Luce Chinese Studies Grants


The Lost Voices:
The Impact of Development and Preservation Policies upon the Local People of Wudang Shan


We were very poor here and life was hard, but now look we have many new things - we have electricity! The change has been welcomed. It suits us well.
-- Xia Liqing
These days most locals from the surrounding area no longer come as regularly as they did before. It's a much larger burden for them to come to Wudang Shan and burn incense in the temples.
-- Pang Huaguo
Wudang Shan is now a World Cultural Heritage Site. As such it represents ancient Chinese culture and its people likewise represent modern Chinese culture. We should work hard to raise our level of civilization (wenhua shuiping).
-- Yang Hua
We support the policies for the development of Wudang Shan but now that we've been mistreated and forgotten such development means nothing. It's not a balanced development and is certainly not fair. If they were fair to us, then I'd be in full support of their policies.
-- Li Rui

When discussing the recent history of the Wudang Shan Scenic Area (Wudang Shan Fengjingqu) in northwestern Hubei Province the term `development' appears again and again, as the continuing goal and promised panacea for the region's ills. Though the pervasive ideology of developmentalism has succeeded in many cases in permeating the world-view of people local to the area being developed, development as argued, more often reveals the inherent bias of the developer rather than serving as an expression of the perceptions of those being `developed'. Though harboring the promise for material improvements and a rise in the standard of living, the methods employed in development programs often possess a tone of superiority premised upon the assumption of cultural and material sophistication. Arturo Escobar notes:

To see development as a historically produced discourse entails an examination of why so many countries started to see themselves as under-developed… how `to develop' became a fundamental problem for them, and how, finally they embarked upon the task of `un-underdeveloping' themselves by subjecting their societies to increasingly systematic, detailed, and comprehensive interventions.1

Interventionist, top-down strategies for the development of regions like Wudang Shan seen as geographically remote (from armchairs in the West and Beijing) have produced contradictions between the goals of development, the preservation of traditional culture and the wants and needs of local peoples. Failing to fully construct a balanced compromise, several development policies in Wudang Shan have had simultaneously beneficial and detrimental effects. UNESCO has played an integral role in the preservation of these buildings, yet labeling as a UNESCO World Heritage Site has likewise been exploited for its marketing value by local tourism officials. Negative impacts of recent development plans upon the local populace and pilgrims include, among others, forced relocation programs, the propagation of a pejorative image of local peoples through 'civilizing projects' and exorbitantly high entrance fees. Many such policies have come into conflict with the UNESCO mandate that states “social policy activities must provide opportunities and empowerment for all”..2 It is these `contradictions' that have rendered many of Wudang Shan's present development policies inadequate in balancing the needs of all parties involved, especially those of the local people whose voices are more often than not drowned out by the marching drum of progression.

Development of a holy area entails a transformation both physical and spiritual, influencing not only the landmarks of a place, but likewise the memories of inhabitants and the feelings of sacredness perceived worshippers. What the commodification of Wudang Shan's religious sites, the rise of tourist infrastructure and the diminished access for pilgrims has done to its image in the eyes of worshippers is a topic well worth careful study, even if unconducive to any clear-cut conclusion. These greater changes expressed not so much by easily recordable facts but in peoples' impressions are underrepresented in the literature of Wudang Shan. In an attempt to ameliorate problems created by the paucity of information relating to local concerns, I have chosen to focus specifically on the words of locals - a representation of a cross-section of local society including officials, monks, workers and agriculturists.

In this essay, I will analyze a portion of two months of field-work and research at Wudang Shan and specifically - prevalent themes from interviews conducted there. I will first further expound on the reasoning behind the prioritization of first-hand interviews, the methods used in conducting them and the advantages and disadvantages in such a method (See A Note on Methodology). I then move on to contextualize Wudang Shan's significance in Daoist and Chinese history with a brief introduction of its history up until the commencement of preservation efforts as a World Heritage Site. After this, the primary section of this essay will be concerned with addressing particular issues where conflict has arisen between seemingly beneficial environment and cultural relic protection policies and the UNESCO social policy seeking the 'empowerment of all'. Issues in this section are arranged topically with fragments of policy guidelines from various UNESCO and local government sources juxtaposed with interview excerpts on the respective topic.

The present research, conducted with the help of a Luce Chinese Studies Grant, has as its focus twelve interviews located at the start of this website. These transcripts represent the most relevant and poignant interviews of the over forty interviews conducted over my two months at Wudang Shan. Though this essay aims to analyze several of the more prominent themes of these interviews, it is nonetheless of secondary importance to the transcripts themselves. It is not my ambition to exhaust this topic in all its complexity, but to simply contribute to the debate on methods of international development projects. At best I hope to sufficiently address the issues most important to the local community and provide a record for future generations of the polyphonous voices of the proud and hopeful, yet powerless and disenfranchised residents of Wudang Shan.

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