How Traditional Cultural Spirit becomes the Basis for Community Economy—Case Study of Zhanglang Village, Yunnan

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By Deng Guichan, Programme Coordinator (Guizhou and Yunnan), PCD; 
Shen Dingfang, Programme Officer, Yunnan Office, PCD.
A form of community economy: when a farmer needs to build a house, men from all the families in the village help with the construction. In return they are given a meal or receive help in turn in the future.

What is 'community economy'? Does it refer to an economic model that promotes beneficial flow of resources in the community? Or does it refer to an economic model oriented towards equal and shared benefits for various groups of people in a community as well as equal and shared benefits between human beings and all life species? A search on Baidu Knowledge Search Engine on Mainland China's Internet platform gives the following definition: "As an improved means to allocate resources, community economy transforms various unrelated economic elements into a common-interest community and creates a new mode of economic production that provides impetus to the economic development of a community or even of a more extensive region." This definition shows that some people believe community economy has three main foci:

  1. Essence: It is an 'improved' form of 'resource allocation'.
  2. Means: By building a common-interest community, a 'new' mode of economic production is developed.
  3. Objective: To foster the 'economic' development of a community and even of a more extensive region.

Poring over this definition, we remember our experience in a village of Bulang-nationality in Xishuangbanna, Yunnan when we discussed community economy with the villagers. For them, the so-called 'improved means of resource allocation' was nothing new. It was always there deep-rooted in their community which had always been a 'common-interest community', except that it did not only aim at material fulfillment but also at improvement in two traditional spiritual qualities—dan (a Bulang term which means sacrifice and charity) and songma (which means respect and apology).

Dan—are resources to be accumulated, consumed, or sacrificed?

The name of the village is Zhanglang. It contains over 380 families and has a population of more than 1,200. The villagers are Theravada Buddhists and followers of the native religion. Land per capita is 7 mu. While they are self-sufficient in food, villagers rely mainly on tea and sugar cane cultivation for an economic income. There are about 10,000 mu of well-conserved headwater forest, landscape forest and collective forest.

The spiritual faith of the community is an organic integration of two sets of values—Thervada Buddhism and the belief that all things have a spirit. Thervada Buddhism and the cultural practice of dan are closely related. Villagers believe that making sacrifices in this life and doing charitable deeds rids oneself of bad karma and brings happiness to one's future life. The belief that all things have a spirit is connected with songma. Zhanglang villagers believe that all things have a soul, just as human beings have a soul that affects their well being. Inappropriate human behaviour has an impact on all things which in turn influences the souls of human beings. Hence, inappropriate behaviour can affect one's health and may even lead to death. Human beings should therefore respect all things in nature and live in harmony with them, and a person who has done something wrong should always apologise. There are two types of communal institutions in the village: a religious institution and an institution for community management. The core person in the religious institution is azhang. He is the bridge between the community and the temples and presides over all important religious activities. Zhaoman and zhaojian, the two leaders of the villagers, head the institution for community management. Zhaoman oversees the clan's customary activities while zhaojian oversees the forest, land and also external liaison.

We remember that when PCD and our partner organisation launched the programme on 'community economy' in Zhanglang Village, we started by talking with the villagers about the spirit of mutual help in the community. This was an indirect way for us to learn about the system of resource allocation in the community. We talked with different villagers but they always responded by saying that boys of the village went to Buddhist temples* to learn to become monks or talked about the customs of elderly people praying together in major festivals. It seemed to us that they were always answering the wrong questions. After talking with the villagers again and again and having taken part in their activities, we realised that the villagers had been trying to tell us about their system of collective support. In the traditional culture of Zhanglang, a boy begins to prepare to become a monk when he is nine years old. He goes to a Buddhist temple to learn Buddhist rituals and to receive an education before he becomes a monk. A boy who decides to become a monk will undergo a ceremony organised by the villagers to celebrate his 'rise to priesthood'. He would then be admitted to a monastery or a temple to become a young monk and to learn the Dai language, Buddhist sutras and Buddhist precepts. He may gradually rise to a higher ranking monk. If not, he may continue to practice as a lower level monk or abandon the monastic life. To put it briefly, when a boy gets to the age of nine, he may choose to go to a Buddhist temple at whatever age he wishes. He may also choose how long he wants to remain in the temple and to abandon the monastic life when he wants.

The system of collective support relates to the community's support for boys who go to temples to learn to become monks. All their expenses are supported by the community. Every family brings food to the temple every day in a designated time and provides monks' robes to the temple during festivals. Things given to the temple are pooled together and then distributed to the monks: the clothing and food offered by one family might be given to the boy of another family. When a monk abandons the monastic life, he may still join other Buddhist followers and give support to any practicing monk.

In this system, every family that has a boy, no matter how long the boy stays in a temple, will sooner or later have an opportunity to be supported by the community. By the same token, every family gives support to monks, boys of other families, in the temples. Families that do not have boys receive support in another form. During major festivals, azhang organises the elderly people who gather in the temple to recite Buddhist sutras. Young family members go to the temple to offer them. In such a system of collective support, in which every family takes part, a common interest community takes shape. In this community, the allocation of resources does not distinguish one person from another. The many benefits that they see are not economic but the contribution of every family to, and participation of young and old alike in, the learning and practice of Buddhist teaching.

Songma—all things have spirits; the more resources one consumes, the more regret one feels!

The spirit of songma is embodied in the village mechanisms to protect the forest. The landscape forest surrounding Zhanglang includes the headwater forest, the long forest, old tea tree gardens, relics of folklore and Buddhist sites. Villagers have always shown respect to the landscape forest and protected it. They believe that human beings should live in the village while spirits live in the surrounding forest. As long as people don't disturb the spirits, they live in harmony with each other, but if villagers fell trees in the forest, destroy or occupy the homes of the spirits, the latter will be driven to live in the village with human beings, bringing sickness and disaster to the community.

People living in the mountains nevertheless have to use some forest resources, such as timber and various wild plants and animals, and to prevent this foraging behaviour from undermining the harmonious relationship between human beings and spirits, every year zhaojian organises a songma ceremony for the whole village. Villagers kneel and give thanks to the elderly people and to all things. They also offer apologies to the spirits in the forest and wish them well. Villagers also apologise to each other for any past disputes or conflicts.

A landscape forest is usually planned before a village is built. However, as time passes, the forest may be expanded for one reason or another. In Zhanglang, a special ritual was conducted when the landscape forest surrounding the village was planned. There is a place the villagers call "ghost street". If they go logging in this area, according to the villagers, there will be a fire in the village. This has apparently happened twice. Consequently the villagers decided to designate this area as part of the landscape forest. A special ritual was conducted by zhaojian with the participation of all villagers.

Zhaojian oversees the management of the landscape forest, assisted by the Middle-Aged Villagers Group. Once a place is designated as part of the landscape forest, villagers abide by the rules of their own accord. There is now a heated discussion in Mainland China and in the international arena on privatising forest resources or allocating forest rights to households as a means of strengthening forest conservation. In Zhanglang, when a landscape forest is mapped out, villagers make no distinction between what is one's own and what belongs to others. This is because they believe that human beings and all things have souls and they make up a common interest community. While consumption of resources has become synonymous with economic development in the wider world, Zhanglang villagers are ashamed of their everyday consumption of resources. They feel that they have to express a degree of regret equivalent to the quantity of resources they consume.

Can the spirit of dan and songma be inherited and passed on?

In Zhanglang, the traditions on the training of boys, the use of forest resources and the cultivation of rice (dry paddy is the staple food of Zhanglang) show that the village is a common interest community. Every stage of the cultivation of dry paddy—selection and division of land, land clearing and burning, sowing, field management and harvesting is carried out in an orderly and cooperative manner. It is preceded by rituals conducted on a propitious day towards the right direction by zhaojian and the elderly people. Young people help the elderly people, widows and orphans in every stage of growing rice.

Nineteen years ago water paddy was introduced to Zhanglang to increase rice production. Villagers cleared the land close to the water source for the cultivation of wet paddy. Since few places were suitable, those villagers who had more labour resources and those who were in power gained an advantage. Information and knowledge concerning wet cultivation came not from traditional communal institutions, but from the government office promoting agricultural technology, and merchants. In the process of 'modernising' agricultural production, hybrid rice and other economic crops have been introduced to the village one after another. Chemical fertiliser and pesticides are now used to increase productivity. Farming has become a form of one-to-one combat with the land and climate, with pesticides and chemical fertiliser, with agricultural technology personnel and with customers. Even though the traditional culture of the community still has an important role, it is no longer a holistic system. We once asked the villagers what cultural elements there were in agriculture. Without hesitation, young villagers answered "Agriculture is about farming. It is not a cultural activity. It is only an economic activity." In the past, collective labour and every step in farming were accompanied by collective sacrificial activities. Now these traditions are far-off memories, the colour of which is fading. As villagers pursue cash income independently from one another, the age-old common interest community is gradually fading away.

We have been exploring the role of traditional culture with the local community in Zhanglang for a number of years. To foster the rebuilding of the community economy, a programme has been launched: to learn about the culture of the community (to explore and affirm the religious beliefs of the community and the roles of related communal institutions); to foster community cultural heritage (to strengthen the building of communal beliefs and communal institutions/mechanisms); to actualise the community spirit and beliefs in the allocation of community resources. The programme is now in its initial stage. In the coming months we will explore in depth ways to rebuild the community cultural system and related economic activities.

The definition of 'community economy' in Baidu emphasises the creation of a common-interest community to bring about a 'new' mode of economic production. This kind of 'improvements' to resource allocation does not need to be introduced from abroad, nor does it have to be rebuilt. We would have a completely different understanding of the current economic model if we could learn from traditional values and ideas and recall the traditional virtues that our ancestors held so dear.

* Translator's note: The Buddhist temples in Yunnan are called "Burmese temples" by the local people because Theravada Buddhism reached Yunnan via Burma (now known as Myanmar).

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A village scene in Zhanglan Village.
Self-sufficient economy: farmers growing and eating an old variety of melon.
Self-sufficient economy: farmers weave baskets from bamboos they have grown themselves. The baskets are either for oneself or given to other villagers.
A form of community economy: when a farmer needs to build a house, men from all the families in the village help with the construction. In return they are given a meal or receive help in turn in the future.
A form of community economy: Young people offered to build a kiosk on the mountain for villagers who need to take a rest there. Without having to employ and pay labourers from outside the village, the youngsters contributed to the outcome of a self-help economy.
The economic activities of farmers who are earning cash incomes: farmers work in the garden of the old tea tree which is collectively protected. The harvest is sold to people outside the village in exchange for cash income.