Donald Sutton discusses the interplay of ritual and identity at Huanglong, a religious site in China

Tue, April 22, 2008

Focusing on the Huanglong Scenic and Historic Interest Area in northern Sichuan province, Sutton first discussed the various rituals and myths associated with this space by the different groups that used it. The area was initially a sacred site worshipped exclusively by Tibetans, then shared as a religious site by Tibetans and Han Chinese, and finally also visited in recent decades by tourists from eastern China. Sutton also highlighted the affects of co-utilization by these various groups and the role of the state in shaping the use of Huanglong.

Although the Tibetans and Han Chinese co-used Huanglong for several centuries, the only real similarity between these two groups was the timing of their respective religious festivals, as they both fell on the same two to three days each year. The focus of sanctity, rituals, and myths surrounding Huanglong differed between the two groups. For example, Tibetans worshipped the mountain itself, implemented a ritual of walking around the mountain counter-clockwise, and believed that the mountain was created and sanctified by the lama. The Han Chinese, in contrast, saw the mountain as a yellow dragon, which was the object of their worship and the center of many myths. Their rituals included ascending Huanglong via the east side and descending on the west side. Although co-utilization by these two groups occurred on the same days but varied in almost all other aspects, the rituals of each group did not interfere with the others'. It even was said that no conflicts existed between the two groups as belief in Huanglong's sanctity enabled all people to peacefully share this sacred site.

Sutton concluded with a discussion of how the state has affected the use of Huanglong. Control of China by the Chinese Communist Party changed the use of the site by both Tibetans and Han Chinese, as all religious expression was forbidden. Accompanying other domestic reforms in the 1980s, the state began to promote Huanglong as a historical tourist site, which now attracts 15,000 tourists each day during peak season. Although the state has restored temples and the practice of certain rituals, both restorations and activities are not fully accurate as the state's intent is largely to attract modern-day Han Chinese tourists. Although not coming to Huanglong to worship, as the Tibetans and Han Chinese once did, modern-day tourists nevertheless bring their own form of rituals. In addition to rituals of photographic approaches and souvenir purchases, they also attempt to engage in the "real" rituals of worshippers (e.g. incense-burning). Furthermore, just as the traditional rituals of Tibetans and Han Chinese affirmed each group's unique identity, a visit to Huanglong also can serve to establish further the tourists' ethnic and socio-economic identities. For the tourists, visiting the site confirms their status as the dominant ethnic majority within the country as well as members of a class deemed by Sutton as more "progressive."

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