China, reflected in Ken Burns’ “National Parks” documentary

About a month ago, I started watching Ken Burns’ documentary on the National Parks. And what I saw surprised me: China.
Blatant commercialism of the parks in the 19th century — from Niagara Falls to Yellowstone — echoed my experiences in Yellow Mountain, as well as non-natural sites such as Shaolin Temple and Lijiang.
The Hetch Hetchy Valley was dammed and sacrificed for drinking water for San Francisco, just as the Three Gorges — and the surrounding cultural heritage and towns — have lost out to China’s power demands.
The Native Americans, who were paid to star in a Native American version of “minstrel shows” at Glacier National Park, reflected today’s Chinese minorities (or those dressed up to resemble them) performing minority dances and rituals for paying Chinese tourists.
A toll booth that used to stand at the head of the Grand Canyon’s famous Bright Angel trail reminded me of “hidden fees” charged by parks such as Wulingyuan.
And the US railroad’s once-monopoly of Yellowstone — where expensive hotels, water, and dinners of common canned food were the norm — recalled my journey to Yellow Mountain’s summit, where only memorable part to the hotels and food was the high price.
When it comes to tourism, and the natural world, today’s China has a lot in common with the early history of the US parks system. Like the US then, China’s parks and historical sites are in a “wild wild west” era where decisions about China’s parks are left to local management or government — which often put profits before preservation.
Is it different in today’s China? In some ways, yes. The old hotels and barracks left behind by, say, James Mason Hutchings in the Yosemite Valley, would probably have less of an impact on the land. Compare that to an elevator built into one of Wulingyuan’s delicate sandstone pillars. These may be removed, eventually, but have they already left a scar?
At the same, China has changed so fast — faster than the timeline of the US — as it played catchup with the rest of the world. Yet, natural areas are slow to heal and revive; you can’t just commission a developer to erect a forest within a year, or clean a river.
And then there’s the tricky question of politics. In the US, environmental activists, such as John Muir, helped shape and direct the parks. Though China has a stronger environmental movement, activists do still end up, wrongfully, in prison.
On the other hand, China has something we didn’t: history, such as what’s in Burns’ documentary. They can learn from the national parks of the past. They can discover what was done right — and wrong — and do better.
While “better” is still only a promise for most parks, there’s still hope. Just recently, China moved to designate its first national park, with a better balance in mind:
Bai, whose agency approved Tangwanghe as the first national park, wants “a balance between conservation and tourism” as China develops a parks system.
There is another park, Pudacuo (it too claims to be the first national park — who knows?) that has avoided kitsch and capitalism in favor of conservation:
The official slogan of China’s year of ecotourism is “Be a green traveler and experience eco-civilization.” Pudacuo park serves this goal by requiring visitors to park their cars and tour the park in low-emission buses shepherded by guides such as Yang.
Still, there is some concern that overdevelopment could spoil the natural beauty and dilute the Tibetan culture of Diqing. But local authorities pledge to tread lightly. Logging in the region was halted a few years ago to preserve the alpine forests, and heavy industry is off the table, said Qi Zhala, the Communist Party secretary for Diqing.
What has been your experience in China’s parks? What other challenges does China have, that the US, or other countries, did not? I’d love to hear from you.

About a month ago, I started watching Ken Burns’ documentary on the National Parks. And what I saw surprised me: China.

Blatant commercialism of the parks in the late 19th century — from Niagara Falls to Yellowstone — echoed my experiences in Yellow Mountain, as well as non-natural sites such as Shaolin Temple and Lijiang.

The Hetch Hetchy Valley was dammed and sacrificed for drinking water for San Francisco, just as the Three Gorges — and the surrounding cultural heritage and towns — have lost out to China’s power demands.

The Native Americans, who were paid to star in a Native American version of “minstrel shows” at Glacier National Park, reflected today’s Chinese minorities (or those dressed up to resemble them) performing minority dances and rituals for paying Chinese tourists.

A toll booth that used to stand at the head of the Grand Canyon’s famous Bright Angel trail reminded me of “hidden fees” charged by parks such as Wulingyuan.

And the US railroad’s once-monopoly of Yellowstone — where expensive hotels, water, and dinners of common canned food were the norm — recalled my journey to Yellow Mountain’s summit, where only memorable part of the hotels and food was the high price.

When it comes to tourism, and the natural world, today’s China has a lot in common with the early history of the US parks system. Like the US then, China’s parks and historical sites are in a “wild wild west” era where decisions about China’s parks are left to local management or government — which often put profits before preservation.

Is it different in today’s China? In some ways, yes. The old hotels and barracks left behind by, say, James Mason Hutchings in the Yosemite Valley, would probably have less of an impact on the land. Compare that to an elevator built into one of Wulingyuan’s delicate sandstone pillars. These may be removed, eventually, but have they already left a scar? (Though, to be fair, we did do major low-tech damage too  — such as cutting some unfortunate “tunnels” through Giant Sequoias that will never be repaired).

At the same, China has changed so fast — faster than the timeline of the US — as it played catchup with the rest of the world. Yet, natural areas are slow to heal and revive; you can’t just commission a developer to erect a forest within a year, or clean a river.

And then there’s the tricky question of politics. In the US, environmental activists, such as John Muir, helped shape and direct the parks. Though China has a stronger environmental movement, activists do still end up, wrongfully, in prison.

On the other hand, China has something we didn’t: history, such as what’s in Burns’ documentary. They can learn from the national parks of the past  — and do better. Unfortunately, they may not always choose “better.”

While that’s true for many places in China — natural and historical — there’s still hope. Just recently, China moved to designate its first national park, with a better balance in mind:

Bai, whose agency approved Tangwanghe as the first national park, wants “a balance between conservation and tourism” as China develops a parks system.

There is another park, Pudacuo (it too claims to be the first national park — who knows?) that has avoided kitsch and overcommercialism in favor of conservation:

The official slogan of China’s year of ecotourism is “Be a green traveler and experience eco-civilization.” Pudacuo park serves this goal by requiring visitors to park their cars and tour the park in low-emission buses shepherded by guides such as Yang.

Still, there is some concern that overdevelopment could spoil the natural beauty and dilute the Tibetan culture of Diqing. But local authorities pledge to tread lightly. Logging in the region was halted a few years ago to preserve the alpine forests, and heavy industry is off the table, said Qi Zhala, the Communist Party secretary for Diqing.

What has been your experience in China’s parks? Do you also see parallels with the history of parks in other countries? Do you have hope for the future? I’d love to hear from you.

Did you enjoy this article?
Sign up now and receive an email whenever I publish new blog posts. We respect your privacy. You can unsubscribe at any time.
I agree to have my personal information transfered to MailChimp ( more information )

You might also like:

2 thoughts on “China, reflected in Ken Burns’ “National Parks” documentary

  • December 23, 2009 at 11:39 pm
    Permalink

    Having just returned from an amazing 10 day canoe trip through the Everglades National Park and into the Gulf of Mexico, I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s probably the only two countries in the world that can boast such a sheer variety of natural wonders. That would be the USA and China, at least that’s to the best of my knowledge. I’ve been curious though. I’ve been to several of America’s gorgeous treasures, the Grand Canyon, Olympic National Park, Cape Cod National Seashore, Everglades National, Key Biscayne National, and Santa Fe Unesco heritage site, and obviously due to the US’s long history, and mistakes, the management and purpose of the parks is well known. How is China coming along in this, and do they have an up and coming outdoor culture over there? Hiking, camping, canoeing, kayaking, etc. Given how so many outdoor products (tents as an example) are manufactured in China, are they themselves taking some time out to experience the natural wonders of their country, and is there a movement or a system in place to preserve and protect their natural and historic (which is massive given their recorded 4000 year history, compared to our 10,000 occasionally marked with some artifacts history). I’ve seen a lot of old water color paintings of sumptuous mountains and riverscapes from China, and it’d be great to know if those are still around.

    Reply
    • December 24, 2009 at 12:48 am
      Permalink

      Hi Dave, thanks so much for the comment.

      I’m certainly not an expert in what’s happening on the national parks front, but, like many things in modern China, it’s a mixed bag that seems to be moving in the right direction. That is to say that people have started to recognize the problem of over commercialization and exploitation, and they’re now looking to create true national parks that exist to preserve the natural beauty for future generations. The only problem is that many of the previously created national parks often put profits before preservation. That said, for many of them, you can get away from the tackiness and crowds…it takes some planning and effort, but it’s possible (though, if you want to see the most famous sights, be prepared to be in the thick of it).

      As for outdoor culture, I saw signs of growth even four years ago. There were a number of small camping shops in Shanghai that also took groups out camping in remote areas of China — and I mean real camping, not staying in hotels or cabins. People brought sleeping bags, pitched tents….everything. I also just had a Chinese-American friend I met in the Western US head off to Beijing for a job to lead groups on outdoor adventure trips in China. Not sure where, but that also seems promising.

      As for the landscapes straight out of the scrolls, you bet you can still find them. Even Huangshan, with all of its development, had all of the allure of the Chinese watercolors I’ve doted upon in museums before. Wulingyuan in Hunan is another might consider. You’ll see the inspiring landscapes, but just understand that with them come the crowds, and some commercialization.

      Good luck planning your next adventure in China, and let me know if I can help!

      Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.