And Finally

Left to burn

Ancient village in flames, after residents depart


Tourists meet the Wa

For hundreds of years the picturesque village of Wengding nestled on a mountainside in the southwestern province of Yunnan.

It was the home of a community of Wa people – one of 56 ethnic minorities officially recognised by the Chinese government. But on the evening of February 14 a fire burned all but four of the hundred houses to the ground.

Thankfully no one was hurt in the blaze because residents had moved to a new village in 2017 so that their older settlement could function as a tourist attraction.

The cause of the fire is still unknown but the media chatter is that it would not have wreaked the same havoc if the residents had still be in their original homes.

“When the guardians of a village are separated from it, the village becomes fragile,” one commentator warned the Beijing News, while a local historian told China News Weekly that the Wa communities traditionally kept long tubes of bamboo filled with water to douse incipient fires.

“Wengding didn’t suffer a large-scale fire for more than 400 years because the village had traditional fire-prevention wisdom,” he said.

The Wa are an ethnic minority found only in Yunnan province and in Myanmar. Wengding is located a few kilometres from the Burmese border.

China’s race to modernise many rural areas means that traditional villages of these types are becoming rarer. In 2000, there were still 3.7 million settlements defined as villages, according to research from Tianjin University. By 2010, that figure had dropped to 2.6 million, a loss of about 300 villages per day over the period.

Many villages have simply disappeared from the map as the government relocated their inhabitants to nearby towns or cities (see WiC527 for how this was often part of a poverty eradication strategy). Many of the older villages that have been left in place have been bulldozed and rebuilt in a modern, utilitarian style.

If a village is considered particularly pretty, or culturally valuable, it is often classified as a tourist site. Local residents are then encouraged to move out, so the village can be managed as more of a museum or cultural attraction.

The issue is that this drains the village of its lifeblood as a community, although in the case of Wengding, the original inhabitants became employees of the new tourist site, giving performances of Wa songs and dances for visitors.

When other villagers leave their longstanding communities, these traditional practices are more usually lost, however, just as older techniques in land management, building construction and fire prevention are forgotten too. “Wengding survived hundreds of years without incident, but it burnt down in modern society. We must reflect on that,” another commentator lamented to the Beijing News.

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