Shapin Market - Yunnan, China:

A Window to the World

by Avner Ofer

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Traveling through foreign lands and witnessing unique and diverse cultures and lifestyles, was a mirror to my own home-land and its culture. Particularly, I found markets places that offer the most extensive insight to the locals' way of life and spent much time searching for them.
The epitome of fascinating markets was the Monday market in Shapin, a small provincial town in the Yunnan province of China.
From the city of Dali it was a pleasant forty-five minute drive into this rural landscape characterized by many minority groups existing on subsistence farming and fishing. Removed from the many foreign tourists who congregate on the shores of lake Erhai in Dali, Shaping was a locals' scene.
Every Monday, the villagers from the surrounding countryside gather in an open area on the outskirts of town, where they sell, buy and trade goods for the following week.
Bustling with colors, sounds and smells, this market lasted from early morning to the afternoon. Trucks transporting the local villagers with their products kept arriving with more people and goods. Interestingly, the trucks' origin could be detected according to the peoples' outfits. Each truck brought groups of distinct minority groups, each wearing their traditional clothes.
Naxi woman from farther north, characterized by their blue outfits that included trousers, shirt, apron, vest and head cover, came for their weekly shopping. The colorfully dressed Bai woman, who are the most prominent majority group in the region, were recognizable by their bright-colored clothes. Usually, they wear simple trousers, a light colored shirt, a bright red or light blue vest decorated with embroidery, and a black or blue apron tied at the waist with a color cloth. They too wore head covers which were either the traditional colorful towel or a straw hat or both. The men seemed less distinct but many of the older men wore the uniform blue-colored working clothes made famous by Mao Zedong.

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Shapin is located on the north-west shores of Lake Erhai. The local community depends heavily on fishing and the market proved that. Large straw objects resembling elongated baskets were Scattered around the place. When carried away it seemed as though these baskets grew legs since they covered half the person’s body. It turned out that these were fishing traps used by all the villagers residing around the lake.
Wood, transported on the backs of horses from afar, plays a key role in people’s lives. It is a rare commodity on relatively barren hillsides, but still is the major source of fuel for most households.

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Shapin market is the equivalent of a Wall-Mart or a K-Mart since it accommodates everyone’s needs. Unlike in the U.S, for these locals the market is all they have. So, it is not surprising to find everything from clothes, belts, embroidery objects, jewelry, household utensils such as brushes, pots and pans, and music instruments. Local professionals such as tailors with their old sewing machines fixing garments, blacksmiths and pot makers also visit the market as a means of making a living. A Chinese medicine specialist offered one of the most interesting services. With his array of tools and herbs he examined the patient and then prescribed and prepared the necessary herbs.

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Shapin4_s.jpg (11362 bytes) Other clues to the needs of the local population was through the livestock that was sold. Chickens and pigs were the most prevalent and an important commodity. Roosters fetched a higher price, as did young pigs that are then raised and bred. The locals transported the pigs in baskets on the backs of trucks, on their backs and on baskets mounted on bicycles. The handling of pigs is also an indication to their social value. What seems like harsh to the western eyes is in fact a way of life and a necessity for these people. The pigs are an important commodity and are treated as such.

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Under large white umbrellas, protected from the beating sun, produce was sold. Again, a wide array of products were available. Watermelons, dried red chilies, prawns from the lake, ginger roots, onions, green vegetables, rice noodles and an assortment of other unknown products were all displayed on makeshift tables or laid out on bags along the ground.

Apart from the raw produce, a variety of prepared food was available to the visitors. An assortment of rice cakes and sweets, spicy cabbage soup served in ceramic bowls and reusable wooden chop sticks and many other dishes that I could not recognized lined one side of the market.

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Woman comprised the majority of the market shoppers. They carried large baskets on their backs, held on their forehead with a rope, in which they placed the goods they bought. The heavy baskets loaded with all this material seemed a huge burden, but yet many of the older woman carried these baskets with vigilance and determination that was admirable to observe.

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As people loaded the trucks on their way home, I walked down to the waterfront to enjoy the village and the view of the lake. Small wooden fishing boats, nets and traps lined the banks of the lake while a few people plied the waters using long wooden sticks to maneuver. I explored a bit longer the lake area and headed back to Dali.

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Spending those hours wandering through stalls, talking with people, trying the food and just absorbing the atmosphere opened a window to the world of these minority groups. Through this window I not only saw their daily way of life, material goods and economic need, but rather witnessed the social interaction between different groups of people within a community. This window opened up a new understanding into a unique and foreign society and helped make me more appreciative of other cultures including my own.






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