Tourist Culture in China, 1895-1949


A review of On the Move: Tourist Culture in China, 1895-1949, by António Eduardo Hawthorne Barrento.

In recent decades, a substantial literature in English identifies tourism as a phenomenon of modernity and a significant part of nation-building processes. However, China in these studies usually appears either as a destination for Western and Japanese travelers or as a latecomer to modern tourism in the late twentieth century. To date there has been little attention paid to leisure travel in late Qing and Republican China, as the long-existing link between tourism and Chinese modernity in the first half of the twentieth century has been largely neglected. A meticulously researched dissertation, On the Move: Tourist Culture in China, 1895-1949 by António Eduardo Hawthorne Barrento fills this gap by tracing two aspects of the evolution of tourism in the late Qing and Republican period —“its expansion and in particular its extension into new touristic forms and attractions, and into the ways in which it was framed, stimulated, and promoted by ‘modern’ aspirations” (p. 9). It demonstrates tourist culture “as a product of modernity and as a marker of the modern times and specifically of modern mentality” (p. 9). Moreover, by delineating the political, social, and cultural changes exemplified through the evolution of tourism practices and tourist culture, Barrento underlines how the advancement of travel technology and services played a significant role in “national construction, the transformation of the elite … and the appropriation of foreign cultural models” (p. 231) in twentieth-century China.

Aside from an Introduction (Chapter 1) and Conclusion (Chapter 8), this dissertation is divided into two main sections. Delineating the expansion of Chinese tourism in general, Chapters 2 through 4 trace how the Chinese perceptions of leisure travel changed during the first half of the twentieth century. In the second section, Barrento turns to specific aspects of modern Chinese tourism, examining modern tourist attractions (Chapter 5), the seaside and hill resorts created by foreigners (Chapter 6), and Scout travel, walking tours, and summer camps (Chapter 7). Defining tourism as leisure travel with a specific interest in “being elsewhere,” On the Move highlights how tourist culture in modern China was “developed in a diffuse manner” (p. 13) — through networks formed by travel organizations, tourism businesses, and print media. Although, unlike the situation in other countries, tourism in modern China occurred without much state push, the larger political contexts, especially nation-building projects during and after the Nanjing decade, had, as Barrento has argued, direct or indirect effects on the evolution of tourism in modern China.

Situating the development of leisure travel in China within a global context, Chapter 2 follows the expansion of travel infrastructure and the growth of tourism interest in China since the early twentieth century. As leisure travel became more accessible to Chinese middle class in urban centers, Chinese citizens began increasingly to view tourism as a symbol of modernity. For example, Barrento pinpoints three travel-related narratives popular in Chinese print media during this period —“the perception of the lack of a widespread leisure travel culture in China, the discourse of a national tourism deficit and the perception of travel as hardship” (p. 31). These popular notions of tourism in China, or more precisely the anxieties about the lack of it, demonstrated a growing concern about China as a country lacking modernity. And by abandoning the pre-modern view of travel as hardship and embracing the modern equation of travel with enjoyment, Republican Chinese linked the promotion of tourism to the modernization aspirations of the Chinese Republic.

Moving beyond the narratives of enjoyment and pleasure, in Chapter 3, Barrento explores other “benefits” of leisure travel and tourism identified by Republican Chinese. Through an examination of a myriad of publications, he argues that, albeit nothing novel, various discourses of the significance of leisure travel were “largely impelled by a growing perception of a need to compete in the modern world and in particular by the sense of an impending threat to China’s survival” (p. 93). The utilitarian purposes of tourism, such as improving individual well-being, reveal “the recurrent presence of specific concerns with learning, education, experience, body and health” (p. 93). However, these concerns, when articulated in the early twentieth century, “were enhanced by impulses of modernity that called for them, while they were at the same time being modernly redefined” (p. 93). Embedded in various nation-building projects under the Nationalist government (among which the most notable was the New Life Movement), these narratives of tourism and leisure travel exemplified how the self-strengthening of individuals was tied to the self-strengthening of the nation.

In the same vein, Chapter 4 focuses on another articulation of the benefits of tourism in modern China — the betterment of society and nation. With the escalating of national crises, especially foreign aggression, in the early twentieth century, Chinese tourist culture in this era was embedded in a nationalist atmosphere. Calling it “the nationalization of the significance of travel,” Barrento describes how leisure travel and tourism became “a means of creating an emotional bond to the territory.” (pp. 114-5)  By no means unique to China, encouraging fellow countrymen to know their country through travel was a global phenomenon since the late nineteenth century. However, for many Chinese elites who viewed Chinese society as a “sheet of loose sand,” Barrento argues, “travel seemed to occupy the space of a final resort in the absence of an embracement … of the nation by the people” (pp. 122-3).

Chapter 5 traces how certain modern sites, such as factories, mines, and other sites of “modernscape,” became new touring places in China. Despite limited state intervention in tourism promotion, these modern attractions celebrated social advancement and therefore were supposed to be admired by visitors as of national importance. Discussing whether they were included in modern touring itineraries based on their symbolism of modernity or “their own right” (p. 124), Barrento identifies a split interest in these sites among modern tourists, Chinese and foreigners alike. On the one hand, these sites were often highly recognizable, especially in guidebooks or on postcards, portrayed as must-sees in standard itineraries of a certain locale. On the other hand, common leisure travelers sometimes preferred traditional scenic sights to these modern institutions, even though they consumed the visual representations of these modern constructions through tourism- and travel-related publications and commodities. Stressing this disparity between what one must see and what one actually visits, Barrento argues that it was “symptomatic of the general touristic feeling towards modernity” (p. 167).

Focusing on resort tourism, Chapter 6 delineates how the seaside and hill resorts created by foreigners in China generated new elements of tourist culture in modern China. Used as summer escapes by foreign sojourners in the treaty ports since the late nineteenth century, many seaside and hill resorts, such as Kuling, Beidaihe, and Moganshan, which had been enjoyed exclusively by foreigners, began to open to Chinese travelers by the early Republican period. More than a type of tourist destinations, these resorts were viewed as the quintessential sites of modern leisure travel experience — “places of refuge, ideal life and physical participation” (p. 196). Rather than treating it as a one-dimensional tourism practice or highlighting the appeal of its hedonistic side, Barrento instead plays with a series of contradictions of resort tourism, making interesting observations.  For example, he points out that tourism to these seaside and hill resorts were often associated with the pursuit of nature (such as direct contact with sun, water, and wind), although the resort spaces were characterized by man-made nature. Also, on the one hand, one could say summer escapes to these sites represented a tourist culture shaped by the desire for comfort. On the other hand, the necessity of these “getaways” signals that it was the discomfort of summer that generated a need to be elsewhere. Strengthening the body through nature and sports was an intrinsic part of resort tourism. Arguing that resort tourism has “a strong parallel in gentry travel” (p. 199), Barrento draws a comparison between the cultural practices generated by resort tourism and the elite culture shaped by gentry travel.

In Chapter 7, Barrento examines three different yet related forms of travel practices —“leisure travel as part of the Scouting activity, leisure travel in the form of the walking tour, and leisure travel in the form of the displaced, ‘sedentary’ experience of summer camps” (p. 200). Moving away from leisure travel for the purpose of pleasure and comfort, these three types of travel were physically oriented, centering on activities that helped train one’s body, character, and skills, which ultimately created strong citizens. All can be framed within a nationalist rhetoric, these three leisure travel practices also had different focuses. Whereas, targeting children, Scout travel, and summer camps were highly organized, regimented, and disciplined, long-distance walking projects, developed at the end of the 1920s and in the early 1930s, were often loosely planned. All highlighting the importance of physical strength, these types of tourism also underpinned the importance of travel in the nation-building process of modern China. If Scout travel and summer camps aimed at making active and strong young citizens for the Republic, walking tours were envisioned by their participants as “a means of physically joining [the nation], knowing it” (p. 213). Proliferating at a time of political fragmentation, they were “in conformity with an elaborate set of individual and collective agendas, that an enhanced engagement by the Nationalist state in citizen-building and nation- building now allowed to pursue” (p. 230).

On the Move explores the entangled nature of various travel narratives and practices in late Qing and Republican China. Relying on publications from major tourism organizations such as the Unison Travel Party (yousheng lüxingtuan) and the China Travel Service, Barrento also consults a variety of travel-related publications, such as guidebooks, travel hygiene handbooks, and works introducing Scout travel, in Chinese and English. Aside from the impressive amount of information he has introduced in this dissertation, some analytical approaches Barrento has taken also stand out. Although a China-focused study, he positions the development of Chinese tourist culture within a global framework, implying the co-evalness between Chinese and Western modernity. Another noticeable treatment in this dissertation is his examination of the relation between the nation-state and tourist culture. On the one hand, as he points out at the very beginning, the Chinese state kept its distance from tourism promotion as the development of tourist culture occurred very much on the margin of the political chronology of the Chinese Republic. On the other hand, tourist culture in modern China, as Barrento argues in several places, were deeply influenced by state-building projects such as the New Life Movement, the Nationalist movement, and the prevalent expressions of nationalism. An important study on modern Chinese tourist culture, On the Move renders the importance of travel and tourism in illuminating the complex nature of Chinese modernity and nationalism.

Yajun Mo
Assistant Professor
Department of History
Long Island University

Primary Sources

Lüxing zazhi 旅行雑誌, published by Chinese Travel Service
Yousheng yuekan友聲月刊, published by Unison Travel Party
A variety of guidebooks, travelogues, and tourism-related handbooks.

Dissertation Information

School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, 2012. 376 pp. Primary Advisor: Andrea Janku.

Image: Dao Putuo qu! 到普陀去! , Yousheng lüxingtuan, [brochure], undated, later than 1934, cover.

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