Just another roadside attraction

Sun Quan

Sun Quan

When the film Braveheart came out, tourists flocked to Scotland to see the land and heritage of William Wallace (even though it was filmed in Ireland).  After Downton Abbey  became popular, tourists went looking for the ‘real’ Downton Abbey in England (even though there’s no Abbey in the town of Downton).  Literary tourism is also a common motivation for travel:  the popularity in Japan of Ann of Green Gables has resulted in a steady stream of Japanese tourists visiting Prince Edward Island.  Wordsworth fans go to England’s Lake District.  And Faulkner devotees go to Mississippi in search of the ‘real’ Yoknapatawpha County.

Literary and filmic travel has also been well established in China for some time.  and with tourism growing so rapidly throughout the country (as evidenced, more recently, by the deluge of tourists that swamped the country during the most recent ‘Golden Week’ holiday), there is a great deal of competition and urgency to put one’s town or village or city on the tourist’s itinerary.  Literary associations can help with this.  Even when the association is tenuous or even contrived and purely invented.  Perhaps my favorite example of this is the competition among different counties in Sichuan and Yunnan back in the 1990s over which place was the ‘real’ Shangri-la (Shangri-la, of course, was a fictional place invented by James Hilton in his novel Lost Horizon).  Zhongdian County, in Yunnan, won that battle, and is now officially called Shangri-la County.

China has a rich literary heritage that lends itself well to competition for tourists.  One recent example of this was discussed by Edward Wong in a New York Times article about the Zhejiang village of Longmen, near the city of Hangzhou.  There, for a $13 entrance fee, you can visit what is supposed to be the ancestral home of Sun Quan, one of the three major kings of China’s Three Kingdoms period – an era that was turned into popular legend by Luo Guangzhong’s Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  Wong comments on the ubiquity of villages like Longmen claiming some link to literary greatness:

There are countless hamlets, towns and cities across China that boast of links to the four or five towering classics of Chinese literature and the historical events on which those works are based. Virtually all Chinese learn these tales, which mix history and myth, and so residents of otherwise obscure locales leap at the chance to latch on to the legends, sometimes for profit.

In the western region of Xinjiang, for instance, the desert town of Turpan has become a big tourist draw because of its proximity to the Flaming Mountains, the site of a well-known episode in “Journey to the West,” a 16th-century novel about the Monkey King’s pilgrimage to India that, like “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms,” is also based on history.

Places associated with heroes and villains from “The Three Kingdoms” — Liu Bei, Zhuge Liang, Guan Yu, Cao Cao and, of course, Sun Quan — are scattered across China.

The crowded field of Three Kingdoms attractions has been been attracting attention from scholars who find many of the claims spurious.

“In China, there are simply too many places that have become famous because of the Three Kingdoms,” said Fang Beichen, a scholar of the Three Kingdoms at Sichuan University who has visited Longmen. “The number is over a hundred. It’s a very common phenomenon in China.”

Mr. Fang said Longmen’s ties to the Three Kingdoms were “at best mediocre.” South of the Yangtze River, where Sun Quan’s Kingdom of Wu once existed, there are places with more famous links to the ancient king. The area around Nanjing, where the kingdom’s capital once stood, has a mausoleum reputed to contain Mr. Sun’s remains and a stone citadel that Mr. Sun ordered built, Mr. Fang said.

For Longmen, though, it’s simply a question of surnames.  Most of the villagers are named Sun, and so any famous person with Sun as a surname has become fair game for the village’s associations with greatness, including Sun Yat-sen and Sun Tzu.

I recently published an article in the book Mapping Media in China on this phenomenon, which I called ‘making an empty show of strength.’  This is a Chinese idiom (虚张声势) that captures well what I think is going on in villages like Longmen.  They’ve figured out that success depends more on the sureness of one’s inventions than on the sureness of history itself.

This entry was posted in Imaginative Geographies, Rural China, Tourism. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s