Updated 11 months 2 weeks ago


Microcampus is a trip that takes 16 8th grade students from SAS to a town in Yunnan named Xizhou for 28 days to investigate a project of our own choosing by connecting with the local community. I chose to investigate the local history and how the larger picture of Chinese history impacted that because I was interested in learning about the more specific impacts of nationwide events and such as how movements like the Cultural Revolution impacts the lives of people even till this day. My direction used to be simple: To investigate such changes through asking the childhood stories of the local residents instead of asking specific time periods such as the Cultural Revolution because that will make it easier for me to acquire information. However, as the research began, the conversations and the stories collected became much more diverse. In the dozen of conversations I had with local residents, I have collected stories of Erhai, of the history of mosques and temples, and the personal histories of the men and women who range from merchants to priests. Everything seemed to be losing control in the process, yet as I organized the stories at the end of Phase 3, I began to see general patterns that fit together into the puzzle I first started off with. Except now, concepts became complex and the scale of the puzzle enlarged to a size I did not previously imagine. In the end, threads began to show and I have come up with a thesis statement to centralize my project: to explain the impact of Chinese history on Xizhou’s local history, one must examine the changes in economy, environment, and culture. 


Sharing my learning

On China’s Influence on Xizhou’s Economy, Environment and Culture

   The Bai people is the 15th largest ethnic minority in China with 80% populated in the Yunnan province [1]. Since the beginning of Yunnan’s history, it had been located near dams, increasing the convenience of the transportation of goods and services, meaning not only a better managed individual community, but one that also absorbed the cultures of many other nearby groups and ethnicities. Like Zhao Ji Zhou wrote in his study about the Bai minority culture [2], one of the main characteristics that make the Bai minority successful, was, and is its inclusivity. From the Neo-Stone Age to the Bronze Age, the Bai minority had always been active along the Erhai area and had close relationships with nearby tribes and villages. Later during the late Song and Ming dynasties, many people of the Han ethnic group also migrated Yunnan (some even as refugees during wartime) and made a variety of cultures blend into the area. However, this movement eventually led to a dampened Bai culture, with language partly lost and incomplete of its written form, traditions and clothing forgotten and switched for what others wore. This effect was continued till this day, with buildings turning into concrete and cultures lost in the rubbles of time. This was the case for most parts of Yunnan, except for one place that still preserved much of the Bai minority’s culture—Dali.

    Dali was known to be one of the original locations where Bai culture began. Unlike the rest of Yunnan, Dali’s connection with the outside world came much later due to its past as the Dali Kingdom, separated from the rest of China. The empire managed to stand for the decades it did, was largely due to its geological advantages of having many natural resources and being a mountainous region that made it difficult for the enemies to attack. However, in 1253, after months and months of effort, the Yuan army finally managed to conquer the land. Despite so, the people did not lose their root of culture, for it was rooted so deep in everything from the architecture to the people’s way of thinking. One of the places that best preserved the culture in Dali, was a town up North, named Xizhou[3].

    Though being relatively small in size amongst other towns, Xizhou’s rich geographical resources, history, culture, and skillful merchants, led to it become a land with a thriving economy, various cultures, and the home of many talents. Currently, Xizhou consisting of 13 small villages and a combined population estimated at 65,000 [4] . In recent years Xizhou received many awards for its preservation of historical architecture and culture, making it one of the top tourism towns in China; however, with the fast-growing tourism industry and drastic governmental changes during the mid 20th century, like all other places in China, it had been greatly affected and changed, and to see examine how Chinese history impacted Xizhou’s history, one must to evaluate Xizhou’s historical changes in economy, environment, and culture.



     During the Warring States period, 300 years before the silk road, China’s first international trade route was born, named the Shu Shen Du Path  (蜀身毒道). It runs through Chengdu and Kunming, Dali, Bao Shan, Teng Chong, Maine, India, then to Afghanistan and eventually nations of the Mediterranean region[5]. As a result of this route in addition to Xizhou’s large amount of natural resources, later in the Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, Xizhou’s economy was in constant improvement. With the passing of time, the merchants also became more and more skillful, which eventually led to the formation of the Xizhou Merchant League (喜州商帮) during the Qing dynasty. The Merchant League, like others in China, centers its system around utilizing geographical advantages and bonding through family/social relations. This system of bonding decreases the possibility of vicious internal competition and encourages their goal of mutual support, not only amongst the merchants themselves, but also with the local community.

     By the time the Republic of China was formed (民国时期—1912-1949), the league separated into four main families: Yan, Yang, Dong, and Yin. The league grew to become one that consists of 740 capitalist families, 100 of which traded outside Xizhou as a result of the Shu Shen Du Path and the Opium wars which opened British trading routes. The trading continued for many decades and most of the accumulated wealth was donated to Xizhou's local development; locations such as hospitals and mines and schools were built, boosting the local economy. Furthermore, a number of Bai style buildings were built, helping to preserve much of the local culture even till this day[5]. However, during the 1950s, the league was destroyed by Chinese political movements such as the Great Leap Forward which banned the right to own individual property. Later on, during the Cultural Revolution, many of the families in the League were also killed for being landowners. The majority of their houses, collections, wealth, history, family, were obliterated under the blood smeared fists of the mindless, red-scarfed youths.

     Merchants with connections and sufficient cash traveled overseas to Western countries or to more prosperous cities in China such as Shanghai or Beijing, and did not return, leaving the new age of unexperienced merchants in Xizhou run small shops and stalls, without many chains or family businesses except for the ones funded by travel agencies. However, even with tourism development, Xizhou’s economy still continued on a downhill road due to the lack of proper governmental and local business owners’ management. Furthermore, much of the culture and scenery that had been the main attractions are now either forgotten or broken or polluted, in a world, with a government, that madly seeks development and GDP instead of long term planning. Though the times of the Great Leap Forward has passed, the lack of development still makes the government anxious and push local governments to accelerate production plans. On the other hand, with the increase in population and demands, the supply end is also pushed to meet such demands in face of all costs, and like numerous cases in history, the sacrifice came from the environment. Fields wasted due to the toxic Industrial methods, and lake Erhai polluted due to mass produced waste, leaving citizens of Xizhou in this modern economic age to face a crucial dilemma, between the nature they loved so dear, and the occupations that keep them from starving. The answer was clear.



    “Erhai had its glory days of being a blue lake with glowing yellow sand and rows of willow and fields of green grass with marshlands that extends beyond and beyond…

    “There used to be fish of different colors and different sizes and different species and we used to eat one kind per month and there seemed to be always just more and more to come…” [6]

    “All this land, all the Si Fang Jie and wet market and buildings and hotels, used to all just be fields, of dotted green sprouts and sun-colored hay. People used to just get the water from the gutter           because it flowed in straight from the mountains…

    “But what are we now?” [7]

    Through the villages and bald trees, one can see a mud land with no border to end its mixing with the shallow yet dark water. Patches of brown sprouts that will never grow swayed gently above water where the birds would gently sweep by and fly away. The dead trees stood in twisted positions, some underwater, but those no one can see, for no one swims there anymore. Perhaps the crazy or the fool, but such are the people that no one knows.
    As the people of Xizhou spoke of such pasts, they always had eyes filled with a blue nostalgia and concealed red wrath that fills their words with passion and sweat and blood and tears cried for their playground that’s now forever gone. Such descriptions and stories, almost sounded like the story of Paradise Lost, yet who took the fruit, in this new age without an Adam or an Eve?

    The problem began during the Great Leap Forward when the leaders at the time made a goal to overcome the British economy within 15 years and began enforcing impossible rules on the people for national development. The farmers lacked the technology for such advancements, so fields were destroyed with overly enforced primitive methods. Not only this, to acquire firewood, acres and acres of trees were logged, rivers were deformed and polluted. It was also at that time, around the origin of Erhai, that several electric plants were built. The plants segregated Erhai from the rest of the ocean, meaning the pollution which originated with the industrialization during the 1950’s[8], stays within the river. As time passed, the pollution cycle continued, and eventually downgraded to the Class 4, industrial-use water it is now. The colors changed, and the people noticed, some even protested, yet the local government simply put up propaganda around town and did no more. On the other hand. due to the provincial and national government’s bureaucratic processes and refusal to admit past mistakes, the solution was postponed time and time again. It was only three years ago, in January 2016, after Xi Jing Ping’s disappointed reaction when he visited Erhai, that the Dali government decided to change the state of things. Yet the water became too grey to return to its old-time’s shade of blue, and the businesses and farms have also become too toxic in the way its run to recover once more. The change now requires to be on a grander scale.

    The Dali government issued a plan to have all buildings within 200 meters to be shut down, and all hotels, restaurants, farmlands, to be immediately stopped. Business owners estimate Dali will lose 5 billion RMB from its economy over the next two years due to a drastic decrease in tourism and companies [6] , meaning thousands of jobs, homes taken, in trade with the few thousand RMB the government provides as compensation, which the people rebelled at its insufficiency, and the government once more, replied with silence. The system had become so more efficiency driven that the humanitarian and environmental aspects became heavily overlooked.

     Times have changed and the people with it; the fishermen became factory workers, and oxen replaced by machines. Now, the people who work at such places, built these hotels, are simply people on their own paths of survival, it was not their fault that they wanted a salary to feed their family, to buy a new pair of pants, a new T-shirt for summer time. Yet such people are now manipulated and framed as the offenders of this pollution instead of the victims, when in fact, the corporations, the governmental officials, are the ones who picked this forbidden fruit, and made the rest of struggling men and women pay for this so-called ‘original sin’.

     As seen with the shift in power example of the Xizhou Merchant League, as the Communist movement proceeds, the government started taking more and more power. Yet what the people see now and do not say, is a loss of control over such powers. The old way of local organizations such as the Xizhou Merchant League had strong efficiency and moral basis for its actions due to the league's centralized control area and strong community bond. However, the governmental focus is impossible to be always focused on the people. It’s about foreign competition and international issues and metropolis production and trade. The money gets allocated elsewhere despite what their original purposes might be, leaving the people and the government to resolve an issue no one has the economic power or energy to care for.

     Another reason for the lack of solution is that the majority of Xizhou’s population is elderly, meaning they went through a time of starvation and bounded feet, of hatred and slaughter spree. In comparison, it’s not hard to say that the current time is a good time, a better time at least. Some don’t seek for more, and others sought for a better life like any parent at any time—for their children. Yet regardless of where one stands, all plans in the people’s eyes remain blurry, for the image of China projected on screens, certainly shows to be one in constant improvement. Although this certainly decreases the number of social uprisings and international criticisms, the eyes that hide in darkness continues to shed their silent tears. Many continue to suffer in ways that they deem as normal. As seen in the case of the Erhai protection policy, businesses were taken, families broken, yet the people follow a world that no longer seems mad, for there seems no longer is a source of such problems. Everything turned into fate, not mistakes. Or perhaps the mistakes look so impossible to fix, that it was mistaken as fate. Perhaps that’s just what the people felt, when they saw the new color of the Erhai Lake. That same old, distant solitude.



     During the Qing dynasty, a mosque was built in Xizhou by the Ma (马)family. In 1872, Yunnan people rebelled under Du Wen Xiu's (杜文秀)rule due to the Muslim oppression and was brutally massacred. Members of the Ma family who survived escaped to nearby lands such as Mongolia, and after peace was restored, many returned in 1876, yet saw the mosque turned into a  temple for the God of Wealth (财神). The elders immediately filed a request to the government to ask for the mosque back. The government soon agreed, and cleared the area, providing 10 acres for the rebuild. However, due to the lack of funding, they started with a small-scale mosque until funding was enough in 1922. Yet during the Cultural Revolution, as part of the movement to destroy the Four Olds, the mosque was mostly burnt, along with most of its scriptures and literary scripts. It was many decades later with governmental support for the protection of cultural heritage that the mosque was finally restored [7].

     Similar stories happened with the other temples in Xizhou such as Da Ci Si and Jiu Tan Shen, except their rebuilding was much less complete due to the government’s inability to fund all of the Buddhist temples. Currently, like most other temples, the people would put up a chart of donations, but most of the donations stopped in recent years due to the decrease in the number of people that comes each year. Most people are elderlies above sixty and though they do donate, such amounts certainly aren’t enough for the entire construction. Now the temples are left with cracks in the walls and moss on the stones and dusty statues and melting candles. The peacefulness and the incense that veiled over it all seemed to have blinded the people of the issue that has left unresolved, of a town on its path of losing its culture, the people losing their place of prayer.

     As early as the Neo-Stone age 4000 years ago, Bai ancestors have begun living near Erhai, and as time passes, they have achieved high achievements on multiple aspects such as architecture, art, and sculpture. Such cultural aspects had become the fuel for the tourism industry for the past decade. Since 2012, Xizhou received multiple awards for being one of the best culturally preserved towns in China. Till this day, one can still see much of the red colored propaganda from the Cultural Revolution painted on walls, quota charts from the Great Leap Forward hidden in alleyways and traditional Bai architecture on the sides of the many streets made of light grey cobblestone squares.     

    However, what many do not realize, is that, like the temples and mosques, much of that historical and cultural potential had yet been destroyed, or in some cases, ruined. As Mr. He, a local expert on Xizhou history, teaching at the Hua Zhong Xizhou high-school, said, “With the unskilled labor and the public’s lack of historical knowledge, much of the reconstruction of Xizhou architecture and culture became simply ‘rebuilding’ instead of ‘recreating’. Old styles had been switched for the new concrete blocks that keep flooding in.” In 2014, Mr. He has proposed an idea to the Dali government about rebuilding Xizhou based on the parts of its culture that had yet been discovered. Many houses were once that of very famous scholars, yet sometimes forgotten or unpreserved due to them being punished for being rightists during the Cultural Revolution. He also discovered that many historical artifacts were found near lake Erhai during the Great Leap Forward yet never well preserved. Such cultural locations being part of the tourist attractions, and with proper organization, not only the culture will be preserved, but the economy will also improve. However, just a few weeks later, the idea was immediately rejected because the government found it overly risky and was worried that the money will not receive an equal amount of return.

     Currently, despite Rao San Ling and the Three Course Tea amongst other traditions being placed on the list of Chinese Cultural Heritages in 2005[8] , many other artifacts and cultures such as the Bai Da Ben songs, are beginning to disappear. Two reasons contribute to this gap in continuity. Firstly, with the increase in tourism, many store owners chose to start selling more popular products such as Xizhou Baba and Tie-Dye for the sake of their family’s survival. Secondly, with the modern value shifting from “preservation” to “progression”, the idea of “family business” had been mostly abandoned, in replacement for more freedom of occupational choice, and with schools teaching science and literature, it is hard to imagine why a student would choose to become a tie-dye maker.

     However, the current situation of cultural loss is simply the surface issue. The deeper, long-term issue, can lead to the collapse in societal relations. As Yuval Harari wrote in his book Sapiens, “Large numbers of strangers can cooperate successfully by believing in common myths. Any large-scale human cooperation…is rooted in common myths that exist only in people’s collective imagination.” One of the main reasons for the Xizhou merchant league’s success was the fact that they relied on the connections between the Bai community, bonded by the Bai culture. Such constructs of belief provide an identity to a group of strangers, the same with religions, or even governments, because the existence of a nation is based on the mass believing there is such a thing, such as Chinese people recognizing them as part of China. As mammals, social animals, humans needs to recognize themselves as parts of a group in order to function as a group. Of course, Chinese people will undoubtedly continue to recognize themselves as Chinese, but without inner structures such as race and religion within that larger dome, the idea of a collective, national entity, weakens. Aside from the current status of Xizhou, another example of this weakening process would be the Cultural Revolution, and the government’s orders to destroy the Four Olds. Mosques and temples were torn down, books and houses burnt. As written on the walls of the Ma family mosque in Xizhou, “We must hang tight on Allah’s rope and not tear us apart in that process.” Yet who extended that rope after the ‘demystification’ movements such as the Cultural Revolution? The government, the mortals did. Yet unlike deities, they do not solely exist within people’s belief, they make mistakes, they start revolutions, they die, and so such “cults” eventually die, leaving a nation with the final and desperate realization of the falsehood of their beliefs. Yet on the barren lands that they have created, there were no longer temples to crawl to, and so the people just keep on struggling, waiting for something they could no longer name.

     The inter-dependability within communities becomes increasingly more important in a fast-moving world, yet as globalization and demands for tourism and survival rises, it becomes much harder to do so. Xizhou is one of the 22 towns in Yunnan with increasingly more development on multiple aspects of its society, however, the contradiction that now presents Xizhou is one between economy building, and cultural building. How can Xizhou maintain its balance between supply and demand, locality and globality, conservative and progressive, environmental protection and economic advancement? Such are problems that needs to be addressed by the government immediately, before the people of Xizhou tears themselves apart in the process of grabbing onto this hovering rope.



    Mr. Mao is an antique store owner, once owned a house at Er Yuan (洱源), at the origin of Er Hai, but it was locked up in recent years due to the Erhai protection policy, and now lives in the second floor of his antique store with his daughter whose husband works in another city and takes care of their child. The antique business became much less profitable than previous years due to the decrease in tourism, also largely because of the Erhai protection policy. He recalled a time when his life was also connected to Erhai in every single way like these recent years. As a child, Mr. Mao and his friends would run out onto the sand in their oversized underwear and catch a handful of fish without any tools to help. The glimmering silver of tides remained in his eyes, yet perhaps the shine is now the reflection of his tears under the dawn sun, but nobody knows, and nobody asks. Perhaps because in the eyes of the tourists and passerby, he was just like the rest of his antiques, collecting dust, growing old.

    In the ancient streets of Xizhou, behind the clanging of mallets on silver rods, the mahjong tables set below neon red tents, the scent of old town snacks veiling in air, are stories like this, hidden under molded counters or in the desolate shadows. Yet I suppose this kind of atmosphere is not that of anger, but that of desperation and acceptance. From my research, I found that all of the older generations in Xizhou, shares somewhat similar stories of governmental worship during the Cultural Revolution, production frenzy of the Great Leap Forward, and being in a family of four siblings. This possibly created the illusion, that there is no point in telling such tales, for everyone already knows, and they are all mostly similar. Yet it is such slight differences between stories that build up a grander picture of history, and the current state of silent acceptance prohibits exactly that. This can eventually result in lost generations of culture and history, leaving the people with misunderstandings and ignorance of how and why the world around them has become what it is now. This presents another reason why Mr. He’s plan of building Xizhou based on its culture will not work. The society lacks truth and reconciliation with one another. With such a compartmentalized governmental system, the only way people can figure out the true state of things and make changes is by sharing what they have done and what they have seen. Yet within a society that is increasingly more disconnected, how can the promotion of communication be achieved? Nobody knows.

     Currently, Xizhou has a polluted lake, a worsening economy, and a culture hovering between discovery and forever silence. The fact that the paths taken by the government in the past affected Xizhou, is one that will never change, but the question that now arises, is what can be done to mend such changes. Erhai is on its path of change, for there is much less political reasons involved not to do so, yet the broken culture requires more of the past to be discovered, more wounds to be opened, to mend it, a risk the government most likely will not take. Perhaps this ‘safer’, conservative approach of silence will continue, yet that way, the history of Xizhou will most likely remain fragmented and broken. As a student, I am in no position to criticize or provide any solutions to such issues, however, the fact of the bitter matter remains, that the lack of interaction with history means its undouble fate, of lying within the crevices of the moss-covered bricks, growing old, like worthless antiques.



Work Cited



[1] http://www.china.org.cn/english/features/EthnicGroups/136895.htm. Accessed 28th Mar. 2019

[2] Zhou, Zhao Ji. Zhong Guo Bai Zu Xue Lun Cong. Yun Nan Min Zu Chu Ban She, 2014. Accessed 28th Mar. 2019

[3] http://www.dali.gov.cn/dlzwz/5118905030266585088/20120327/260898.html

[4] http://ynszxc.gov.cn/szxc_dj/NewsList_c.aspx?ClassID=27204&DepartmentID=1232. Accessed 28th Mar. 2019



[5] Docin.com. “Study of the Bai Ethnic Minority in Xizhou, Dali.” By Dr. Ling Luo Rong, www.docin.com/p-1467182719.html.



[6] Mr. Zhao. Personal interview conducted by Jacob. R. 13th Mar. 2019

[7] Mr. Mao. Personal interview conducted by Jacob. R. 14th Mar. 2019

[8] “Caught in a Dilemma: How Can Sustainable Agriculture Save Erhai Lake and Address Poverty?” Paulson Institute, 31 Jan. 2018, www.paulsoninstitute.org/paulson-blog/2017/09/18/caught-in-dilemma/.



[9] Mr. H. Personal Interview conducted by Jacob. R. 18th Mar. 2019

[10] https://wenku.baidu.com/view/684af3577f21af45b307e87101f69e314332fa1c.html Accessed 29th Mar. 2019




The inquiry project made me connect with people in a way that changed my perspective on how to view history. Regardless of what the people's jobs were, by understanding and connecting with who they really are, I began seeing a more human side of history. Facts will always stay black and white, yet when considering the motives and reasons for an action, one will see the human side, and the muddled morality in every so-called 'villain'.

I chose local history to be my topic, and did not change, however, I realized that many of the questions are ultimately useless, because they are ultimately not inclusive enough to acquire a person or place's full story. The conversations have to come natural, questions have to change, or else all facts will circle around my presumed idea of how the talk should go instead of being what it needs to be for me to get a fuller story. 

The most difficult part of my research is organizing the information into a final product, because most of my information was scattered and I needed to take a lot of time to make sense of them. 

I think a major "a-ha" moment was the fact that I realized even though the government spent so much time trying to unite the people, the ultimate result just goes down to increased individualism and independence. People become less reliant on each other becomes they know everyone suffers the same. People talk less because they know everybody shares similar stories. Though sometimes, hardships can bond people like soldiers in a platoon, in a time when everybody's too afraid to speak, hardship just becomes a deafening silence, too heavy to escape from. 

This project helped me to understand my topic better because I got a chance to understand different parts of a society and how each part gets affected differently in a time of national change. 

Through looking in the perspective of larger picture impacting the smaller picture, I understood a lot of my parents' or grandparents' stories and how that impacted who I am. Revolutions and movements took people to different places, changed people in irreversible ways, and by understanding such pasts, I realized why they make certain choices, act certain ways, and how such characteristics also changed me. 

I learned that sometimes the truly important parts of oral history, is not what the people said, but what they left out, and why they left such parts out. For example, when someone leaves out a chunk of information during the Cultural Revolution and talks happily about everything else, it does not mean that the person is just mostly a jolly person, but that the positivity is the result of them dealing with the negativity in their lives. By understanding such hidden meanings, one can get more from an interview than just what was told. 

I would read more essays from Chinese scholars about the Xizhou area because I found a lot of that when I got to Xizhou and I wish I had more time doing that back in Shanghai so that I can add it to the background information section. 

I would like to thank my parents, Mr. Tafel, Ms. Mai, Mr and Mrs. Linden, the teacher supports, other students, and the Xizhou community, for making this experience possible and so well organized. It is a large responsibility to take care of 16 students on a one month trip, and though it was slightly rough at times, we pulled through and the experience was more wonderful than I could have ever imagined. 

It had been very rewarding researching the local history of Xizhou, connecting with local residents, and working with the teachers and students. I have learned important lessons about academic research, teamwork, and community. Such lessons will be with me for a long time after a return to Shanghai, and the overall experience has certainly made me improve on many personal aspects. Truly a once in a lifetime experience. 




I'm fourteen years old and was born in America, Minnesota. However, my family moved to Shanghai when I was 1 year old, after that, I have lived in Tianjin for a while, then moved back to Shanghai. The days at Xizhou had been very memorable and taught me a lot, I will certainly return to visit at times in the near future.