Beautiful and Exotic: the Fetishizing of Minority Women in Southern China
As the country becomes more modernized and connected, there are more opportunities for Han Chinese travelers to visit previously remote regions. The visibility of Chinese minorities increases as tourists flock to these exotic locations where these groups live. Popular destinations for these tourists are the southern provinces of Guizhou, Yunnan and Guangxi, where minority groups outnumber Han Chinese.
Advertising a culture as a tourist attraction is a tricky endeavor. It is difficult to capture the essence of someone’s heritage with one recognizable image or symbol. That is exactly what travel agencies have done, at the expense of the women in these groups. As cultural tourism becomes more popular in southern China, the women in these groups become fetishized and are treated like objects for economic gain.
The most notorious example is the Miao minority. This minority is actually an inaccurate classification since the Miao are made up of at least four major subgroups and unrecognized smaller groups who speak different languages and have different traditions. To make things easier for an uninformed tourist, these inconveniences are ignored and replaced with a singular image: a smiling face of beautiful, light-skinned Asian woman dressed in the traditional long skirts and silver headdresses iconic of the Miao tribe.
While this image makes a great picture for National Geographic photographers and tourism posters alike, it perpetuates a stereotype of the Miao people. Many of them no longer live in villages but rather live in larger cities, wear modern clothing and use cellphones, just like any other Chinese citizens. Yet, to fuel this appetite for cultural tourism, young women (especially the pretty ones) stay behind in their rural hometowns to perform for tourists. There is nothing inherently wrong with working in the tourism industry, but one must question whether this sort of tourism only serves to further stereotype minority culture. 
Villages that are selected for this sort of cultural tourism are renovated, upgraded, given access to electricity and get new bus and train routes. These villages overflow with tourists during the busy season, notoriously during Golden Week holiday at the beginning of October. Performances are scheduled several times daily for the busloads of groups that arrive to these small mountainside towns. 
While I walked around these cultural villages, the gender imbalance revealed itself. Women lined themselves along the tiny, twisting streets selling souvenirs and food, many simultaneously taking care of their young children. Surprisingly, there were no male vendors, and the men of the village rather shirk work in favor of talking to each other. Their main contribution to the activities was participating in the once-a-day traditional dance performances.
Still, the women definitely outnumber the men and are the more popular attraction. The goal of many male Chinese tourists is not to watch the performance, but rather to get a photograph with the famous, beautiful Miao women. A common behavior was to yank aside a costumed woman (without asking for her consent), even if she was working on something else, and take a picture with her.
If you go to Beijing, you have to take a picture in Tiananmen Square. If you go to southern China, you have to take a picture with a Miao woman.
 Feng, Xianghong. "Women's Work, Men's Work: Gender and Tourism among the Miao in Rural China." Anthropology of Work Review 34, no. 1 (2013): 2-14.
 Chen, Zhiyong, Lejing Li, and Tianyi Li. "The Organizational Evolution, Systematic Construction and Empowerment of Langde Miao's Community Tourism." Tourism Management, 2016.
 Chio, Jenny. A Landscape of Travel: The Work of Tourism in Rural Ethnic China. Seattle, Was.: Univ. of Washington Press, 2014.
About the Author
Emily Feng is a Duke University junior majoring in Public Policy. She is currently working on a thesis about migrant education in China. Besides writing for the DEAN Digest, she is also president of DEAN, co-directs its China Leadership Summit, and writes for a number of campus publications and blogs. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.