From Temple to Commodity? Tourism in Songpan and the Bon Monasteries of A’mdo Sharkhog by Mona Schrempf and Jack Patrick Hayes (2009)

List the aspects of commodification in Mona Schrempf and Jack Patrick Hayes's study From Temple to Commodity. Tourism in Songpan and the Bon Monasteries of A’mdo Sharkhog

From Temple to Commodity? Tourism in Songpan and the Bon Monasteries of A’mdo Sharkhog by Mona Schrempf and Jack Patrick Hayes (2009) pp. 285-312.

In this work the authors studied the change that was reflected in a province in China after it was declared as a tourism site, owing to the campaign of ‘Opening of the West’ in 1999. The study pertains to Songpan Country and its main town was known by the same name (Tib. Zung chu mkhar). The region included the Tibetan area of Shar khog, with its small Bon po villages and rebuilt monasteries situated to the north of Songpan town, and also the former Bon pilgrimage mountain of Shar Dung ri (‘Eastern Conch Mountain’) surrounded by beautiful forest and turquoise-colored lakes (Tib. gSer mtsho), now known as Huanglong Nature Reserve.

The study focused on the rural Tibetan area of Shar khog with its Bon monasteries (these monasteries were not Tibetan in origin), some of which were engaged in tourism since 1999 (till the publication of the study in 2009) and urban tourism of Songpan town. The idea was to understand the diversity of local developments and transformations through tourism and how tourism was commodified. In 1999, the China Daily broadcasted that in view of popularising the ‘eco-tourism’ campaign, southwest China’s Sichuan province had initiated a dozen new tour routes. Now let us understand some of the areas that came under commodification.

Cultural politics of place name

The authors reflected on the cultural politics of changing the name of a place from Tibetan into Chinese and how the majority of ethnic Tibetans in China represented and symbolized the transformative politics of place-making that came around due to tourism supported by the Chinese state. The authors had intentionally used either Tibetan or Chinese place names in the first instance with their respective Chinese or Tibetan alternative form in parentheses afterward. They used Chinese names for those places that were commonly known and used as such also by Tibetans and have been transformed into designated urban ‘cultural’ or natural ‘scenic places’ through state policies on tourism. As stated by the authors, such places showed visible and structural changes which had almost transformed in a Chinese way. The places in and around Songpan town, in Shar khog proper, several major tourist hotels and many tourism services came up, leading to the development of these areas too. The national nature reserves of Huanglong (Tib. gSer mtsho) and Jiuzhaigou (Tib. gZi rtsa sde dgu) were also major areas that came under the tourism spotlight. The authors, on the other hand, maintained Tibetan places and monasteries’ names in the area north of Songpan town known as Shar khog (and put their Chinese names in brackets) as these people were still maintaining their Tibetan culture as villages or monasteries.

Building of Urban and Infrastructure development

The study presented the urban and rural tourism divide. Since 2000 Songpan County tourism development divided into two kinds of tourism models - one that highlighted a kind of local national-urban culture, and the other that highlighted local rural ethnic culture. The most visible signs of Songpan’s ‘touristic modernity’, came up in the nearby areas that developed into tourist resorts, however, such urbanization was not found in rural villages of Songpan initially.

Marketing of Chinese traditional goods for tourism

Tibetan and Chinese medicinal plants, and animal products were being sold as local products or ‘primary’ products of the county, which became much more important for export purposes and the tourism industry. Processing and sales were being run mainly by local Tibetans in the businesses formerly organized as collectives. The goods were brought from the locals by the Songpan County Market Development Company (part of the old county forestry bureau), later renamed Songpan County Huanglong Tourism Market Development Company, which were later processed, and marketed via the county pharmacies. The idea, as stated by a local tourism official was to ‘[...] superior aspects of traditional cultural knowledge of the Tibetans and Hui directly, to create social wealth so as to increase social productivity and play positive roles in the sustainable development of the whole society (2009:297). 

Bon Monasteries and Monastic Revival in Shar khog for 

Tourism Before the tourism publicity was started, sponsorship from outsiders or tourists was not available for the study of the monks or the practice of rituals in the monasteries. It was solely done by the local Tibetan villagers. Even during the initial stages of rebuilding the Bon monasteries, it was managed with the help of the local village population that including labor and financial support, with some initial support from the local government. With the opening up of avenues in tourism, the concept of leasing the monasteries was a new beginning. Thus, tourism facilitated and attracted considerable numbers of tourists for the annual monastic festivals, which earlier were a local affair.

The monasteries were following the Tibetan way of life before the exposure to tourism. However, with leasing out, a few changes in terms of commodification could be seen. The very concept of leasing out was a part of commodification. The entry of Chinese women as tourist guides in a space that earlier followed taboos on entry of women during menstruation was also attributed to the commodification process. However, the monasteries leased out to the tourism development agencies had a different opinion as they welcomed the Chinese guides. Owing to language issues the Tibetan villagers felt inadequate to deal with Chinese tourists directly and were thankful for the intervention of the Chinese tourist guides who had command over the Chinese language.

However, one of the major issues with the leasing out of the monasteries was a crisis of cultural identity that was reflected in one of the rituals. Monasteries are ideally considered as belonging to Tibetans who are Buddhist and they have the practice of circumambulation (going round in a circle around an object) the monastery in a clockwise direction, however, in the Bon monasteries it was anticlockwise. A few such incidences were previously reported, these happened when small Chinese tourist groups came to visit, they assumed the monasteries to be Tibetan and followed the Tibetan rituals.

In order to overcome the situation, the Chinese tour agencies that were leasing devised a way out of this cultural identity conflict. They set up huge Chinese cauldrons for incense in the middle of the monastery courtyard and made washrooms beside them. Thus, without making things too obvious, a route was created for the tourist to follow the right path, to subtly resolve the issue. In this study, we see many aspects of commodification in terms of tourism. It shows how cultural politics played a role in even naming the places as per the Tibetan or Chinese culture.

The leasing of the monasteries was also a new aspect, which came about, owing to tourism, leading to the commodification of a religious space. The Bon monasteries which were different from the Tibetan monasteries in terms of ritual performances maintained their ways with a subtle change in the orientation and placement of cauldrons, without bringing the fact much into the focus of the tourists. The study brought to the fore how different forms of tourism emerged in this area and how local people and the outsiders engaged in it in various ways, sometimes there were conflicts and contestations that led to the commodification.

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