Chinese tourist sites follow a set of conventions that seem to go back hundreds or thousands of years, far into a past when tourism, as we understand it, did not yet exist. Essentially we’re dealing with named and inscribed sites. I have visited many in my Chinese travels, but since I can’t read the language I have formed my ideas about them from reading English-language signage and asking my wife to translate or explain. So I may have misunderstood the nuances. Here nevertheless are my impressions.
A Chinese tourist site always originates with an educated male member of the elite some time during the past 2000 years. On his travels he sees something poetically inspiring, usually but not always a piece of unusual natural or rural scenery, and he writes a few lines about it. The following causal chain is unclear to me, but what ends up happening is that the place gets named for the guy’s poem, something like “Moonlight On Crane Pond” or “Tiger Boulder With Dragon’s Tail”, the poem is incised on a stele or convenient rock face at the site, and the place enters some kind of central canonical list of poetic places. (I guess the site’s success in this regard will depend to some extent both on the man’s fame and on the quality of his poetry.) Through the centuries similar men will then continue to visit the site, write poetry about it, and possibly add more inscriptions.
Wednesday we visited a typical example of these places near Hecheng (“Qingtian City”). Shimen, “Stone Door”, is a dramatic canyon with an extremely high and beautiful waterfall at the inner end. Under a large rock shelter at the side of the waterfall’s lower pool are poetic inscriptions from about 20 famous scholars, and in the vicinity are several other named sites that apparently owe their existence to other elite tourists who came to visit the waterfall site and ended up writing their “Kilroy was here” poetry about something else nearby that caught their fancy. It’s the same around the West Lake in Hangzhou, where you’ll find a named and inscribed site behind every bush. I imagine that stone carvers could always make a living at places like these by waiting for rich men to come by for a peek, and immortalising their poetic effusions in stone.
The Chinese tourist sites I’ve visited since 2001 have all been very well kept, to the extent that there is little to be seen there that is older than the 1990s. Paths, signposts, buildings, terracing and flood-control walls: everything’s new. The only old stuff visible is mostly cliffside sculptural reliefs, vandalised during one or another of the Chinese’s recurring iconoclastic phases such as the Cultural Revolution (or by European colonial powers). And then there are the inscriptions, which I cannot date at all since the script was standardised millennia ago and they’re usually well painted in. But under the Shimen rock shelter I was pleased to find a number of badly worn, unpainted inscriptions that the management clearly didn’t expect us tourists to want to read. I guess they’re from visitors who came long ago and are not much remembered today.
The Chinese concept of a famous site is similar to the Japanese uta-makura, a term I picked up from the 17th century poet Basho’s lovely little travelogue “The Narrow Road to the Interior”. Literally meaning “poem pillow” (!?), the uta-makura is a kind of poetic allusion. Poet A writes about, say, plum blossom in Yokohama, and the poem becomes widely read. Poets B, C and D can then mention Yokohama as a poetic shorthand for plum blossom: it has become an uta-makura. During their trip to the interior, Basho and his friends move from uta-makura to uta-makura, paying little attention to anything that hasn’t been written about in famous poetry. To them, poetry is not about beautiful scenery – it’s the scenery that is about poetry.
This seems very similar to the Chinese idea. Classical education was all about studying and memorising famous ancient texts. And nature appreciation is all about visiting named and inscribed sites whose beauty is vouchsafed by famous ancient poets. If I visit a beautiful place that nobody has written poetry about, and do not write poetry about it myself and hire a stone carver, I might as well not go at all.