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The New Shangri-la

He collapsed in giggles, and I could see that I was pushing a sensitive point. China's Communist government allows only five official faiths; any other belief that tries to portray itself as a religion, such as Falun Gong, runs the risk of being suppressed and banned. Li's pamphlet was an example of preemptive wordplay: by avoiding the term religion, the Naxi were establishing themselves as a nonthreatening cultural group.

During my week in Lijiang, I could see how effectively the Naxi were honing this approach. When I first visited, in '94, Lijiang had been primarily a backpackers' destination--young, scraggly Westerners crashed in cheap hotels, ate at the cafés, and hiked in the mountains. Since then prices have risen, and officials told me that more than 95 percent of Lijiang's tourists are Chinese, many from China's growing middle and upper classes. Essentially, Lijiang has become one of China's first truly cultural attractions.

One evening I had dinner with two young Chinese from the northeast in Lijiang on a weeklong package tour. We sat outside the Sakura Café--which combined Naxi cuisine with an eclectic menu of Japanese, Korean, and Italian dishes--and watched flower-shaped lanterns float down the canal beside us. Young Chinese couples strolled along the stone sidewalk beside the water, holding hands. One of the young men, Yan Xi, worked for China Northern Airlines, and he told me that he had never been anywhere like Lijiang before. "It's an old city, but it doesn't feel old," he said. "I like the pace, the mood. There's no pressure, no rush. The moment I got here, I forgot all my worries."

The more he described his vision of Lijiang, the more it sounded like a European destination. And I realized that this is the model Lijiang is following: the carefully preserved Old Town, the flower boxes and tourist-destination maps, the new emphasis on Culture. The city's live music and shaman performances were sold out every night, and virtually any local woman working in the tourism industry dressed in the traditional Naxi cloak of blue and white. Since my first visit, Naxi tradition had become much more of a commodity--something to be outlined in a pamphlet. A number of locals told me that it was routine for Chinese outsiders to come to Lijiang and do business by passing themselves off as Naxi. In fact, nearly all of the businesses in the Old Town are now owned by outsiders, many of whom have come from Fujian province in the east.

"Most Naxi don't worry about this because they're just happy to get the money from renting the buildings," a young Naxi tour guide named He Xinyan told me. "People here have simple desires, and they don't think about these things too deeply. But to me it's a problem, because you lose some of your culture when this happens. It's shortsighted."


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