This is the eleventh of a series of monthly newsletters, each of which centres on a different Chinese city. Next, Macau.
– Philip Dodd and Enrica Costamagna
To receive the newsletter please click ‌here
There are always tussles over the identity of any city. But the tussles over Dali show not only how central culture is to this city’s identity but also raise questions about the relative emphasis that may soon be given to those cultural variables: local-national-international.
Culture is at the core of Dali’s economy, as well as its identity. The city invites visitors, wedged as it is between the Cangshan mountains on one side and Erhai Lake, on the other, with warm weather through the year. It is the ancestral home of the Bai people (白族) who once had their own autonomous kingdom, connected to south-east Asia; and the city’s ‘Old Town’ is rich in their distinctive and compelling architecture.
Translating into western terms, Dali might be said to be a fortress of the ‘Slow Movement’ (someone has inevitably titled it Dalifornia); its culinary habits part of the farm-to-table current. The city is  unsurprisingly very attractive as a tourist destination, or at least was until the Zero Covid policy.
Tourists are just the latest ‘incomers’ to a city that has always had a complex relationship between insiders and outsiders. If Dali was the ancestral home of the Bai people, it was also conquered by the Mongols in 1253 and then absorbed into China during the Ming dynasty. Even Dali’s architecture is split – between the native Bai architecture in the old town and what one local calls the post-1949 architecture of the new city.
The terms ‘tourists’ and ‘travellers’ cover a multitude of sins, of course.  One of us visited Dali first in 2006 and was offered marijuana openly by old ladies in the street. Then it was a backpackers’ heaven; and a cultural economy grew up around independent travellers, largely but not exclusively Chinese. In 2014 the start-up Bikego was founded to offer local cycling trips led by local guides who treated customers as friends. Two years later it had enjoyed 12000% growth. It is surviving the Zero Covid regulations but with great difficulty.
The independent travellers who come to Dali are  part of a larger mass tourism which developed after China’s ‘opening-up’. Sadly mass tourism, to mangle a phrase of Oscar Wilde, destroys the things it loves. Heavy pollution was and is damaging the lake, although the government has tightened regulations to repair the damage; and an infrastructure to cope with the visitor influx has had to be built (too) fast.
The stop-go of the Zero Covid policy, not to mention problems in the property market, has meant that large developments are often on hold. In certain ways, this is difficult for the city’s economy; for the environment it may be a boon.  Fifteen months or so ago we were shown on Zoom by a developer a new ‘upmarket’ Dali town. When we made contact for this newsletter, there was no reply. We are writing this during the Congress, a sensitive time and that may be the explanation for the silence. Or perhaps the project has bitten the dust.

 DALI’S santorini
Santorini in Greece
One recent development – which has had a lot of attention in China – is the ‘mountain cultural settlement’ called the Ideal State of Dali (理想邦) – a resort built on the side of the Cangshan mountain range, which overlooks the lake.
It consists of tourist inns, boutique hotels, cultural businesses, holiday apartments and small winding streets planted with flowers and plants. It covers an area of 3700 acres, with a construction area of about one million square metres and a total investment of 8 billion yuan. It is loosely based on Greece’s Santorini – those Chinese who loathe it call it ‘Fake Santorini’. But anyone who has visited Greece’s Santorini knows it is itself far from authentic; and there is an illuminating comment by Umberto Eco that he always preferred Disneyland to the Florida Keys because one could always rely on the Disneyland alligators rising from the waters on cue. Not surprisingly, the Ideal State is the focus and destination for a lot of social media influencers as well as for those in search of iconic wedding photographs. 
Dali’s Santorini
Such a resort is likely only to become more and more important. Even before Covid and its restrictions, the government was, even if quite unsuccessfully, trying to discourage international tourism and advocate what one might call ‘patriotic tourism’ (a phrase first used to our knowledge in Yugoslavia when the government wanted to bind together the various ethnicities that lived inside the country). Zero Covid regulations have made domestic tourism in China the only tourism on offer for the majority of the population. The Ideal State of Dali is the perfect high-end aspirational tourist destination, attractive to a population unable to travel abroad but who can afford an ’international experience’.

eco-migrants  AND TRADITIONS
Bai minority musical event
There is another kind of visitor to Dali – often metropolitan who either moves between Dali and a metropolitan home or leaves to find a rural retreat – eco-migrants, some have called them. Some of them are artists (one of us remembers staying in a B&B owned by the mother of artist Fang Lijun), others are looking for a life-style change from the 9-9-6 culture; yet others are digital nomads. We talked to several in Dali whose work was with tech companies in Shenzhen or Shanghai but who have the latitude to live where they wish. Another important group are cultural entrepreneurs. In 2014, Qiao Qi, a local photographer opened a creative industries centre, called the Dali Bed Sheet Art District in an abandoned government-owned factory. By the standards of Beijing, it is of course very small but what it is noticeable is that of the current tenants, 38 of the 40 are from outside Dali.
Gentrification and its attendant virtues and vices is hardly unique to Dali – rising house prices and rental costs, the movement of locals to the periphery (in Dali’s case from the old city to the new city) are among the consequences.
There is always a danger that the new more affluent Dalians occupy the interesting houses and careers and that the locals, trying to keep up with the increasing costs of living, settle on servicing this new affluent class or the new mass tourists with mass trinkets rather than remaining loyal to their ancient crafts.
The conversations that we had about gentrification revealed just how divided the city is on the benefits or otherwise of the influx of the new eco-settlers. One said that the energy and entrepreneurship came from the new affluent entrepreneurs; others were scandalised by such a judgement saying that the influx of settlers and mass tourism was unravelling and destroying centuries old traditions.
One traditional response to disappearing traditions is to document them – which is what the incomer and musician Wu Huanqing who has lived in Dali since 2003, has been doing with the music traditions of Dali. He knows that tourists do provide an audience for local music and that culture is not a fruit – it can’t be preserved. On the other hand, he is acutely aware that the music heard in the streets now is the music that often can be heard anywhere in China.
local and beyond
The dancer and choreographer Yang Liping is the most famous Bai cultural figure. Self-taught as a dancer, she draws on folkloric stories of the Bai people and performs in and choreographs works as various as the Rite of Spring and Dynamic Yunnan, a song and dance spectacular.
Dynamic Yunnan was the result of years long research by Yang Liping to find local dancers among the 26 ethnic minorities of Yunnan (including the Bai). It won many awards in China and played to packed audiences.
Spread wide across the valley, Dali does not have the large cultural institutions of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan. Even its Photographic Festival – one of the earliest in China – has an attractive modesty about it. But Yang Liping’s commissioning of the Yang Liping Performing Arts Center is the exception to the ‘modesty’ rule. 
She commissioned the Beijing based architect Zhu Pei – well respected for the design of galleries and for the Minsheng Museum of Modern Art in Beijing – to build a performing arts centre. It was opened in 2020.
When we speak to Zhu Pei, he is at pains to stress that he was trying to be responsive to the cultural and natural landscape of Dali. The Center is a ‘meeting place’ – he says; he is impatient with the orthodoxy that a performing arts centre must be a black box. The space is open to the elements, integrated into the landscape, where an audience can even sit informally on the stairs going up to the roof to watch a performance. We ask Zhu Pei if he has any sympathy with Salman Rushdie’s Shame when the author says ‘Roots, I sometimes think, are a conservative myth, designed to keep us in our places.’
The architect demurs, saying architecture without roots risks being fantasy architecture. He thought only of the local population when designing the performance arts centre, he says. Of course, those who run the building, make it live – Zhu Pei knows that architecture is incomplete without being populated – need to think of audiences as widely as possible. The centre opened with a major work devoted to the local culture with music and dance, and designs by Tim Yip (probably still best known as the Art Director of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).
Sadly the Zero Covid policy has so far laid waste to the idea of a regular programme whose ambition is to be a promiscuous mix – from rock concerts to dance. (Across China, the Golden Week tourism figures are the worst since 2014, according to the authoritative COTRI agency).
Talking to Dalian locals, there were several views of the Center – that there is a danger it will simply reproduce the culture common across China; another that it will become largely a home for Yang Liping and her networks. And yet, it is perfectly possible to argue that a centre such as Yang Liping’s which marries local, national and international is exactly what Dali needs.
On the other hand, China’s Zero Covid policy is intact and there are certainly grounds for concern that the Chinese government’s idea of cultural security will mean less and less opportunities for international cultural connections, as well as less encouragement of cultural diversity.
Additional research: Gao Jingyi and Zhang Huanzhi.

Copyright © 2022 Made in China (UK) Ltd, ‌All ‌rights ‌reserved.

Want to change how you receive ‌these ‌emails?
You can update your preferences or unsubscribe ‌from ‌this ‌list.