Ten Days out of the Middle Kingdom

July 7, 2011

On April 18, The New Yorker published The Grand Tour, a long piece about ordinary Chinese pouring out of China and visiting the world as tourists a few days at a time and Europe is the most popular destination.

Evan Osnos, The New Yorker’s correspondent in China, where he has lived since 2005, wrote the piece.

To research it, Osnos joined a “Classic European” Chinese bus tour that would “traverse five countries in ten days”.  He was the only non-Chinese, and the 38 members of the tour ranged in age from six to seventy.

At 16 printed pages, it took me two sittings to read The Grand Tour, but I found it to be worth my time to learn how serious China is about joining the global community.

However, this transition did not come about easily.

An ancient Chinese proverb says, “You can be comfortable at home for a thousand days, or step out the door and run right into trouble.” Then Confucius threw guilt into the mix when he taught, “While your parents are alive, it is better not to travel far away.”

In fact, in the famous letter that Emperor Qianlong wrote to King George of Britain in 1793, he indicated there was no desire to have foreigners visit or live in China or for the Chinese to leave. “As your Ambassador can see for himself, we possess all things. I set no value on objects strange or ingenious, and have no use for your country’s manufactures.… The distinction between Chinese and barbarian is most strict, and your Ambassador’s request that barbarians shall be given full liberty to disseminate their religion is utterly unreasonable.”

In addition, Osnos said, Mao considered tourism anti-Socialist, so it wasn’t until 1978, a few years after his death, that Chinese started to gain approval to travel to other countries, and in 1997 the government allowed Chinese tourists to visit other counties in a “planned, organized and controlled manner”.

Thirteen years later in 2010, “Fifty-seven million Chinese traveled outside China,” Osnos wrote, “ranking China third worldwide in international tourism.”

During the tour, the first stop was in the modest German city of Trier, which the Chinese language guidebook described as the “Mecca of the Chinese people”.  Trier was the birthplace of Karl Marx, and there was an early morning photo opportunity in front of the house where Marx was born.

In one conversation with another member of the tour, Osnos learns what Chinese think of the Marxist revolutionary ideas that ruled the country under Mao from 1949 to 1978. “We spent thirty years on what we now know was a disaster,” one of the Chinese tourists said.

As for middle class Chinese wanting to leave China to live in other countries, think again. In another conversation in the Swiss town of Interlaken, Osnos heard, “Other than different buildings, the Seine didn’t look all that different from the Huangpu (river in Shanghai). Subway? We have a subway. You name it, we’ve got it.”

A Chinese sanitation engineer on the tour could not help but notice in Milan, Italy the abundant graffiti and overstuffed trash bins. His comment, “If it was like this in Shanghai, old folks would be calling us all afternoon to complain.”

If you want to discover more of how Chinese see the world and what they do as tourists outside China , I suggest spending time reading The Grand Tour.  As I said earlier, it was worth my time.

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Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of the concubine saga, My Splendid Concubine & Our Hart. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too.

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