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The Impact of Cultural Environment on the Participation of Eco-immigrant Communities in Ecotourism in the Three Rivers’ Source Area. A Case Study of Mani Stone Project in Kunlun Eco-immigrant Village (China)

L'impact de l'environnement culturel sur la participation des communautés éco-immigrés dans l'écotourisme de la zone de la Source des Trois-Rivières. Le cas du projet des pierres-Manis dans le village éco-immigrants de Kunlun (Chine)
Wen Deng et Xu Lan


Avec la participation de l'écotourisme, les communautés éco-immigrants de la zone de la Source des Trois-Rivières tentent à utiliser les ressources culturelles abondantes de la région tibétaine pour faire leur propre voie de développement. A titre d'exemple, les villageois de Kunlun éco-immigrant a tenté de développer le tourisme en produisant et en vendant les pierres-Mani (une pierre tibétaine gravée de formules bouddhistes sacrées). Cependant, cette pratique est interrogée par certains intellectuels tibétains, membres de la communauté, et des universitaires concernés. En outre, la complexité de la culture tibétaine a aussi des effets négatifs sur le projet. Par conséquent, le projet ne fonctionne pas correctement. Dans les termes de protection de la culture traditionnelle tibétaine, dans cet essai, phénomène mentionné ci-dessus sera analysé sous trois aspects: la théorie de l'acculturation, les stéréotypes et les influences de structures d'intérêt.

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Notes de l’auteur

The authors would to thank to the sponsorship of WINROCK Funds which give them a chance to study about this project since it got the approval, we have participated in the design and propaganda etc.

Texte intégral


1The Three Rivers’ Source Natural Reserve is in the hinterland of the Qinghai-Tibet plateau with an average altitude of more than 4000 meters. As the source of Yangtze River, Yellow River and Mekong River, the area is also a nature reserve with the highest degree of highland biodiversity in the world. Under the impacts of global climate change and intensifying human activities, the ecological environment in the Three Rivers’ Source area has been deteriorating gradually.

2The Chinese government has been implementing an ecological protection and construction project with 7.5 billion RMB to preserve and restore the ecological functions in this area since 2005 (Hu and al., 2009). The project includes several sub-projects such as returning grazing land to grassland, rodent and pest control, eco-immigration, etc. Among these, the eco-immigration is the most complicated (Xu, 2008), involving 55 773 persons of 10140 families in 70 townships in the Three Rivers’ Source area from grazing land to towns or cities (EPBQPC, 2005).

3At present, the resettlement of eco-immigrants has come to a conclusion. However, the question of how to enrich eco-immigrants and build the follow-up industry remains. The sustainable prosperity of the immigration area is not only an emerging problem but a benchmark of the project benefit (Hu and al., 2009).

Photo 1. Landscape of Three Rivers’ Source area, between cloud, meadows and pagoda

Photo 1. Landscape of Three Rivers’ Source area, between cloud, meadows and pagoda

1. Background of eco-immigration and Ecotourism in the Three Rivers’ Source Area

4The majority of the eco-immigrants in this project are Tibetan from pure grazing land. In the process of joining towns or cities, pastoralist have a hard time making their living because of their different social background. For the sake of protecting the special and fragile ecological conditions, industrial development models found elsewhere cannot be directly copied, meanwhile, the local follow-up industries were limited. However, there are abundant tourism resources in the Three Rivers’ Source area. Ecotourism, which aims to protect the environment and maintain local people's benefits, has drawn massive attention. As such, the local people expect that ecotourism will solve problems of employment and introduce a new way to promote development.

5With financial aid and encouragement from government, NGOs and enterprises, some eco-immigrant communities have attempted to participate in tourism fields, such as guesthouse, tourism handicraft production, etc. The Kunlun ethnic Cultural Village (hereafter referred to as eco-immigrant community), located in the southern suburb of Golmud city, is an eco-immigrant community which moved from Yege and Qumahe townships, Qumalai county, Yushu Tibetan Prefecture to Golmud in 2005 and 2006. There are over 1780 members of the community from 240 families. The eco-immigrant community carried out several projects on ecotourism, which include tourism reception, Thangka handicraft production, mountain tourism on Yuzhu Peak, and Mani Stone carving and sale. They have been expecting a stable financial return by doing so. However, in practice, most projects had to be given up halfway because of restricting factors such as available funds, technologies and markets and so forth. The Mani stone project survived to be the unique till now.

Photo 2. Mani Stones with Tibetan elements

Photo 2. Mani Stones with Tibetan elements

Source: Authors

6The Mani stone, a cultural symbol that can be found everywhere in the Three Rivers’ Source area, contains abundant Tibetan culture and nomadic culture, which is popular among the tourists and local Tibetans. Themes and styles of Mani stone carving are various. The Buddhist scriptures, animal, plant and colorful secular life are all carving materials (Ling, 2005). Moreover, Kunlun Mountain, not far from the village, is a place where there are abundant white stones of good quality (the materials of Mani stone). There are some handicraftsmen who are experts in Mani stone carving are living in eco-immigrant community. All of those factors mentioned above contribute to advantages of the Mani stone project in terms of production, marketing and branding. At present, there are 7 skillful handicraftsmen as well as over 20 villagers who are able to participate in carving activities. And the annual incomes of families that work on Mani stone carving is up to 70,000 yuans (10 900 USD).

7Though the Mani stone project has extraordinary advantages, it has not become a major employment or return channel. Besides those economic factors like funds, market mechanism and so forth, the surrounding cultural environment has a certain negative impact on the project as well.

2. Impacts on immigrant communities' participation of Ecotourism from cultural environment

8In the procession of tourism development, cultural environment and tourism exploitation are mutually interacted. When the tourism development influences the local cultural environment, the latter will have an effect on the former. When we analyze the unsuccessful aspects of Mani Stone program, we cannot ignore the impact on its cultural environment. In the operational process, the Mani stone project is affected by some cultural factors, namely, some viewpoints of Tibetan intellectuals, attitudes of members in the immigrant community, opinions of external scholars and responses of groups with complex of idealized Tibetan culture

9They question and suspect this program in terms of protecting traditional Tibetan culture, which, to some degree, has emerged as an invisible rampart that hinders community members participating the tourism exploitation.

2.1. Viewpoints of some Tibetan Intellectuals

10In the period of social transition, “modernization” and “tradition” coexist and create tension. Inevitably, modernization brings a great shock to traditional culture. Hence, facing tourism development forms of modernization, some Tibetan intellectuals are very concerned with protecting Tibetan traditional culture. They worry that some outstanding heritages of traditional Tibetan culture will be attacked, challenged and rejected by marketing and outside influences which are brought by tourism development. As a result, some elements of indigenous culture will degenerate or disappear (Li, 2008). Even the traditional culture which has passed down from generation to generation will become commercialized and alienated.

11Hence, some Tibetan intellectuals pay more attention to the destruction of Tibetan traditional culture brought about by tourism development. These intellectuals exclude tourism development and ignore the fact that tourism itself can be a means of cultural communication. Accordingly, even though they are facing some normal tourism development activities and market-based operation models, they show their doubt and resistance to some degree. When discussing the market promotion of Mani stone, leaders of the eco-immigrant village occasionally indicate that selling stones in the market is a matter that they have never done before.

12In addition, the modern styles of Mani stone samples with Tibetan elements, in the opinions of some Tibetan intellectuals, have already been alienated. It is even said that stones with modern styles cannot be carved by handicraftsmen and will not be marketable. Subsequently, the obstacle is not said to be from the carving technique but from the negative opinions given on different occasions by influential intellectuals. According to the marketing survey (taken at the 2012 International Cultural Industry Fair in Shenzhen for example), we can see that many customers are not clear about the meanings of pure Tibetan patterns on Mani stones, and as a result they do not decided to buy them easily for fear of cultural taboos. Despite this, customers show their profound interest in the designs with both traditional Tibetan culture and modern elements.

13Moreover, as religion plays an extremely important role in Tibetan culture, the multi-culture in which the Mani stone has often replaced unique religious culture, has an influence on the project to a certain degree. Initially, the Mani stone is related to ancient white stone worship (Chou, 2005), and the hunting customs of nomadic culture (Li, 2008). Afterwards, it combined with Tibetan Buddhism thereby giving it religious connotations. However, some Tibetan intellectuals overemphasize the religious function of Mani stone and even deem that only Tibetan scriptures should be carved on Mani stones, otherwise they cannot be called Mani stone any more. With the above information being repeated, the multi-culture of Mani stone is obstructed and cannot be developed comprehensively.

2.2. Attitudes of Community Members

14Handicraftsmen in the community have been used to carving Mani stones for a living and therefore they accept the idea of selling Mani stone on the market. They are even willing to communicate with the outside world through the project, but the problem is that they are not clear about what kind of patterns are popular in market. In terms of samples designed by professional designers, such as Tibetan antelopes and wild yaks, both handicraftsmen and villagers express their appreciation and for such designs and are willing to learn to carve these new patterns.

Photo 3. Mani stone carver

Photo 3. Mani stone carver

Source: Authors

15Since the majority of eco-immigrants lack discourse rights and opportunities to communicate with outside world, they are often unable to fully express their attitudes and afraid of deviations and misunderstandings from outside influences. So when communicating with designers, handicraftsmen seldom expresses their attitudes, and their attitudes are greatly influenced by the opinions of Tibetan intellectuals, when the intellectuals are present. These phenomena can be even stronger when it comes to religion, which is connected with Mani stone. For example, when some people mention that only religious scriptures can be carved on Mani stones, these handicraftsmen will always keep silent or follow the opinion of leaders. In fact, only in other occasions would they express their appreciation on stone samples with animal patterns.

2.3. Cautiousness of Relevant Scholars

16The question of the influence of modernization on traditional culture has been widely debated for years. Scholars either praise the advantages of modernization or resist the negative impacts of modern culture on traditional culture. Since there are abundant tourism resources in Tibetan areas, tourism has become one of the most active factors in the process of modernization. Meanwhile, the unique traditional culture in the Tibetan area and the fragile natural environment are also vulnerable to destruction by unreasonable tourism development. Consequently, the double-edged sword effect of tourism is easily highlighted here. Some scholars often worry much more about the negative impacts of modernization, even if they also approve that tourism development promotes the protection and inheritance of Tibetan traditional culture.

17Due to the lack of successful cases, when dealing with the Mani project, some scholars adopt cautious approaches. They often emphasize the importance of protection for traditional Tibetan culture in theory and worry about the negative impacts from tourism development. However, to some degree they avoid deeply dissecting and researching those problems in public on the cultural environment.

2.4. Effects from complex of idealized Tibetan culture

18With the spreading and prevailing of Tibetan culture, the number of people both at home and abroad with complex of idealized Tibetan culture are gradually increasing. In the past, due to information obliteration, outsiders knew little about Tibetan areas. In some people’s opinion, with Utopian characteristic, the Tibetan area is viewed as a mysterious land and isolated from outside, which has not been polluted by modern civilization. Even until now, there are still lots of people holding such ideal opinions on Tibetan culture. In fact, Tibetan culture is not only a synonym of mystery, remoteness and romance but real existence as well (Liu, 2011). However, people’s reasonable cognition of Tibetan areas is often replaced by the complex of idealized Tibetan culture. Therefore, they worry that any attempts at modernization would destroy their imaginary space regarding Tibetan areas and any market behaviors would corrupt traditional Tibetan culture. What’s more, this sort of external information even exerts influence on Tibetan communities, making some Tibetans aggressively promote the original image of Tibetan culture for keeping the images of Utopia in the eyes of outsiders. Because of this, the Mani stone project has inevitably been questioned by these people during its development.

Photo 4. Some portraits of the Tibetan community (dancer, lady, nomad)

Photo 4. Some portraits of the Tibetan community (dancer, lady, nomad)

3. Reasons of Cultural Environment’s Impacts on Communities’ Participation in Ecotourism

19The reasons for the different responses from the four groups mentioned above will be analyzed from an acculturation model of cultivation theory, the role of stereotype as well as the functions of interest structures which shape the culture impacts. We then try to find the potential problems that influence the communities’ participation in ecotourism.

3.1. Cultivation

20Cultivation refers to changes in original culture because of the communication between different ethnic groups. It is often used to analyze a process whereby a foreign culture adjusts and adapts itself to a new environment. From the view of the cultural adaptation model of acculturation theory, it is an adaptation process in which a weak culture enters into a relatively strong culture system. During the process of adaption, four distinct phenomena are emerging, namely, assimilation, differentiation, integration and marginalization (Zhang, 2004). The eco-immigrants from the pastoral system enter the urban cultural system and have to be faced of the relatively unfamiliar and strong urban culture. The Tibetan intellectuals and eco-immigrants would show different moods and behaviors in the adaptation progress.

21The differentiation is more obvious shown in attitudes of Tibetan intellectuals. They stubbornly insist on protecting their own culture instead of accepting the outside mainstream one. Therefore, they reject and resist tourism development and marketing. On the other hand, integration is manifested more or less while differentiating. Having more communication with outsiders than in the past, some Tibetan intellectuals are willing to have new opportunities to learn some market rules. The coexistence of these two phenomena results in a conflicting mind. That is, they are ready to participate in the development of Mani stone, and meanwhile they intentionally emphasize the uniqueness of Tibetan culture and denounce market actions.

22For ordinary immigrants and handicraftsmen from pastoral areas, they are used to be marginalized, lacking the right to speak when they were in pastoral areas. Thus, they just still continue to be marginalized in the process of adaptation in most cases. They either are not inclined to maintain the original culture or feel alienated from outside mainstream culture. Marginalization, however, is largely a transitional state and likely to change. With burgeoning communication with outsiders, some handicraftsmen have embodied some characteristics of integration, for example, accepting pattern designs.

3.2. Stereotype

23The stereotype refers to fixed attitudes that people hold towards somebody or something under the influence of society. Under the impact of stereotype, when being exposed to certain people or things, people tend to classify them into a certain type, and judge their characteristics according to such a “conceptual impression”. However, such a classification method is too simple. In one social and cultural system or group, there is considerable consistency in a stereotype, which exerts negative impacts to some degree and can leads to wrong evaluations (Xiao and al., 2011).

24When discussing tourism development, some people naturally deem that it will alienate Tibetan traditional culture and destroy local cultural resources. In fact, it is obvious to all that tourism plays a significant role in inheritance and promotion of traditional culture, which often becomes a significant motivation for protecting local traditional culture. Nevertheless, some people still have those prejudices mentioned above as a result of stereotype.

25In addition, stereotypes from some literature and films make some people have such a romantic fantasy of Tibetan areas that they do not treat Tibetan culture and society rationally. They deem the Tibetan areas to be an otherworldly fairyland. In fact, the market action, such as business, is a part of Tibetan traditional culture, not a new issue brought through modernization.

3.3. Influence of Interest Structure behind the Cultural Environment

26Under certain conditions, there always exist conflicts in political and economic interests behind cultural conflicts (Fu, 2011). The interest structures behind the cultural environment also play a large part in the project of Tibetan immigrant communities’ participation in ecotourism. Some relevant interest groups have set up an interest structure around the project, whose demand for interest could be guaranteed through the impacts of cultural environment.

27Some Tibetan intellectuals insist on emphasizing the uniqueness of Tibetan culture. It wouldn’t rule out that they hope to keep their discourse privilege for cultural resources like Mani stone, and also maintain their influences in cultural and social fields, for reasons, besides protecting traditional culture. They are afraid that their potential interests will be damaged once external forces get involved in the cultural fields that they have traditionally dominated.

28The protection for Tibetan culture is a hot topic. Any information about Tibetan culture can initiate disputation under the changing situation, which would touch a sensitive nerve in the fields of culture, religion and politics. Many scholars research Tibetan culture as macro field cautiously, in order to reduce the risks from cultural, political and academic fields. For the concrete project such as the Mani stone, they would become a morally kind-hearted “the other” who don’t express their opinion on it easily.

29From the viewpoints of the groups with complex of idealized Tibetan culture, Tibet is their spiritual homeland. They believe that any actual tourism development or market behaviors will damage their spiritual homeland and affect their spiritual interests. Hence, it is understandable that they have been concerned with.

Photo 5. Tibetan prayer flag

Photo 5. Tibetan prayer flag

Source: Authors


30As a trial of immigrant communities’ participation in ecotourism in the Three Rivers’ Source Area, the Mani stone project is restricted by peripheral cultural environment. On the one hand, it is influenced by acculturation and stereotypes caused by the cultural environment. On the other hand, interest structures behind the cultural environment also play a part. It is an issue which must be faced off in the immigrant communities’ participation in ecotourism in future.

31It is an adaptive choice for immigrant communities to participate in ecotourism to enrich the meaning of Tibetan culture. Acculturation progress may result in three possibilities for different cultures: completely assimilating unidirectional, integrating into a single culture or enriching their own culture while mutually influencing each other (Zhang, 2004). Positive adaptation can reduce the possibility of completely assimilating or integrating into a single culture for Tibetans. The modernization process represented by the tourism industry essentially belongs to the category of cultural exchange, but not a one-way invasion.

32Firstly, when facing tourism development, we should focus more on how Tibetan traditional culture adapts itself to modernization and how it develops and in changes. Moreover, the dialectical relationship of interaction in cultural exchange should be treated rationally, and it should be aware of that opening-up and communication could bring new vitality into traditional Tibetan culture.

33Secondly, it should be considered that which kind of modernization is fit for the development of Tibetan areas. The improvement and arbitration system should be explored for the possible negative effect of communities’ participation in ecotourism to reduce the friction between modernization and local traditional culture.

34Finally, the interest claim of the stakeholders in the communities’ participation in ecotourism should be settled clearly. It should be considered how to balance the interest of different parties including migrant communities, and how to build multiple mechanisms of collecting and sharing information. The relative weights of the opinions among different parties should be clarified in order for a reasonable interest claim to be found, which could help to build a healthy environment for developing ecotourism in Tibetan areas.

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Chou, B. (2005). “The Tibetan Stone Worship and the Sacred Stone Art”, Hua Xia Culture, n°4: 81.

Fu, X. (2011). “The representation and analysis of the contemporary cultural conflict theory”, The Social Science Front, n° 7: 35-39.

Hu, Z. and Y. Li (2009). “The Suggestion on the Follow-up Industry Development of Eco-immigrant in the Three Rivers’ Source Natural Reserve of Qinghai”, Modern Agricultural Science and Technology, n° 3: 279-280.

Li, X. (2008). “The Culture of Tibetan Society in Transition”, Journal of Guang Xi University for Nationalities, n° S2: 9-11.

Ling, L. (2005). “The Reason of Advocating Mani Stone Piles from Tibetan”, Journal of Kang Ding Nationality Teachers college, 14(1):8.

Liu, Y. (2011). “Identification and Intersection – Mr. A Lai in the Dilemma of Cultural Identity”, On Freedom of Culture, n° 11: 111-112.

Xiao, J., D. Zhang, X. Wang and J. Wang (2011). “Review on Intervention Strategy Studies about Stereotype”, Advances in Psychological Science, n° 2: 243-250.

Xu, J. (2008). “The Research Tendency of the Migration in “San Jiang Yuan” Area”, China’s Tibetan Studies, n° 3: 114-120.   
Environment Protection Bureau of Qinghai Province of China (EPBQPC) (2005).The General Planning of Ecological Protection and Construction for the Three Rivers’ Source Natural Reserve of Qinghai, EPBQPC.

Zhang, J. (2004). “The Adaptation in a City –the Employment and entrepreneurship of immigrants”, Beijing, The Commercial Press: 188.

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Table des illustrations

Titre Photo 1. Landscape of Three Rivers’ Source area, between cloud, meadows and pagoda
Fichier image/jpeg, 316k
Crédits Source: Authors
Fichier image/jpeg, 380k
Titre Photo 2. Mani Stones with Tibetan elements
Crédits Source: Authors
Fichier image/png, 392k
Titre Photo 3. Mani stone carver
Crédits Source: Authors
Fichier image/jpeg, 228k
Titre Photo 4. Some portraits of the Tibetan community (dancer, lady, nomad)
Fichier image/jpeg, 448k
Crédits Source: Authors
Fichier image/jpeg, 372k
Titre Photo 5. Tibetan prayer flag
Crédits Source: Authors
Fichier image/jpeg, 354k
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Référence électronique

Wen Deng et Xu Lan, « The Impact of Cultural Environment on the Participation of Eco-immigrant Communities in Ecotourism in the Three Rivers’ Source Area. A Case Study of Mani Stone Project in Kunlun Eco-immigrant Village (China) », Études caribéennes [En ligne], 31-32 | Août-Décembre 2015, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2015, consulté le 27 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/etudescaribeennes.7654

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Wen Deng

Tourism and Historical Culture College of Southwest University for Nationalities; Lecture;

Xu Lan

Dongs Education Group Baotou; Lecture;

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Les contenus d’Études caribéennes sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale 4.0 International.

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