But they are returning, and they have opportunities nobody could have dreamed of 10 years ago. We just have to proceed cautiously, not too quickly, and ensure that when we help them bring their products to market and lift their living conditions, it is not at the cost of their traditional culture.”
Such sentiments echoed through my week in Danzhai, during which I traveled from village to village on a daily basis, watching the efforts of largely privately funded social enterprises lift the standards of batik-making and embroidery, among other things, such as the establishment of pesticide-free organic tea plantations.
They were being aided by the likes of Hé Bówén 何博闻, a 44-year-old former marketing executive from Beijing who described his former life as a succession of jobs with no fulfillment.
China is vast, complex, and impossible to relay within the constraints of any one narrative.
“I had to come to Qiandongnan — and it was purely by chance that it happened in 2001 — to find that fulfillment I was missing,” he said.
Today, He is one of three partners of Village Story (村寨故事 cūnzhài gùshì), a social enterprise that is working together with more than 30 villages — thousands of villagers — to train Miao, Shui, and Dong minorities in raising the quality and efficiency of production of their traditional handicrafts. Village Story’s flagship store on the Danzhai Wanda Village high street is a model of boutique minimalism — a minority Apple store in a part of China that, until as recently as 10 years ago, was so inaccessible as to be almost a blank space on the map of China.
The final job of a rotating mayor at Danzhai Wanda Village is to write up some policy recommendations for bringing Danzhai County and Miao ethnic traditions to the world’s attention. As I wrote mine up — it was lengthy and detailed — it occurred to me that I had been privy to something unique: a genuine China feel-good story at a time in which the news from China reaches us as wave after wave of bad news.
If nothing else, for me, it was a reminder — and at a time I most needed one — that China is vast, complex, and impossible to relay within the constraints of any one narrative.
Chris Taylor was 64th rotating mayor of Danzhai Wanda Village at the invitation of and with the support of Wanda Group.