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Folk Martial Arts and Ritual: Continuity through economic change

Report for:

The Direction of Japanese Budo in the 21st century: Past, Present, Future" International Research Centre for Japanese Studies. Kyoto, Japan. Nov.18-22, 2003

Financial support:

International Folk Martial Arts Exchange Association, Hong Kong; Guangzong County Government


Raymond P. Ambrosi

Project Year:


Topic Keywords:

cultural tourism, special interest tourism, sustainable development, cultural revitalization, folk performances, festivals, lineages, voluntary folk associations, mutual aid associations, folk martial arts societies, ritual, performance, social organization, meihuaquan, meihuazhuang, plum flower boxing, north China plain, border region, Guangzong county.

Summary: For centuries, grassroots martial arts organizations have been prevalent in life of peasant people on the North China Plain. However, the history, social function and activities of these martial voluntary organizations are poorly documented and has been largely overlooked by researchers. Why have these martial arts organizations survived and what social function do they serve in modern society? This presentation will examine the past and present sociocultural milieu and function of one such martial organization, the meihuaquan sect. Meihuaquan folk organizations maintain a wide network of practitioners across the north China Plain especially in the rural regions along the borders of Shandong, Hebei and Henan provinces.

This research postulates that meihuaquan has survived as a social organization owing to its frequent participation in public ritual, its role as a quasi-folk religion, the social welfare functions it serves in rural society, and its flexible social organization which serves as a communication network linking widely scattered communities. The presentation will also discuss the sect's current role in small scale tourism, economic diversification, the preservation of cultural practices and the impacts of tourism development. Tourism's contribution to increased earnings, enhanced by economic multiplier effects, can stimulate regional economic growth and tourists' interest in the folk cultural traditions may contribute to their preservation and revitalization. The rapidly changing economy and population demographics in rural areas present many challenges to the survival of meihuaquan and other folk martial arts in rural China. However, understanding the basic function and role of martial organizations in rural society is perhaps the key to ensuring the survival of these valuable and fascinating rural cultural institutions. This presentation is based on field research in China conducted in 1992, 1997-1998, 2001, and 2003.

NOTE: Fieldwork research in 2003 was supported by the International Folk Martial Arts Exchange Association, Hong Kong and the Guangzong County Government. The 1997-98 fieldwork research for this project was supported by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), The Canada China Scholars Exchange Program and the China Scholarship Council.

Impacts of Tourism Development: assessment and suggestions for the use of alternative tourism for rural development in China

Research report for:

Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA)

Financial support:

CIDA Awards for Canadians

Award Recipient:

Raymond P. Ambrosi, University of Regina, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada

Project Year:



China, Hebei Province, Guangzong county


: see link #2. Length: 282 pages. Includes: ethnographic data supplementary appendix, Chinese-English educational material and brochures for tourism promotion.

Topic Keywords:

cultural tourism, special interest tourism, sustainable development, tourism planning, socio-cultural impacts, carrying capacity, cultural revitalization, folk performances, festivals, lineages, folk associations, martial art, meihuaquan, meihuazhuang, ethnography, Hebei, Guangzong county, China.

Summary: High population densities and environmental degradation are of serious concern to China. Tourism, seen as a "smokeless" industry, is being heavily relied upon in many areas for economic growth and to avoid socioeconomic problems. Mass tourism is big business and many new areas are unceasingly opened. Because uninspired similarity is all too common, many of these attractions are of little interest to "cultural" tourists.

Numerous rural areas, however, boast fascinating cultural or natural features but are unsuitable for mass tourism development owing to their small size, remote location, poor accessibility, lack of facilities or the specialized nature of the attraction. Such regions may be able to utilize these very "hindrances" to their advantage by designing tourism strategies based on alternative tourism – a strategy which has been primarily overlooked in northern China

Alternative tourism is characterized by tourists= desire for close contact with host people in distinct cultural and natural environments usually "far off the beaten track". It emphasizes small scale development with special concern for the protection and maintenance of the cultural features which form the basis of the attraction. Developing a form of tourism which brings long-term economic, social and cultural benefits while avoiding damage to cultural attractions by operating within the local carrying capacity of the region, depends on the type of tourism and the specific socio-cultural traits of the destination.

The central focus of the project examines cultural tourism as a tool for economic development in an underdeveloped rural county of Northern China. Guangzong county in Southeastern Hebei province and the surrounding regions are a culturally contiguous area featuring well-preserved traditional cultural practices and folk performances. Since this region was opened to foreign travel in 1991, it has experienced low levels of cultural tourism attracted by the large-scale, rustic folk festivals and martial arts exhibitions held in the rural Chinese village settings. The project contends that cultural tourism, featuring accommodation within authentic village settings and entertainment based on performing folk arts and handicrafts, would supplement rural incomes for ordinary people. Their increased earnings, enhanced by economic multiplier effects, could stimulate regional economic growth. Interest in the region=s cultural traditions could give rise to renewed involvement in the folk arts ensuring their preservation, revitalization and growth. However, longevity of tourism in the region would completely depend upon identification of potential problems and effective management.

Methodology and Objectives: Methodology consisted of: 1) library and literature research; 2) fieldwork research in Guangzong county and surrounding areas that entailed both applied and basic research and relied on the methodological techniques of unobtrusive observation, participant observation and semi-structured interviews.

Working with county government officials and the IMO host organization, the project provides recommendations for tourism planning, and assesses socio-cultural changes which may have occurred since low-level tourism began in 1990. Fieldwork focussed on: identifying the interests of cultural tourists to the region; assessment of local attractions; discussions with the county government and rural people regarding sustainable cultural tourism and its benefits and drawbacks; the influence of site-specific social, cultural, historical and geographical factors on tourism; understanding the structure of the folk festivals which are the primary attraction in the area and on the folk associations which organize the festivals.

An important component of the research was the compilation of a limited ethnography, a brief record or "snapshot" describing the region's socio-cultural setting. Such ethnographic information may be useful later for planning or comparative purposes. This can help avoid negative impacts before tourism has fully developed, rather than the common Aafter the fact@ approach which evaluates the effects of tourism or makes recommendations only after an area has been adversely impacted by uncontrolled tourism development Considering that very little has been written in English about the structure and nature of the martial arts associations in the area, the ethnographic section of the paper may be of use to researchers in other fields and provide the basis for further investigation.

Report Outline:

Section 1:
Goals of the project; cultural tourism- benefits and controversy; important principles from successful examples of cultural tourism.
Section 2:
Discusses why many tourism attractions in northern China do not satisfy the needs of alternative tourists.
Section 3:
Case study in Guangzong; methodology; geography and history of the county; ethnographic description.
Section 4:
Tourist interests; concerns of government and local people; problems encountered during research.
Section 5:
Assessment of attractions; suggestions for development and minimizing impacts; marketing suggestions.
Section 6:
Impact of tourism and the project on Guangzong county, conclusion and personal impressions.
Survey questionnaire, fieldworker guidelines, educational brochures, report to Guangzong government, photographs and video.

Benefits and Accomplishments:

  • A short television program was produced to introduce the goals of the project to the general population. For one week, the program was repeatedly broadcast by the county government thereby ensuring the majority of the county population was aware of the project and its goals. The broadcast of this program indicates the government=s support for tourism development and commitment to the principles of sustainable development.
  • To promote tourism, the government began production of a multi-part documentary film recording the county's well-preserved cultural traditions. The film is expected to cover in detail the major traditional arts of the county including the weaving and art-dying of cloth, specialty food products, traditional dances, operas, musical performances, and document the extensive martial arts culture. Such films increase local pride, and can stimulate new interest in traditional art forms and attract entrepreneurs interested in tourism or the marketing of traditional crafts.
  • Cooperation on this research project between the IMO host organization and the county government strengthened their working relationship which extends back to the late 1980s. Since 1988, the IMO has engaged in research in Guangzong, Pingxiang, and Wei counties, and partially owing to efforts of the IMO and its promotion of small scale tourism in the region, prohibitions against the Meihuaquan martial arts group were lifted, a decision which affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of practitioners and led to enhanced cultural life for many.
  • Extensive discussions in the field introduced to county politicians and local people the basic principles of sustainable development and the advantages of using cultural tourism as a means to stimulate long-term economic growth.
  • The ethnographic investigation produced considerable information about the Meihuaquan martial sects. This study comprises one of the first academic studies of the sect, its organization and function in modern rural society. The wide exposure of this study to rural people and various levels of government could lead to softening of conservative attitudes towards the region's martial culture and to other neighbouring counties instigating similar plans.
  • Educational brochures in both English and Chinese were produced for hosts and guests which emphasize the need for the cooperation of both parties. Tourist brochures aim to sensitize tourists to the region and its culture. Brochures for the host population explain the customs and needs of the tourists.
  • A special ten page report was prepared for the Guangzong government. Emphasizing the need for sustainable development, the report outlines the type of tourist attracted to Guangzong, the county's strengths and weaknesses as a tourism destination, suggestions for marketing and the protection of cultural resources. To help politicians understand the interests of cultural tourists, dozens of photographs accompany descriptions of attractions. The report emphasized that successful development can only occur if local people benefit directly and are involved in all aspects of planning.
  • The research produced concrete tourism recommendations for the county which previously had no strategy for tourism development. Should officials proceed with intentions to actively promote tourism and follow these recommendations, benefits are likely to be significant and negative impacts are predicted to be small.

Conclusions and Recommendations: Over the last eight years, low level tourism has played a contributing role in helping to change the conservative thinking of the county government. Due to its small scale and the sensitivity of tourists who visited the region, there appear to be no negative effects from these eight years of intermittent tourism.

Rural people are interested in the potential benefits which could be attained by establishing a tourism industry in the region. However, tourism development (throughout China) is completely reliant on the government. All too aware of the lack of other resources in the area, politicians recognize the suitability of tourism for regional economic development, and have taken some essential first steps towards establishing a tourism industry. However, unless tourism in the region is controlled by and accrues benefit to rural people, it will lose their support. Without that support, there will be nothing upon which tourism can be sustained.

The project emphasizes the following recommendations for establishing and managing special interest tourism: county leaders strive to gain a deeper understanding of the essential concepts of sustainable development and small-scale cultural tourism; the majority of economic benefits go to local people and that the rural tourism infrastructure is owned and controlled by village people themselves; that economic benefits derived from performing are equitable; the folk associations must remain independent bodies under the c ontrol of rural people fulfilling their traditional function and not altered in any shape or form in an attempt to make them more "touristic" the use of educational brochures for both tourists and local people as a highly important method to prevent misunderstandings.

It is strongly hoped that the improving political climate of the region will enable capable politicians to undertake this experiment in tourism development. Considering that many elements of traditional culture are being lost due to the cultural homogenization and modernization in northern China, implementation of tourism to simulate the economy and revitalize traditional art form represents an experiment with few negative side effects.

Special Interest Tourism: a method for economic diversification and cultural preservation in rural Hebei Province, China

Research report for:

University of Regina, Graduate Studies and Research.

Financial support

CIDA Awards for Canadians, China Scholarship Council, Canada China Scholars Exchange Program. The University of Regina.


Raymond P. Ambrosi, University of Regina, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada

Project Year:



245 pages

Topic Keywords:

cultural tourism, special interest tourism, sustainable development, tourism planning, socio-cultural impacts, carrying capacity, cultural revitalization, folk performances, festivals, lineages, folk associations, folk martial art, meihuaquan, meihuazhuang, ethnography, Hebei, Guangzong county, China.

Summary: Since 1990, large folk festivals featuring exhibitions of martial arts organized by grassroots organizations have begun to attract small numbers of foreign tourists in Guangzong County in southeastern Hebei province, China. This thesis examines the effects of alternative tourism on the region and how careful planning for higher-volume sustainable tourism could bring both increased economic benefit and protection of cultural resources. Research consisted of library and field research. Library research examined tourism literature, historical and sociocultural information and illustrated that for tourism to be maintained over long periods of time without destruction of the tourism resources, local people must be directly involved, and an active role must be taken in the protection of cultural resources. Field research in China (1997-1998) examined the impacts of tourism and the attitudes and perceptions of tourists, local people and government leaders on future development. It identified sociocultural traits which are susceptible to damage and those which may help or hinder tourism development. The work examined how the vertical links formed by lineages and the horizontal links formed by voluntary associations are constituent parts of the region's "informal" social safety net. The meihuaquan sect's kinship-based social organization and belief system binds its members in mutual aid groups over a broad area and the sect's large scale martial exhibitions are venues through which individuals, villages and regions vie for prestige and serve to release built-up stress and conflict in social groups. Identifying the function of the cultural institutions which attract tourists clearly establishes the importance of protecting these institutions and recommendations to this end are provided. The analysis of economic statistics show the county's underdeveloped condition in relation to neighbouring counties and suggests that supplementary income provided by tourism could benefit the region.

Since 1990, low-volume tourism has benefited the region by helping to change the conservative thinking of the county government. Local martial arts groups are no longer prohibited and their network of practitioners have led to joint economic projects and improvements in the quality of life. Significant sociocultural change has occurred since the 1950s but has accelerated rapidly since the early 1990s. In comparison to these social forces, tourism=s significance as a factor of culture change or degradation is likely to be very minimal because future tourism will involve only low numbers of tourists. Conversely, tourism may be a way to generate local interest in local folk-art and prevent its extinction. A simulation model shows that even limited numbers of alternative tourists can have significant impact on the cash incomes and welfare of the rural population.