The commodification of Tibetan dance: The experience of ‘Ecological Migrants’ in the Three-River Headwater region of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau : A thesis submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy at Lincoln University

Ye, Xiaozhen
Fields of Research
Cultural tourism is increasing in China, partly because of the government’s vigorous promotion of this tourism form, and the emergence of a prosperous middle class with time, money and the inclination to travel. In the Three-River Headwater Region of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau cultural tourism products have emerged strongly since 2000, when the Chinese government implemented an Ecological Resettlement Programme involving the relocation of over 55,000 mainly Tibetan people from their original residence – an area of high ecological value – to newly created villages. In this process of rural change and transition, cultural tourism has been viewed as an industry that can provide the region’s ‘ecological migrants’ with business and employment opportunities, particularly through their ethnic dances, which provide an attractive spectacle for the growing numbers of visiting tourists. This study explores the experiences of a group of ‘ecological migrants’ who are participating in dance performances to identify their perceptions of the impact of the commodification of their dance culture for touristic purposes, both on themselves and their community. Special attention has been given to the process of authenticating dance performance from the perspective of the ‘ecological migrants’. Given the exploratory nature of this study, qualitative social research methods and inductive analytical techniques have been applied. This qualitative study used a combination of in depth interviews (n=34) and field observations to interpret the cultural tourism/Tibetan dance phenomenon in the Three-River Headwater Region of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in China, an area known as the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. The study identified three groups of ‘ecological migrants’: village performers from ‘ecological migrant’ villages, profession dancers from two public dance troupes, and community leaders from villages and the dance troupes. The results indicate that the commodification of Tibetan dance in this setting is perceived to generate beneficial outcomes for locals, including employment opportunities and, by extension, a much-needed source of household income, although few had full-time work as dancers. Many rested their hopes on future opportunities in cultural tourism, and specifically dance, supported by local government. Secondly, many participants perceived that cultural tourism, by way of dance performance, was helping to galvanise the community through social interaction and the active creation of new friendships, and a shared sense of identity and belonging. Thirdly, participants were aware that through the process of cultural commodification, a new ‘version’ of Yushu Tibetan dance performance has emerged that meets tourists’ expectations. While this was not viewed negatively, participants differed in their assessment of the authenticity of the dances. Drawing on the theories of “hot” and “cool” authentication (Cohen & Cohen, 2012a), a model of dance commodification has been proposed on the basis of the study’s key findings, with the intention to depict the empirical relationship between two theoretical constructs: authentication and (dis)empowerment. The process of authenticating dance performance is presented in the model from the perspective of the three groups of ‘ecological migrants’. The findings reveal that under the strong political domination (i.e., political disempowerment) in the study region, the authenticity of the ‘ecological migrant’ perfomers’ experience of cultural commodification can be expressed in how they are involved with the dance performance psychologically, socially and economically. Commodification as a process-based concept offers a useful approach to examining the interrelation of authentication and (dis)empowerment, as well as the interaction between “hot” and “cool” authentication within a unique political context. With the identification of the empirical relationship between (dis)empowerment and authentication, this study enables a better understanding of the dynamics of various community groups’ support for tourism, and how various interpretations of authenticity reflect perfomers’ differing levels of empowerment and disempowerment. In short, this study has added to a growing body of literature on cultural commodification, authentication and (dis)empowerment. It contributes new knowledge on dance commodification, and its impact on the ‘ecological migrant’ perfomers in the Three-River Headwater Region of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau.
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