The question of how to promote a culture of ecological sustainability in China took me this summer to conduct exploratory fieldwork among the Blang minority nationality, in Yunnan province, close to the border between China and Myanmar. The Blang are one of China’s smaller nationality groups and occupy a remote mountainous terrain that is a gruelling and dangerous three-hour drive from the county town of Menghai.
The economy of the Blang village where I stayed was based increasingly on the production of tea. Previously subsistence farmers, the villagers had now turned almost exclusively to the production of tea leaves which, when processed, become the famous and expensive pu’er tea. Since the economic and land reforms after the cultural revolution, the villagers had been steadily converting their lands to the production of tea, with tea bushes now dominating the steeply-terraced mountainsides. After harvesting the tea leaves, the villagers dry and lightly roast the tea leaves before selling them via middlemen to nearby tea factories that ferment, process and package the finished product.
The village is distinguished by well-preserved social customs: villagers are divided into a number of exogamous clans; newly married men live in their wife’s family’s home for three years; and most young men spend a period of time as a Buddhist monk in their youth. The Blang, like many nationalities in southwest China are Theravada Buddhists, but their highly complex religious life is also informed by local beliefs and customs that relate to the traditional ecology, with special attention being paid to rice, water, bees, beeswax, and the various local spirits that are associated with them. The production of tea has not been integrated into the religious life of the village and remains detached from it. On the other hand the relative wealth that has come to the village has enabled the renovation of old temples, the construction of new ones, and the hosting of lavish religious festivals, including the Kaowasa festival, known in Chinese as guanmenjie 关门节, a Theravada Buddhist festival to mark the beginning of the rainy season.
Here the relationship between religion and ecology becomes more evident. During the three month period inaugurated by Kaowasa, injunctions are placed on the life of the monks and laypeople in the village. Most notably these include a prohibition on cutting down large trees. In traditional times such large trees might be cut down and used for building houses. While most of the houses in the village are still made of wood, the more important reason for cutting down trees nowadays is to increase the land available for tea production.
Four important point can be made here. The first is that there is clear evidence of religion playing an influential role in managing the direct relationship between the Blang people and their local ecosystems. Their religious life is not a matter of private belief or personal spirituality, but a cultural system that clearly intersects with ecological and economic systems. In this regard, at least, religion is a cultural force that acts as a constraint upon a economic activity that has a deleterious effect on the local environment.
Secondly, in this regard at least, the Blang religion supports Chinese government policy and law which prevents deforestation. While I was in the village, I saw that this policy is supported by educational programs that aim to get local people to understand the important relationship between forests, water and the livelihood of local ecosystems. What struck me was that in this regard, religion could clearly be an ally towards government policy and environmental policy. When I interviewed a local CCP member, he informed me that the Party did not put up any obstacles to his participation in local religious activities, but would certainly view the spread of non-indigenous religions such as Christianity as highly problematic.
Thirdly, the complex and lavish nature of the religious activities in the village were directly supported by the village’s economic development. Without the wealth brought by tea monoculture, it would hardly be possible to support the scale of religious activities that I witnessed. The village’s wealth could clearly be seen in the renovation of the main temple, and the building of a new pagoda outside the village. This pagoda was built upon the advice of a visiting Burmese monk and was located according to fengshui principles to ensure that the wealth generated in the village would as much as possible remain in the village. Economic development supports religious activities, and in turn religious activities are designed to support economic development.
The final point relates to the power of Buddhism as a transnational religion. The border between China and Myanmar was clearly a notional border for the local people. Commercial, religious and family relationships straddled the border, and villagers were able to cross easily into Burma by foot. Some monks had spent time in Thailand and were able to live there without any passport, so long as they had proof of their religious status.
From my exploratory research it seems clear that there exists a complex relationship between religion, economy, ecology and nationality among the Blang people that is deserving of much deeper study and analysis. At the same time, it is not clear how long these relationships will remain intact. The current five year plan holds out the prospect of a proper paved road from the village to the county town. This will make communications with the “outside world” far easier and undoubtedly bring momentous changes to the religious, economic and social life of the village.