The World of Chinese




Li Xiaoliang, also known as Alexvi, is a visual artist, fashion photograph­er, and the founder of ASTUDIO in Beijing, China. Born in 1984, he started taking photos while attending Beijing Jiaotong University, and has shot covers for GQ, Esquire, Bazaar Art, ELLE Men, and Rolling Stone. He won the Photobook Awards Martin Parr Edition in

2015 with and the Fine Art Photograph­y Awards in London for

His work is on exhibit at K11 Art Museum in Shanghai through February 15.

Mass tourism in China is not a new phenomenon. In Touring China: A History of Travel Culture, 1912-1949, historian Yajun Mo explores the developmen­t of the travel industry in China in the Republican era, a time when urbanites took to the rails, roads, rivers, and even skies to see the sights of their nation—and eerily prefigures some of the challenges facing China’s tourism industry a century later.

Mo, an associate professor of history at Boston College, describes how tourist activities in the years before 1949 “allowed Chinese citizens to redefine postimperi­al China in a period of dramatic political change.” Modern transporta­tion allowed tourists to explore once difficult-toaccess regions. New business models, including the first major domestic travel agency, the China Travel Service, offered ticket services and tour packages to cater to demand.

The expansion of print media in early 20th-century Chinese cities led to popular specialty magazines like China Travel, whose travel articles and photograph­s inspired readers to plan their voyages. Mo argues participat­ing in travel and tourism was a novel form of leisure for a burgeoning Chinese urban elite. Travel as recreation was seen as vogue and Western, a way to display wealth and allow travelers to present an image of sophistica­tion and modernity.

According to Mo, Chinese travelers were also part of a zeitgeist, to build a coherent and unified nation from the ruins of the Qing Empire. Scholars and researcher­s—as well as more adventurou­s tourists—traveled into the frontiers of the new nation.

Tourism in China’s southweste­rn regions after the Republic of China moved its capital to Chongqing in 1937, and to Taiwan after the war against Japan ended in 1945, allowed patriotic tourists to symbolical­ly claim sovereignt­y over contested areas. As Mo argues, “These diverse forms of modern travel contribute­d to the imaginatio­n of China as a congruent national space.”

Tourism was not only a way for Chinese to define the boundaries of their own nation, but to reclaim their country after nearly a century of foreign imperialis­m. Early 20thcentur­y Chinese travelers described by Mo shared their transporta­tion and destinatio­ns with foreign tourists and expatriate residents, the latter seeking to re-create Western-style tourism spaces inside China.

Particular­ly galling for Chinese travelers, writes Mo, were policies of racial segregatio­n for accommodat­ion and transport, creating “racial boundaries that differenti­ated Western-style tourism spaces from the rest of China.”

Colonialis­m and colonialis­t attitudes have long played a part in the evolution of the travel industry. As early as the 18th century, Thomas Cook promised his clients the means to see the magical sights of the British Empire while assuring they would be protected from being ripped off or robbed by ungrateful locals. Even today, colonial nostalgia continues to play a role in attracting visitors to Asia—the official website of the Astor in Tianjin lauds how the historic hotel “evokes the romance of a bygone era.”

Chinese travelers were not immune to some of these same colonialis­t attitudes. Mo describes how the Chinese academic Liu Bannong, who journeyed to northweste­rn China with the Swedish geographer Sven Hedin in the 1920s, complained about Hedin’s use of the term “expedition” (translated as 远征) to refer to their mission. Expedition­s, as Liu Bannong and his Chinese colleagues understood them, “were carried out among the ‘blacks and savages,’ and it would be insulting to use the term in China, a country with an ancient culture,” Mo writes.

Yet Hedin and Liu shared an attitude toward the regions through which they were traveling. The European explorer and the Chinese scholar considered the frontiers of the old Qing Empire as places to be explored. Liu and the other Chinese scholars on the trip “had no qualm about considerin­g the nonhan peoples in the Northwest as less civilized,” writes Mo.

While the book does not cover the post-1949 period, Mo’s research suggests some interestin­g continuiti­es between tourism in China in the early 20th century and today. There were over 3.43 billion domestic trips in China last year, a 19 percent increase over 2020. The China Tourism Academy expects that trend to continue in 2022, estimating domestic tourism will be at about 70 percent of pre-pandemic totals this year.

Many of the trends that drove the rise of tourism in an earlier era are part of the 21st-century expansion, including greater disposable wealth, increasing­ly sophistica­ted media, and significan­t infrastruc­ture improvemen­ts that make travel easier and destinatio­ns more accessible. While overt racial segregatio­n is no longer an issue between foreign and Chinese tourists traveling in China, similar conflicts over issues of sovereignt­y, representa­tion, and travel culture persist into the 21st century.

On modern internatio­nal travel websites like Trip Advisor, non-chinese travelers to popular destinatio­ns like Lijiang Old Town in Yunnan province, and the karst mountains surroundin­g Yangshuo in Guangxi, lament “hordes”

of Chinese tourists or offer wistful reminisces of these places before they were “discovered” by domestic travelers. Internatio­nal travel guides to China warn about the creeping influence of commercial­ization and a lack of “authentici­ty.”

At the same time, portrayals of western China and non-han nationalit­ies in contempora­ry Chinese travel literature reveal a similar fixation on the sensual and the exotic. Domestic travel agencies advertise excursions to ethnic minority regions in Yunnan and other parts of China using colorful photos of women in traditiona­l clothing, emphasizin­g the people’s singing, dancing, and handicraft­s.

This is also not a new phenomenon. Mo’s book examines how representa­tion of non-han people in Republican­era print culture often emphasized frontier regions’ unusual, colorful, and sensual attraction­s. This production of knowledge about frontier regions helped bind those areas to the center while also implicitly reinforcin­g the idea that the nation would come to be defined by Han sensibilit­ies.

Traveling to new places is a magical experience, but it is not a politicall­y inert act. Whether it’s Anthony Bourdain eating pig anus in Africa, or ordinary travelers looking for that perfect selfie to put on Instagram or Wechat, how people travel, where they go, and how they interact, interpret, and represent what they have seen shape and reinforce perception­s of those places. Mo’s book carries a reminder of the powerful influence travel has on our world, and the people we leave behind when we pack our suitcases and head back home.

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 ?? ?? Li captured and edited these images of urban isolation with his own smart phone
Li captured and edited these images of urban isolation with his own smart phone
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