Walter Chan reviews Yajun Mo’s examination of early Chinese travel culture.
Yajun Mo, Touring China: A History of Travel Culture, 1912-1949 (Cornell University Press, 2021), 318pp.
Because of the strict entry control under COVID, travelling has not been a popular activity for the Hongkonger for more than a year. Even travelling to mainland China, into which Hong Kong has been mostly integrated, is not as convenient as it once was. Having studied at schools in Hong Kong, l find myself reminiscing about the good old days when affordable, or even fully sponsored, trips to China were available under the grand project of national education – something that was put in place to introduce us to a shared heritage that might help us to bridge some of the differences between us and our dear Chinese fellows. Such was the opportunity of exchange and the unique experiences shared by Hong Kong students, and probably by those in Macau and Taiwan as well.
Casting light on the foundation and development of domestic tourism in Republican China, Yajun Mo’s Touring China: A History of Travel Culture, 1912-1949 reveals that Hong Kong’s case is not a total oddity in the trajectory of history. Tourism, the reader learns, is neither necessarily (politically) neutral nor something that is of the individual. In Mo’s reading, the geobody of China has always been envisioned as a heterotopia for nation building, which is to say something produced and consumed by the middle-classes, intellectuals, businesses, and governments.
The book’s first chapter begins with tracing institutions such as private companies and civic organisations which emerged first as travel clubs or travel agents. These service providers took up the role of developing and promoting domestic tourism, with their underlying desire for a unified national market that could build a nationalist tourism industry. We can still spot one of its kind, China Travel Service, which remains active today in Hong Kong and is well-known by local people as the agent for those who wish to apply for the “Home Return Permit” (that is, the Mainland Travel Permit for Hong Kong and Macao Residents). Back then, their consumers were the middle- and upper-class urbanites, and tourism was both a symbol and ritual of their cosmopolitan citizenship.
The second chapter, however, moves on to scrutinise the aspiration of the tourist industry through an examination of its printed materials. Here, the author delves into the notion of quanguo (全國), meaning “the nation as a whole”, represented by the panoramic images of tourist destinations rendered in these publications. Understood like this, Mo leads the reader away from thinking of such materials as merely guidebooks, travelogues, or marketing strategies. Indeed, given the understanding that the Republic had “inherited” the entire Qing realm as its national space and the reality that warlords had been the de facto rulers of individual provinces, Mo postulates that “tourism and travel culture became the linchpin in piecing together the seeming incongruence between the political reality of fragmentation and the idealized phantasm of the wholeness of modern China”. The urban bourgeoisie who shared such a vision were actualising the symbolic domestication of the Chinese geobody, though inspired by the colonial logic of appropriating colonies for the metropole, by setting a foot on each province, and especially, the frontiers.
Such a desire for domestication of national space through domestic tourism is further investigated in the subsequent chapters. The explorations of spatial peripheries were fuelled by different impulses of various groups under specific circumstances: the Northwest (chapter 3) as an intellectual and adventurous route to trace a spatiotemporally distanced heritage; the Southwest (chapter 4) as a haven of resistance and national revival during the wartime exodus from Japanese occupation; and Manchuria and Taiwan (chapter 5) as a reassertion of sovereignty in the territories and communities formerly seized by the Japanese regime.
The writer concludes with the legacy of travel culture after the Republican era. The industry came under strict control during the high time of Maoism but with the foundation laid by the Nationalist government, tourism in post-Maoist era soon flourished. The socialist regime not only expanded the list of tourist spots to revolutionary sites, but also added its patriotic nuance in promoting traditional destinations. A typical example would be the pilgrimage to the Great Wall, conjured by a famous line from Mao’s verse, “budao changcheng fei haohan (不到長城非好漢)” – one who fails to reach the Great Wall is not a true man. Mo’s book also highlights mainland China’s extensive outbound tourism, which she reads at times as a means of exerting influence over the semi-autonomous regions of Taiwan, Macau, and Hong Kong. To add to Mo’s observation, it’s hard to imagine that the aforesaid strategy of inviting tourists to the mainland was not done in the spirit of integration.
In sum, Touring China is an insightful study. It encompasses a wide range of original sources and pieces them together into a coherent narrative. Read in concert with East-West perspectives, this work leads to a more comprehensive picture of how domestic tourism functions within a multidimensional understanding of colonial practices. For this reason alone, this work is recommended not only to historical researchers but also general readers who are interested in heritage and culture, and how they have been conceptualised and transformed over time. For a Hongkonger, it is also worth reading for the way it unveils an important but all-too-often unwritten aspect of Hong Kong’s past.
Walter Chan read English literature in Hong Kong and Archaeology in London. He is an enthusiast of history, ethnography, architecture, and museums.