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Pieces of China, Zhang Mei of Wild China, 8.6.20
Pieces of China is an online series using objects to tell the story of China.
In the penultimate season 1 episode, number 10 for those who are counting, we explore the white magnolia, a fragrant flower that offers a glimpse into one of China’s most sociologically and biologically diverse regions and a window onto the struggle between development and the loss of cultural heritage throughout China. .
Bask in the fragrance of the white magnolia, native to China’s southwestern Yunnan province, with Zhang Mei, founder of WildChina travel company. For Zhang, a native of Yunnan, the flower . Zhang Mei is the founder and CEO of WildChina. Under her leadership, WildChina flourished from a small Hutong operation into an award-winning business. Mei’s own expertise has led her to win a number of personal awards, including Travel and Leisure’s A-List of Top Travel Advisors, Condé Nast Traveler’s Top Travel Specialist, and Wendy Perrin’s #WOW List of Travel Experts. Mei is an Aspen Institute China Fellow and currently serves as a member of Harvard Business School’s Alumni Board.
Selected Quotes from the Program from Zhang Mei:
Magnolia’s a tiny little flower. The flower itself is smaller than my finger. When I was little, 5 or 6 years old, my mother would buy 5 cents a flower or 10 cents a pair, and you have this little thing and hem it on a button, and it goes around with you the whole day. The fragrance cheers up your day, so that’s the very peak of my memory.
So Yunnan is China’s kingdom of flora and fauna. It has one of the largest tropical botanical gardens of China In Xishuangbanna. And then you move along the ancient Tea Horse Caravan Road northwards towards Tibet. In fact, in the very northwestern part of Yunnan, high glaciers are rising to 20,000 feet. Because of these dramatic landscape changes, the plant species, animal species, and human cultural diversity are just abundant in the area.
Magnolias have different names. In the Shanghai area, I think they call it Bai Yu Lan, which means white magnolia, but in Yunnan, we call in Mian Gui Hua.
Yunnan has become a lot wealthier, and people there have a lot more money at their disposal. But the consistent thing is that people still enjoy life a lot more than the fast pace of Beijing and Shanghai. Nowadays, it seems to attract the sort of people who are pursuing a lifestyle. There is a new wave of what we call Xin Da Ren, new Dali people.
The roots of Dali and Yunnan culture are so deep that I don’t think these new migrants impact people very heavily or negatively. So there’s this peaceful coexistence. My Dali Bai ladies continue to sell my flowers in the market, less magnolia more lavender. The new Dali people come, drink their tea, and sometimes make a cup of espresso or latte. It’s a very pleasant coexistence. I’m in love with the fusion of the culture there.
Before, when I left in the mid-90s, there was this deep-rooted sense of insecurity about our culture in the mountains because it is backward, very earthy. That kind of insecurity over the years has been replaced. Now it’s pride that we’re from Yunnan.
I don’t want to make it sound so rosy. There are pains of development. Dali, if you look at the skylines of the major city there, Xiaguan, it looks like any other major city in China. This conformity of urban development destroys the character of local places, and Yunnan, Dali, is no exception. I think the good thing is that people realize that now.
We paved a paradise and put up a parking lot (like the Joni Mitchell song). The key is if we realize this with equal speed, then there is hope. If we approach our hometown with conservation and development with the same kind of passion and compassion, we can find a more balanced road forward.
Full Video of Pieces of China with Zhang Mei
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