I first met Shuosan in the summer of 2015 while on a fellowship in Yunnan, China. I was twenty, with an burgeoning love of writing and the performing arts; he was an established painter, singer, and local cultural figure. We were kindred spirits and hit it off immediately.  Earlier that year Shuosan had retired from his government post and begun to concentrate his energy on realizing a project he had long imagined: a center for the traditional culture of his ethnic minority group. Together we traveled his native Xishuangbanna, and he introduced me to the site in his home village where he intended to break ground.

Shuosan is from an ethnic group called the Akha (the Akha in China are considered part of the officially recognized Hani ethnic minority). He has made it his life’s work to preserve and celebrate the traditional artistic, ceremonial, and culinary practices of his people, and to educate both Akha and non-Akha people about this cultural heritage. In the rapid modernization of China over the last several decades, this has been no easy task, as more and more ethnic minority people have left their rural home villages in favor of better job opportunities in cities and towns.

From 2015 - 2019 Shuosan built the Dianhangcao Cultural Center, a public space for performances, exhibitions, and cultural exchanges that celebrate and shine light on Akha traditions. The center encourages young Akha people living and working in cities to return to a village setting and reconnect with their roots. It also welcomes people of all cultural backgrounds to come and learn about Akha culture.

Partial view of Dianhangcao Cultural Center, Mangang Village, Xishuangbanna (云南省西双版纳傣族自治州曼岗村)

I have had the honor of working with Shuosan on the development of Dianhangcao since we met in 2015. In 2016 I returned to Mangang Village to work with and learn from him as the first stage of Dianhangcao approached completion and we celebrated the center’s opening ceremony. Most recently, I made a short documentary about Shuosan and his center with cinematographer Christine Schindler that intends to share the project with a broad audience. You can check out that piece here.

Shuosan is many things: writer, painter, historian, singer, clothing designer, and even horticulturalist.

To me, he is both mentor and friend. In Chinese: 良师益友.