Kyna Xu traveled to Guizhou in the summer of 2016. Amazed at what she saw there and by GHF’s work, she decided she would support the community in whatever way she could. And when she turned 21, she knew just how to do it.

For her 21st birthday, Ms. Xu asked her friends and family to give to Global Heritage Fund on her behalf. She raised over $500 for GHF’s work in Guizhou, and agreed to sit down with us to discuss the site.

favorite saying among the Dong people of Guizhou is, “Not three feet of flat land, not three days without rain, not a family with three silver coins.” Encapsulating the rugged, beautiful aesthetic of this mountainous region in China’s southwest, it is emblematic also of the determination and natural creativity of its people in the face of adversity. Taken another way, it offers insight into the evolving relationship between heritage and modernity in a region undergoing rapid change.

“I was talking to some people there, and they were using [the mobile app] WeChat,” says Kyna Xu, one of Global Heritage Fund’s most recent donors and a visitor to the Dong villages of Guizhou. At the same time, “One of the things they do, which is very traditional, is sing. That’s how they date. So back in the day, when they were farming they would sing, and whoever would harmonize with your song, that’s your mate. They don’t do that anymore, but they showed me that, on WeChat, you could send voice messages. They were still singing to each other on those digital voice messages, to their wives and girlfriends and boyfriends, and that was amazing to me. If you think about how we can preserve a culture when there are so many technological changes, this is a way to do it.”

The mountain villages of Guizhou, featuring their traditional rice paddy terraces.

Kyna spent a week last summer among the Dong people, experiencing for the first time the diversity of people and places beyond the novelty of modern technology. Like snapshots in time, the villages still live by the old ways that have all but disappeared in China’s industrialized east and the province’s own industrial core, centered in Guiyang. Men and women base their lives around agriculture and the weaving of traditional textiles, which are prized for their sturdy construction and intricate designs. Families eat their meals of rice and fish from massive cauldrons on hard-packed dirt floors. And, they sing.

Though it is one of the most culturally and naturally rich provinces in China, Guizhou is known as much for its poverty as it is for its beauty. Guizhou dominates the rankings of least-developed states, with the lowest per-capita GDP ranking and an abysmal human development index, a fact due in no small part to the region’s proverbial inaccessibility. Though the Chinese government has just put the finishing touches on a roadway that links the towns directly with the provincial capital, Guiyang, it’s often impassible due to heavy rain. This leaves the Dong villages, which are carved high into the mountains in a remote part of the province, nearly unreachable to all but the most determined travelers. “You know the houses they have?” Kyna asks, her eyes lighting up. “They’re built on a mountain. To get around, you’re climbing mountains, and all the kids are just running around like it’s nothing.” In some ways, these remote outposts reflect what remains of old China as it was imagined and immortalized during the Cultural Revolution.

Kyna teaching English in the village school

That’s something Kyna’s parents would know, as they lived through it. “My parents grew up kind of like that. On a farm,” she says, though it wasn’t by choice. “The Cultural Revolution was going on, so they grew up farming and living that life, which I’ve never known. Because my dad has friends from college that still do a lot of charity and nonprofit work out there, he was able to take me there and teach me all about it.”

Guizhou’s rugged terrain and rural, mountainous communities were the ideal classroom for reforming the many intellectuals, artists, dissidents, and other so-called “counter-revolutionaries” into supporters of the Communist Party’s agenda. But in the aftermath of the country’s reorganization under the reformer Deng Xiaoping, the province underwent a process of rapid industrialization. Guiyang, the provincial capital, grew immensely when Deng’s economic reforms transformed the rural landscape. The peasants soon left their ancestral villages to gain work and find social advancement in the southwestern boomtown. The exodus from rural to urban areas has defined Guizhou, as it has defined much of China in the modern era.

“A lot of college-age students are trying to get out [now],” Kyna says, remembering many of the young people she met in the rural villages she visited in Guizhou. “This generation is trying to go the city because they want to work, because there’s not a lot out there, you know? There’s not a lot of motivation to stay and farm.”

Manual labor is still the primary means of conveyance in rural Guizhou

Kyna is a student at Boston University studying sociology and women’s studies. Though she is an avid traveler, Kyna had never heard of the Dong people or of Guizhou province until her trip last summer. When asked why she wanted to travel to one of the poorest provinces in China, she laughs. “It wasn’t really my decision,” she says. “I didn’t even know that Guizhou was a thing before the summer. That’s when my Dad told me, and then I learned much more about it.”

Although of Chinese heritage herself, Kyna describes her first impressions of China in negative terms. “I have a lot of negative views of China and its economy and the way that globalization has affected the culture there. A lot of times in China, it’s all about the money. There are so many people, so you have to fight, you have to cheat, you have to cut in line, which has always given me a very negative view of, literally, my own people and my own culture.”

But when she arrived in the Dong villages, she experienced the same sort of prejudice-shattering culture shock familiar to any traveler. She would speak in Mandarin with her hosts, a little girl and her family, but they would chat with each other in a variety of mutually unintelligible local dialects. They would often erupt in amazement at her use of English, a language “I don’t think that they had ever heard before.” The heat was oppressive, the rains more so, and the bugs were so numerous you couldn’t shoo them away. “You just have to live with the bugs,” she remembers, without fondness.

Kyna socializing with her homestay family

Most of all, however, she was unprepared for the abject poverty most villagers don’t even notice, the way of life that, in her words, made them “really, really happy.”

“In Guizhou, it’s just their world. It’s not like, ‘Oh, we know how bad our situation is.’ It’s their culture and their own little bubble. I think that’s all humans.” But, she continued, they “operate in a completely different society. It’s not about money, it’s not about businesses, and it’s not about the economy. It’s about living very tangible lives and feeling tangible emotions and being real and being present. The whole energy I was getting there was completely different. “

After waking up after her first day in the village, she says she, “sat there for about 30 minutes trying to assess what I was feeling. I know people have it harder than me. They live hard lives, and I know this kind of life all over the world is a struggle. But it’s not that big of a deal for them. But what does it mean for me? It’s not about pity, or me feeling bad; it’s about life being different. [They have] an entire different way of living. There are so many things you don’t know you don’t know. I know people live on farms, but that this is their life and entire world, that’s crazy. Even now, I don’t know exactly what I learned. I can understand more the struggle of this group of people that I’ve never been exposed to before. And I realized you can’t help your situation. You can’t help where you are, what’s given to you. If it’s given to you, you should make the most out of it until you can become the best you and do what you can to give back.”

A village scene in Guizhou

Giving back to communities and places is often sold as an unmitigated good. Unfortunately, it is frequently a double-edged sword: In places as diverse as Meteora, Greece or the Great Wall of China, local communities lose their unique heritage when thousands of tourists transform once-isolated sites into commodified tourism hubs. It’s a tension that Kyna is acutely aware of.

“I went to Jordan a couple years ago. A lot of the ruins are in industrialized areas, and the people that live there don’t care at all. There are global organizations that go around and give money to protect those areas, but you still have kids running all over ancient ruins! It’s the same situation in Egypt. You have the pyramids, and maybe less than a mile over, you have buildings, you have industry, and it doesn’t make any sense. You have all this going on: cars, people, and trash, everywhere. You take a picture, and then you turn around, and that’s there.”

According to Kyna, Guizhou hasn’t been exploited to such an extent as the well-known sites of the Middle East or Mediterranean. But throughout China, the signs are troubling. There are fake monks and fake temples. In the most beautiful natural areas, once crystal-clear waters have become polluted and mountains have been clogged with foot traffic. All of it is due to excessive tourism. Kyna understands the economic incentive, but she questions where it ultimately leads.

Traditional architecture still dominates in the rural villages of Guizhou Province.

“In Guizhou, what they’re trying to do is to start a business and raise money to fund their village. But what does that mean? Are there going to be more tourists, is that going to start tourism in that area, are they going to build new roads? There’s a reason to go out there for people who want to travel and take pictures, but it’s not good for the people there. Even if it seems like it.”

The tension between preserving heritage and encouraging economic development is hard to square, and that’s one of the reasons why Kyna decided to donate to Global Heritage Fund. GHF’s focus on creating holistic solutions for sites and their communities means that the worst excesses of commodification are avoided while the people still reap a tangible economic return.

“Part of the reason I did this fundraising thing for my birthday was that I couldn’t even begin to explain what the issue is. You have to understand a lot of situations. You have to understand what an ethnic minority is, you have to understand what the situation in China is, you have to understand how tourism works, and because I’ve been able to travel so much and see these things, whether or not I can put it into words, I feel like: if you’re in a poor area, and you have five-year-old kids selling things to tourists, that’s an issue. Where is that going, where does that come from, what does that mean? I wish I could show more people what’s going on.”

Incorporating streams into the town’s design is a traditional aspect of Dong architecture.

She also hopes to promote a better incentive for preserving culture beyond the profit incentive. “One of the little girls I was staying with had a dream to go to Beijing. There’s a traditional instrument, almost like a ukulele, but it’s round, and she plays that during ceremonies. She saw on TV that a girl from another village went to Beijing and became famous because of it, so this little girl told me that’s what she wanted to do. And that made me kind of sad because that’s her dream, and we’re over here trying to preserve everything. She doesn’t see it as ‘this is my culture, this is something to be proud of’ but ‘this is my way out, and I want to get out.’”

Despite the shortcomings of modern technology and development, Kyna is optimistic about the future of Guizhou and its people. “They don’t see it as ‘I want to leave where I am’ but ‘There’s so much more out there.’ The past was much more difficult than today. My mom grew up in Beijing, but was moved around a lot due to the cultural revolution. She would tell me that she would have to walk three miles to get to school, in the snow, and they didn’t have North Face or hiking shoes. On the way home, they’d pick up dried cow dung for the fire in a basket. When they were kids, they were just being kids. When you’re in it, you’re in it. But today, they have TV, WiFi, and phones, so they’re able to see other cities and pictures of so many other things.”

“It’s a whole different society. A different part of the world where the weather is different, the and is different, the people are different, the language is different, the food is different, from anything that you’ve known. There’s beauty, like when you get a picture of a nice scene, but behind that is an entire lifestyle and an entire population of people that live a different way than you do. Just let go of everything that you know and be open.”