Yunnan's 18 oddities



Every country around the world offers its share of things considered weird, strange or wacky. Yunnan has its own yellow directory of 'oddball' attractions that have come to be enshrined in what is called 'Yunnan’s 18 Oddities.' They are regional attractions or customs considered to be unfamiliar, unusual or odd.

It may be argued that they were 'unusual’ in the not-too-distant past, 'unusual' that is to outsiders or on levels beyond the understanding of outsiders to the tradition—bamboo hats used as rice or wok covers; eggs tied up vertically in bundles like long-braided hair and sold in markets; trains moving slower than cars because  they have to cut through narrow, precipitous tunnels, or that Yunnan did not have its own domestic railway system in the early twentieth century. It did however, have an international railway line built by the French stretching some 460 kilometers from Kunming to Hanoi.

These 'oddities' might also well be ‘a tourist stunt,’ as one blogger has written, presented or packaged as part of an ‘exotic,’ ‘mysterious’ Yunnan tour for Chinese and foreign tourists.

Depending on what you have read, online or otherwise, there is no agreement to what exactly are the official 'traditional' or 'representative' 18 Oddities. Let’s look at one 'traditional' list compiled by Zhang Nan published in 2002. 

According to Zhang, these 'oddities' have circulated as texts transmitted primarily by oral means since the 1940s. Here are some examples: 

--ice cakes called ear pieces.

--counting broad beans as you sell them.  

--three mosquitoes make a dish.

Other variations that make up the 'traditional 18' include:

--going by overhead cable is faster than taking a ferry boat

--fire and water worshipped as gods

--houses built on bamboo or wooden pillars

--rice is cooked in a bamboo tube

The explanations that I have read in Chinese for the above entries are vaguely informative, but then they are not written with an anthropologist in mind, or anybody else who would like to gain a better appreciation or deeper understanding of how these customs or modes of behavior came about.   

Apart from the 'traditional 18' and their variants, there are also '18 folk oddities,' as well as 'new editions' or creative improvisations on the traditional 18. In one text I recently consulted, the editors have ‘tracked down’ 81 unusual attractions in the province!

The 'new editions' have circulated since the late 1970s and early 198os and include 'Seagulls Have Arrived in the Spring City', 'Ants are Jumping Vegetables,' and 'Everybody Loves Across the Bridge Rice Noodles.'

Popular destinations and food have also succumbed to the lure of the 18 oddities. The chain restaurant Across the Bridge Rice Noodles, as one example, opened its doors in Kunming in early September 1990, and its huge popularity spawned its own oddities named after its founding chef and CEO Ji Xinyuan (吉鑫园十八怪).

The traditional 18 oddities have become a permanent fixture of the province, and there is no shortage of creative offshoots. Yunnan is very much a province out of the ordinary—culturally, linguistically, a ‘biodiversity hotspot’ as Conservation International called the province in 2007—but rather than just read what others consider 'unusual', 'odd' or 'unique' about the province, get busy and start compiling a list of your own.

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