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Forbidden Cities, Mainland Tourists

May 14, 2012

Tourists at the Forbidden City, Beijing (May 12, 2012)

It would be easy and accurate to say that most of China has little in the way of tourist amenities, especially when we look beyond the cosmopolitan cities along the coast, such as Beijing, Shanghai, and so on.  Even in these cities, which have become iconic in the Western imagination and even have rather substantial expat communities (the latter of which are not even close to being integrated with China’s native population), superheated growth has been driven by manufacturing and the leveraging of tremendous amounts of cheap labor in the form of migrant workers from the Western parts of China.  And so while there’s much in the way of great subways and roads for getting product to the global marketplace, there’s not much thought given, thus far, to the kind of easy deference that travelers routinely are given in tourist economies like Europe or even the United States.  China makes money by *making* things, not by showing off the residue of its religious traditions, architecture, cuisine, or aristocratic ways of life.  Those residues are present in China, but it’s apparent that it’s not where the money is.  To test this theory, have a look Nanjing’s Buddhist temple area, which is now almost entirely obscured by an enormous pedestrian shopping mall.

But this is not to say that there’s no tourism in China, for there’s a huge interest on the part of ordinary Chinese people to learn in person about their history.  Westerners are extremely scarce, still, but Chinese are afoot in their own country, in untold numbers.  Chinese tourists are of all ages, but the older tourists capture the eye, the wizened rural men with their home-made suits and the spry matrons in red-plaid scarves and blazers.  Many are clustered in tour groups, which means everyone has on the same red floppy sun hats or crimson trucker hats, and everyone stays close to the hip, young tour guide who’s chirping into the noisy lo-fi portable PA systems that are standard issue for all Chinese tour guides.  It’s clear that the older folks are not inclined, however, and sometimes are not able, to read things such as travel guides or listen to chirping young guides.  Older now and making the grand (last?) tour of China with their younger relatives, much of their history has come in the form of propaganda, as with the rote memorization by the nation’s schoolchildren of Communist Party songs about the greatness of Chairman Mao and the splendors of Beijing, his adopted home city and center of political power.   It’s obvious as well, that the rest of their history was written into their experience by tough labor, agricultural and existential.

Now that financial means and political changes have made it possible for rural people to go on the tourist circuit of China, the people of China are doing everything they can to absorb what’s left of the historic sites that still exist, after centuries of both imperialist exploitation and homegrown cultural/political disasters.  Everywhere we go, as with our visit to Beijing’s Forbidden Citylast week, the swelling Chinese crowds surge with us.  And even the infamous “forbidden city” is now open to everyone with 35 RMB cash money, but also emptied of its most important artifacts, devoid of any sign of curatorial narrative that would explain exactly what the great imperial complex might actually signify.   And still, the masses of tourists continue on their hunt for evidence of just what’s been going on in their country these past several  centuries, while they’ve been busy working.

During the decades ahead, this curiosity may become more pressing, and the crowds may grow larger.  We hear today that 100 new airports are under construction in China.  Compared with only 2 in the USA.

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