Accepted paper:

Tourist Landscape Narratives and Visuality at a Pilgrimage/World Heritage Site in West China


Donald Sutton (Carnegie Mellon University)

Paper short abstract:

Han Chinese tourist narratives at a west China site are acts of appropriation, like the pilgrim narratives about protective gods. The paper emphasizes the visuality of tourist narratives and practices and links both with notions of romance and ethnicity in the official Chinese media.

Paper long abstract:

The paper examines a landscape in western China with layered representations superimposed by Tibetan and Chinese pilgrims and modern-day tourists. Huanglong (Yellow Dragon) in the Aba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Region has been a World Heritage site only since 1992 but a pilgrimage center since the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). The central site is a system of boardwalks and stone paths linking several temples and scenic spots over a sloping valley of travertine pools, caves and waterfalls. Key places within the site constitute a system of way-stations suggesting contrasting meanings to the site's visitors depending on their provenance and knowledge. Through the shifting role of way-stations with attached mythic-historical stories the Huanglong landscape may be regarded as an active participant in an evolving representational system spelling out power relations involving religion, ethnicity and environmentalism. Focusing on Han Chinese tourists, the latest arrivals at this site, the paper interprets their stories and rituals as creative efforts to appropriate the power of the site and its way-stations, efforts that reflect the sentimentalized TV romances and portrayals of ethnic minorities circulating in the urban China mass media. The first half of the paper compares three tourist narratives with longer established ones, noting their more visual character. The second half examines the different form and effects of tourist visuality in relation to such themes as the objectivization of Tibetans and other national minorities, and nostalgia for the historical and the bucolic seen to be lost in the urbanized east. Like their narratives, tourist practices are seen as forms of commodification and appropriation, that also remake the Han Chinese tourist as a person of status. Tension between tourists' experience and official ideology leaves room for individual agency, though less than for others sharing the site.

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panel G2
Tourism and landscape narratives