Yunnan is one of China’s three poorest provinces with millions of people living below the poverty line. Most of these people belong to the ethnic minority groups that are concentrated in remote villages, where even the basic amenities of life are restricted. In spite of China’s unprecedented economic development over the last few years, the fruits of its economic progress are largely concentrated in major cities on its East Coast and the limited economic progress that Yunnan has so far experienced is benefiting only a select few.
Yunnan is culturally and ecologically diverse; however the causes behind this diversity have also led to limited development. This is mainly due to the isolation of local cultures and ecosystems within its river valleys in Yunnan. In fact, many of Asia's great rivers, from the Yangzi to the Mekong to the Pearl, flow through Yunnan, carving fertile but isolated river valleys on the mountainous terrain. This geography has helped preserve the varied cultures of Yunnan's 25 ethnic minorities and this diversity is in fact the main reason why Lonely Planet contends: “If you have time for but one province in China, Yunnan should be it."
Unfortunately a negative consequence of this isolation is the province’s impeded industrial development, compared to other coastal regions of China. The economic boom that has positively affected the rest of China is still elusive to many of the minority groups in Yunnan. Poverty is pervasive in this province, especially in both its countryside and amongst the communities of migrant workers in the capital city of Kunming. The lack of economic opportunity has left many children in a position where they do not have any access to decent education necessary to escape their poverty trap.
These factors have led to a great need for non-profit organizations and subsequently voluntary work. Fortunately, the non-profit and voluntary sector in Yunnan flourished ever since the events of the 1990s paved the way for the birth of many volunteer and non-profit organizations in the province. Yunnan was the only province in China where so many non-profit organizations came into existence in the early 1990s. It still has the most developed sector related to community service in the country and hence, is a treasure-trove of volunteer opportunities.
In the 1990s, Yunnan’s neighbors (esp Laos and Myanmar) were major producers of illicit drugs. As a result, intravenous drug use gained popularity among certain minority populations near the borders in Yunnan, leading to a serious AIDS epidemic in the 1990s. A large number of NGOs, including volunteer institutions, emerged in Yunnan during that time in order to combat the epidemic. There was a gradual but notable shift of governmental attitude towards the epidemic. The Chinese government initiated a lot of programs in order to tackle the situation and recognised the contribution of NGOs and volunteer institutions in fighting the epidemic. As a result, the government in Yunnan has been welcoming voluntary work and initiatives undertaken by NGOs ever since. If an individual plans to volunteer in China, he must take the advantage of volunteer opportunities that abound in Yunnan.
Today, Yunnan has the highest concentration of non-profit organizations and volunteer organizations in China, which turns it into a province full of volunteer opportunities. Beyond other health-related projects that are run by the NGOs, there has also been rapid development of voluntary work in poverty alleviation and education.
The People of Yunnan
What sets Yunnan apart from all other provinces in China is its diverse population. Yunnan alone is home to 25 ethnic minority groups. In the northwest of the province are Deqin and Shangri-La, home to a group of Tibetans called Khampas, who have kept their traditions alive through their story-telling chants, their circle dances in public squares and their brightly dyed yak wool coats and cowboy hats. Lijiang is the ancestral homeland of the Naxi people, who are famous for their animistic Dongba religion and the last living culture of traditional music in China, which have earned it the name, “living fossil”. Another example of the Naxi’s ancient culture is their pictograph script (also called Dongba) that is used for religious practices and is believed to have originated from both the Tibetan and Chinese written languages.
Between Lijiang and Kunming is Dali, home to the Bai people and their age-old traditions that are still inextricably associated with their lives. Most of the Bai are farmers due to the incredibly fertile valleys below the Cang Shan mountainous range. Unlike in most other societies, it is the Bai women, who do
the majority of physical labor, associated with planting and harvesting of crops. Although rice and potatoes are grown by many Bai, tea has been the focus of Bai agriculture for at least 1500 years. Bai fishermen train flocks of birds to fish from Lake Erhai, and after the fishes are caught, they are placed inside a cast-iron wok, alive and are smothered in a spicy local sauce. Once cooked, nothing can beat their freshness and blissful taste.
In the southern region of the province bordering Myanmar and Laos is the Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Region. The Thai people inhabiting Xishuangbanna grow rice and pineapples. They are primarily famous for raising the last population of elephants in China. They are also known for their annual Water Splashing Festival, characterized by dancing girls in brightly colored, traditional clothing. The ritual of water splashing, which is at the heart of the festival, cleanses participants of all their inner demons and wipes away all the sorrows and woes of their previous year. Kunming, in the center of the province, has a sizeable population of all the ethnic groups inhabiting Yunnan. However, it is predominantly populated by the Hans and they are what most of the Westerners think of as “Chinese”. The Hans constitute the vast majority of the population of China and are culturally and linguistically different from the minority ethnic groups in Yunnan. That is why Kunming is primarily a Mandarin speaking city – the southernmost in all of China and, therefore, the only Mandarin speaking city that is never under the spell of harsh winters that other northern cities have to endure.