Life recently took me to a rather unexpected place. It’s called Jingmaishan (or Jingmai Mountain) and is made up of 14 small villages that are colourd with ethnic minorities, mainly Bulang and Dai.
A three-hour car drive from Xishuangbanna, I thought I knew what to expect – palm trees, sun and unique architecture. I’d actually even forgotten about fog, a starry sky and the scent of fresh, wet grass. The memories that Manjing brought to mind after years in dry and dusty urban giants were melancholic and bitter-sweet. However, what I didn’t expect to find were the people.
Sure, everywhere in the world there tends to be a difference between big urban centers and small rural villages in the way people carry themselves and the way they behave towards each other. It’s common to greet people in smaller placer irrespective of whether you know them or not.
But particularly Mangjing village, the base from which I explored this stunning area, absolutely turned my preconceptions on their head.
Without fail every person we encountered would offer tea – this region’s main source of income – but not in the way that many tourist places in China do, where their ulterior motive is always to sell their product after. Rather the people here just socialize in this way. While I was waiting for my group, one of the locals, whose toilet I was standing next to, kept offering for me to use it if I needed. Another ran off to return with a branch from his ancient tea tree as a present.
There is just genuine affection, warmth and a sense of community here that I have never seen in quite this way anywhere else, even less so in the big metropolises of China.
This attitude towards life and relationships is visible in the local architecture. The ground floor of their buildings is entirely open; there are only wooden beams that keep the whole structure standing up – and so it’s common for people to take a short-cut right through your house. While there is a second floor that is a closed-off room, the doors in this village aren’t locked and it isn’t uncommon to just pop into anybody’s house. Of course it has to be said that most people in the village are actually related and few outsiders have made this their permanent home.
The contrast with Beijing couldn’t be more obvious. The bemoaning of how cold and isolated people are in big urban centers is nothing new of course. However, I think this is even worse in China than in any other country I’ve been in. Part of it is certainly the sheer size of cities. Beijingers can only muster a weak smile when they hear that London hit a record high in terms of population – totaling 8.6 million people. Try 21.7 million.
The social isolation that comes with big cities seems to go hand-in-hand with some of the social developments bemoaned in recent years. Particularly the lack of empathy and unwillingness to help people in traffic accidents or facing violence in public for fear of ending up branded as a perpetrator. There is a lot of mistrust, a lot of apathy, and sheer loneliness.
One of the people in my group told me that when they were growing up in Chongqing, the community felt much more like the one in Mangjing village.
But this lifestyle too is under threat. As projects to increase tourism are expanding and the locals strive for a more materialistic, city-like lifestyle, not knowing the cost it holds.
It is clear this will have a considerable impact on people’s lives and attitudes. For one, if the number of tourists increases, it will become inevitable for locals to start putting locks on their doors. As soon as they start shutting people out out of necessity, this will inevitably erode the incredible closeness that is the essence of Mangjing’s community. Development is, of course, unstoppable; but the loss it will entail is very costly indeed.