Tourism & Travel Culture in Modern China


A review of Itineraries for a Republic: Tourism and Travel Culture in Modern China, 1866-1954, by Yajun Mo.

This dissertation by Yajun Mo examines travel, travel writing, and travel photography in China from the final years of the Qing dynasty to the first years of the People’s Republic. Focusing on travel for leisure and exploration, rather than migration or settlement, Mo argues for the significant role played by travel writing and later photography in processes of nation-building and “worlding” China.  Written and visual accounts of travel overseas and across China’s borderlands by Qing officials, exiled reformers, and domestic adventurers gave contemporary readers an imagination of both a territorial nation-state and a justification for assertions of greater political control over border regions and populations. Mo situates these travels in the context of changing notions of pan-Asian identity and regionalism by juxtaposing Chinese accounts with travel writing by Japanese students who were in China in the early decades of the twentieth century. Ultimately, Mo presents travel writing and the development of a nascent tourism industry in China as part of a broader approach to understanding regionality and nationalism across East Asia.

Itineraries for a Republic is divided into five chapters, an introduction, and an epilogue. Mo sets out in the introduction the concept of “circuits of contact,” drawing on Mary Louise Pratt’s idea of “contact zones,” in order to foreground motion and movement in conceptualizing nationalism and nation-building in early twentieth-century East Asia. “Circuits of contact,” Mo argues, suggests “a multidirectional web of travel…connecting metropoles to semi-colonies, colonies to semi-colonies, and semi-colonies to their sovereign nation” (p. 2), pointing to not only the power dynamics between colonizers and the colonized, but moreover, drawing attention to how such distinctions may have been blurred, contested, and imagined in and through travel and the representation of travel. Specifically, three main themes – namely travel as a business, as narratives, and as a transnational practice (p. 4) – crosscut the analysis of travel experiences and travel writing in the following chapters.

Chapter 1 focuses on overseas travel accounts by late Qing diplomats and exiled reformers, for whom travel was deeply tied to ideas of modernity, science, and the global colonial order at the time. Mo argues that while early geographical publications by Qing officials were in part a response to the Opium War and the push to renew defense strategies, the knowledge of global geopolitics also appealed greatly to late Qing and early Republican travelers (p. 30). At the same time, educated Chinese began traveling overseas and writing about their experiences in publications such as Lin Zhen’s Xihai Jiyou Cao (Sketches of Travel in the West) and Wang Tao’s Manyou Suilu (Random Records on My Wandering). Considered alongside accounts of Qing diplomatic delegations and by exiles such as Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao, all of these travel experiences and writings expressed a sense of wonder at the effects of modern industrialization (particularly long-distance transportation) and, increasingly, the need for reforms within China in order to assert, and maintain, China’s political and cultural dominance in the face of encroaching colonialist and imperialist forces in the region.

Turning from travel overseas to journeys closer to home, Chapter 2 examines urban explorers and intellectuals in the early Republican period who traveled into Northwest China. Sometimes taken as part of foreign-led archaeological expeditions, and sometimes organized by individual Chinese, these trips and the subsequent written accounts asserted sentiments of China’s own national sovereignty over border territories inhabited by “barbaric” ethnic groups, as well as shared senses of a common Chinese heritage and history evidenced in archaeological findings. Academics such as Chen Wanli, Xu Xusheng, and Huang Wenbi accompanied British, American, and Swedish expeditions to sites at Dunhuang and in Xinjiang and were troubled by what they viewed as both the need for scientific investigations and for the Chinese ownership of archaeological findings. Urban intellectuals, inspired by accounts of frontier travel published in increasingly popular pictorial magazines such as Liang You (Young Companion), also sought opportunities to visit the Northwest. One such traveler was Zhuang Xueben, who traveled through Golog (now part of Qinghai province) in May 1934, photographing and documenting the people and cultures he encountered along the way. This work, like that of others at the time, drew on colonial and imperial discourses of racial difference and social hierarchies to both valorize the purity of the “savage” populations Zhuang encountered while relegating these customs and communities to a past, less desirable way of life.

Contemporaneous with these expeditions, leisure travel was also increasingly popularized and possible for urban Chinese, and Chapter 3 focuses on the creation of the first modern travel agency in China, the China Travel Service (CTS). First established as a sub-office of the Shanghai Commercial and Savings Bank in 1923, Chen Guangfu, the founder of CTS, eventually opened over sixty branch offices, as well as hotels in famous scenic areas, and published a travel magazine, Lüxing Zazhi (China Traveler). The rapid rise of CTS paralleled the growth of Chinese transportation in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as the burgeoning growth in and popularity of travel literature in the Republican era with magazines such as Liang You organizing their own national photography tours. CTS also organized overseas travel for Chinese students and religious pilgrimages to Mecca for Chinese Muslims, further expanding its clientele and the scope of travel opportunities imaginable by Chinese.

Wartime (1937-1945) travel writing and photography from China’s Southwest revealed both Han Chinese anxieties about the political loyalties of ethnic minorities in border regions as well as yearnings for national strength, unity, and sovereignty in the face of imperialism and invasion. Chapter 4 discusses how, in this era, travel from Shanghai to Yunnan province, for example, required transiting through Canton or Hong Kong and then Vietnam before re-entering China. Mo analyzes how journalist Sa Kongliao recorded this journey, as well as his further travels to Xinjiang, providing a reflection on how the Southwest was experienced through border crossings and how the unity of China was imagined. Another region of Southwest China, Xikang (Kham), also preoccupied intellectuals at the time, who were both fascinated by the ethnic diversity they encountered in the region and anxious about how to incorporate such diversity into the Chinese nation. Zhuang Xueben, the photographer, traveled extensively throughout this region, later publishing his work in Liang You. These images, Mo argues, while closely documenting differences in material culture, religious practices, and natural landscapes, ultimately served to reinforce the primacy of a Han nationalism in wartime China (p. 332-3).

Chapter 5 takes a transnational perspective on travel in China by analyzing the travels of Japanese students in Shanghai from Toa Dobun Shoin (East Asia Common Culture Academy) between 1907 and 1944. The juxtaposition of these Japanese students’ perception of a pan-Asian identity and the previous chapters on imaginations of Chinese nationalism and territoriality thus illuminates the influences and interplay of regional discourses during the first half of the twentieth century. In their travels and encounters with Western missionaries, ethnic minorities, and rural Chinese, these Japanese students reflected on presumed similarities a pan-Asian racial identity in the context of Japanese political expansion in the region. The epilogue traces the fate of CTS after the establishment of the People’s Republic. Although travel to Taiwan from the mainland had become increasingly popular after 1945, CTS was ultimately closed on the mainland in 1954. CTS was re-registered in both Hong Kong and Taiwan, however, and as Mo concludes, more research needs to be done on the interconnected histories of travel between PR China, colonial Hong Kong, and Nationalist Taiwan, especially in terms of East Asian regionalism and networks (p. 430).

With extensive analysis of primary sources, combined with detailed attention to the contexts of reform and wartime experiences, this dissertation makes an important contribution to studies of Chinese travel, tourism, nation-building, and representations of otherness (whether in foreign or frontier lands). This work sheds much-needed light on the historical progression of Chinese discourses and representations of travel and cultural encounters, ideas which continue to shape and define tourism travel, notions of cultural difference, and national imaginations in China today.

Jenny Chio
Assistant Professor of Anthropology
Emory University

Primary Sources

Guo Songtao, Liu Xihong, and Zhang Deyi. The First Chinese Embassy to the West; the Journals of Kuo-Sung-T’ao, Liu Hsi-Hung and Chang Te-yi. Translated and annotated by J. D. Frodsham. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974.
Liangyou huabao (LYHB). Shanghai: Liangyou tushu chuban gongsi, 1926-1945.
Lüxing zazhi (China Traveler). Shanghai: Zhongguo lüxing she, 1927-1954.
Sa Kongliao. Cong Xianggang Dao Xinjiang. Yinchuan: Ningxia chubanshe, 2000.
Wei Yuan. Haiguo tuzhi. Zhengzhou: Zhongzhou guji chubanshe, 1999.
Zhuang Xueben. Zhuang Xueben Quanji (The complete works of Zhuang Xueben). Edited by Li Mei, Wang Huangsheng, and Zhuang Wenjun. Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 2009.

Dissertation Information

University of California, Santa Cruz. 2011. 463 pp. Primary Advisor: Gail Hershatter.


Image: Wu Luen-tak, Zhao Jiabi, Lu Shangzhi, and Liang Desuo, eds. 1934. Zhonghua jing xiang: quanguo sheying zongji [中華景象:全國攝影總集]. Shanghai: Liangyou tushu yinshua youxian gongsi.

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