Down from the Mountains

China’s Muslim Dongxiang minority emerge from isolation – Joshua Bird

“Be sure to try the potatoes, they are world famous,” encouraged Mr. Ma, the owner of the newest restaurant in Dongxiang City, home of the Dongxiang ethnic minority in the Linxia Autonomous Prefecture of Gansu Province. As he hovered over us, his first customers, we dared not disappoint him.

We had endured two hour’s drive up and down the dizzying roads that snaked through the high mountains encircling Dongxiang City in western China, which – complemented by the Yellow, Lintao and Daxia Rivers – had provided the city and its people with a comforting isolation over the centuries. Yet while the mountains have allowed the Dongxiang minority to preserve their unique cultural and religious identity, it has also left them relatively ill equipped to take advantage of China’s economic growth.


The Bard and the Bureaucrat

Keeping an epic alive on the Tibetan Plateau – Timothy Thurston

When he was 13, on the 15th day of the first of the summer months, one early morning as the cattle were spread out foraging on the side of Dzakyab Champa Taktse Mountain, in that holy place the birds and the bees were chirping and buzzing. Resting and listening lazily to a bubbling stream, he fell asleep. In his dream, he saw a white man with conch armor, a white horse with a turquoise mane. A loving smile appeared on his lips, and he said “Boy, I have an empowering jewel for you.” Then he seemed to open his chest with both hands placed light-filled volumes of books in his chest and closed it. He touched him three times with a vajra, and with a sharp voice, he said, “You, boy connected by karma, I’ve placed this highly auspicious jewel in your hands. May it bring benefit to all beings.” Having said this, he disappeared… From then on, he was able to tell the epic of King Gesar of Ling without difficulty.


The Toisan Shout

Coming to terms with a stigmatic linguistic identity – William Poy Lee

Suey Wan is an innocuous farmer’s village nestled among remote hills in the backwater heart of the fertile Pearl River Delta in Guangdong Province. My people’s six counties are collectively known as Toisan. Toisan’s origins are more legendary than historically established, but the first Chinese settlers are said to have arrived here during the chaotic last days of the Tang Dynasty, hoping to find peace in this then far-off corner of the expansive Chinese empire.

For a millennium, my forbears lived relatively unperturbed, rarely traveling farther than 20 miles away from their village, and eventually evolved their own version of the Cantonese dialect – the rustic, rough-sounding and salty jizz-juice tongue of Toisanese.


Stand-up for Tibetan

A seriously laughing matter – Timothy Thurston

If I say “China” and “Tibet” in one breath, “comedy” is probably not the first thing that comes to mind. You may think of Buddhist monks, towering, snow-covered mountains and verdant grasslands – or you may conjure “cultural genocide.” If you are from China, meanwhile, you might think about Tibet as a feudal, pre-modern hell-on-earth liberated and modernized by the Chinese Communist Party, or a pristine, sparsely inhabited landscape contrasting noticeably with the urban metropolises of Beijing and Shanghai. These discourses, however, overlook the complexity of Tibetan cultural life in contemporary China. Tibetans in China do face mass surveillance, incarceration for political crimes, and cultural pressure, making it easy to overlook the dynamic cultural work being done in the region, from literature, to film, to hip-hop and, yes, comedy. Sometimes this work is done hand-in-hand with the Party, and sometimes counter to it, but much of it defies easy labels like “collaboration” and “resistance.”


Caught Between Two Countries

Northeastern China’s ethnic Korean minority – Eduardo Baptista

“South Koreans treat us like foreigners … worse, they treat us like dogs!” shouted Li Zhangyan, a retired 67-year old chaoxianzu, as ethnic Koreans are called in Chinese. He and  his friends had drunk a few too many bottles of soybean wine, making them welcoming to my reporter’s presence, but also easily riled up.

Li has worked in total for over a decade in different cities around South Korea, taking advantage of the higher salaries compared to his home in Yanbian, China’s ethnic Korean prefecture.

“There isn’t one of us,” he pointed at himself and his two friends, also retired, “who hasn’t bought a couple of houses here in Yanbian. We made all this money but South Koreans still look down on us!”