27 September 2009

Touring the National Past

England’s Guardian newspaper reports that the Chinese government in Beijing launched an initiative four years ago to promote “red tourism” in the interest of “reinvigorating” the “national ethos.” The article details a daily reenactment of the struggle to defend the city of Yan’an during the civil war between Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and Mao’s People’s Liberation Army. For a nominal fee, tourists are treated to explosions, troop movements, and even some of the surviving Communists who, rather like Native Americans employed by Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, relive past glories on the "battlefield."

Many Chinese visitors, such as Ma Xiaoyu, remark that the spectacle gives them a “patriotic” feeling. Officials gush that this is exactly the response they’re looking for, the event helping to “consolidate their faith in pursuing the road to socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

The article tells its story with an air of incredulity, noting that Mao’s China was no warm and fuzzy utopia. Millions died as a result of the Great Leap Forward, we learn. Tiananmen Square was obviously a horrific blight. The on-going crackdown on dissidents and other human rights abuses is a perpetual horror. Surely, the article seems to argue, the darker side of Chinese Communism deserves some mention as well?

I rather doubt that anybody is terribly surprised that the Chinese government fails to acknowledge its mistakes at tourist sites. Propaganda is not designed to bolster the opposition! Yet, at the same time, it is worth pointing out that even the most biased of national tourist sites cuts both ways—even in countries with tight controls on popular expression. One cannot offer a single narrative without prompting others to challenge it.

In fact, the real story of tourism goes far beyond the “trivial” daily experience of Disney-like theme parks or nearly identical “heritage” centers. Tourism is about selling national distinctiveness, nationalist narratives, and authenticity. Tourism developers must determine what they want to present, but even as they do so they prompt others to develop counter-narratives.

Consider a tale from considerably closer to home. Writing about Scotland in his book National Identity: Popular Culture and Everyday Life, geographer Tim Edensor tells the story of a recent addition to the Wallace Monument at Stirling. William Wallace (“Braveheart”) was a thirteenth century Irish “freedom fighter” who was anxious to defend Scotland against the advances of the English crown. Little is known about the historic Wallace except what can be gleaned from often much later documents. In 1995, Mel Gibson’s Oscar winning film “Braveheart” inspired Scottish audiences and even resulted in a noticeable spike in the polls for the Scottish National Party that is sometimes referred to as the “Braveheart Effect.”

Anxious to inspire memory of Scotland’s brave struggle, a new monument to Wallace was added to the Stirling commemorative complex. It looks very much like Mel Gibson and inspired considerable controversy in the pages of Scottish newspapers.

So, what matters about this? Simply that the act of creating a monument for the purpose (one imagines) of inspiring future generations of independence-minded Scots quickly sparked a debate about how the Scottish past should be understood. The monument itself speaks in a “language” that makes sense as long as Braveheart continues to be a popular film. Visitors cannot help but understand what the statue says.

Yet what does it say? Does it celebrate a famous Scottish hero or an American-born Australian actor? Does it make Scottish history come alive in a vibrant and living way (as the artist and funding organizations no doubt hoped) or does it make a mockery of the past? There are myriad answers.

The story in China is no different. Those of us with an interest in nationalism, in tourism, or simply in developing a deeper understanding of the world around us would do well to think not in terms of simple, straight-forward narratives about what is or is not presented at tourist sites or battle reenactments, but rather about the complicated discourse that hangs like smoke over a pool table in a shady bar around such tourist products.

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