Orientalism and tourism. Game of love, Chinese style.

Game of love, Chinese style.

Nowhere is the persistence of Orientalist ways of viewing the non-Western Other so obvious than in tourism brochures, as I was reminded when reading an article titled “Game of Love, Chinese Style” in the most recent issue of the Australian travel magazine Arrivals and Departures.

When I saw the title “Game of Love, Chinese Style” on the front page, I was intrigued. What sort of “game of love” could be labeled as “Chinese style”? The subheading provides more detail: “Undisturbed by modernity, China’s matriarchal Naxi minority exist in a rare time-warped world.” The destination featured in the article, Baisha, is a small town in China’s southwest province Yunnan and home of the Naxi ethnic minority. The way it is presented, however, makes Baisha an icon of China as a whole: forever old and trapped in a timeless world cut off from modernity.

The article centers on the custom of the “walking marriage,” which supposedly means that “men never marry and women wear the pants.” “Walking marriage” is actually a custom of the Mosuo, an ethnic group related to the Naxi and often presented as the only matriarchal society in the world. In this tradition men and women never leave the maternal household and men visit their female partners only at night. Children born of such relationships stay with the mother’s extended family. The practice of the “walking marriage” is a major difference between the Mosuo and the Naxi. However, the author is apparently unaware of this when he says “Naxi and Mosuo women are expected to take the lead in the game of love.”

According to the article, in Naxi society, women do most of the work while men are regarded as “slovenly.” The source for this characterization turns out to be a non-Naxi and a former school teacher from Yunnan’s capital Kunming. If the author had done any research, why did he need to source this comment from an outsider and an urban intellectual? More condescending and contemptuous quotes follow: 50% of Naxi men are judged to be lazy “like a pig” by the same school-teacher.

Only towards the end of the article does the author acknowledge that “male Naxi elders are renowned calligraphers, gardeners and skilled musicians.” Their musical collectives are said to be “famous for the “three olds”: old men (few players are under 80 years of age), old instruments and old songs.”

Oldness and timelessness thus are the overarching themes running through the text and the photos. For instance, the reader is also introduced to an old man who claims himself to be “old and ugly” but whom the author considers a “handsome octogenarian” who “in many ways typifies China’s humble beauty.” All the images of “loose cotton pants,” “1950s Mao jacket,” “an angel-hair tobacco pipe” and “his wispy silver beard” are echoed in the photos. It is not only the people featured in the article who are old, the city of Baisha is old, too: “a town virtually unchanged since the 11th century;” a place where “old is good, old is beautiful, and old is something to be treasured;” and the home of a “time-locked culture.”

Although the article is about the matriarchal Naxi group, women are back-grounded in the text and pictures. Although there is the titillating piece of information that Naxi women “take the lead in the game of love,” they certainly don’t have a prominent position anywhere in the text or the pictures.

The image of Baisha as a whole is represented as a showcase of people and things that exist unchanged forever. Being taken out of the context of “rapidly modernizing China,” the timeless image of Baisha is thus more about the author’s fantasies than Baisha’s realities, one of which is that its matriarchal customs are unavoidably being challenged by modernization – including tourism. For instance, the custom of the “walking marriage” has actually become an excuse for the emergence of a red light district catering to tourists. Strangely enough, this sort of change, among other changes that are brought about by tourism to Mosuo Naxi, is absent from this article. The absence of all traces of modernization in Baisha matches the Western tourism imagery of China and the East at large. This Occidental construction of the Orient is best understood with reference to Said’s concept of Orientalism. It is grounded in Western dominance and authority over the East which has in turn produced a stereotypical Oriental image that can hardly be subverted. It is no wonder that China, despite its accelerating pace of modernization, remains “the ageless reign” in travel writing.

Author Chen Xiaoxiao 陈潇潇

Xiaoxiao Chen (陈潇潇) is a PhD candidate in the Department of Linguistics, Macquarie University. Under the supervision of Professor Ingrid Piller and Dr Kimie Takahashi, she recently completed her thesis about the representation of China as a tourist destination in the New York Times and China Daily. Her research interests are in tourism discourse, globalization, and intercultural communication and her PhD project asks how the discourse of Orientalism is intertwined with contemporary travel writing about China.

More posts by Chen Xiaoxiao 陈潇潇
  • Khan

    A wonderful post with a very well-grounded analysis. It shows how facts and realty is distorted or reconstruted by means of text to hide the latent business interest. I agree with your observation that the possible complimentarity between photography and written text is missing which might be strategic as the written text makes indirect references to one night-stay without any responsibilty afterwards and of course the very title Game of Love, Chinese Style is self-explanatory. No wonder that the custom of Walking marriage become an excuse for the emergence of red-light district as it is very much obvious in the text.
    The image of an old harmless man, I should think, complements the overall intended meanings of the text. Notice the man is weak without any strength and by implication has no role in that society. The text construct women as promiscuous and customs promoting such activities.

    To a great extent the intended meaning of the text link to Occidental construction of sterotypical East as you rightly pointed out. However, we should not neglect who the text producers are and for whom it is produced?

  • It is a pretty hideous piece of journalism, I grant you. But if you look at some Chinese websites, you’ll find equally offensive stuff written about minorities such as the Naxi. They’re described as “Living Fossils”, for example, and there is equivalently salacious interest in their marriage practices. So given this, labels such as ‘Orientalist’ and ‘non-Western Other’ are perhaps misleading. How do Han Chinese construct the Naxi? The non-Han Other? Should one be talking about Han-ist as well as Orientalist? We need a better label than Orientalist to describe the practice of seeing others as different from ourselves. Note also that the phrase ‘Game of love’ echoes the English translation ‘Playing by the rules in the game of love’ of the name of a dating show from Jiangsu TV, which is apparenlty very popular among Chinese viewers.

    • Xiaoxiao Chen

      Thanks to Ingrids reply, my application of Orientalism in this post has been clarified. So there is not need for me to further elaborate on that. I am, however, interested in your point that some Chinese websites contain similar stereotypical descriptions of minoroties. Could you please inform me of these websites? Are they in Chinese? As part of my PhD project, I had done a preliminary research of the English websites of Chinas Central Government and Chinas official tourism organs. So far I havent found any examples of similar construction. In contrast, what I have found can be very telling examples of Chinas self-representation, especially representations that cast minorities in completely different light.
      By the way, the other picture about the dating show on Jiangsu TV is that it has actually invited a lot of criticism in China and has nearly been cancelled. In response to the order from the State Administration of Radio Film and TV, Jiangsu TV has made some changes to the program. Other similar shows have either been stopped, suspended or required to make alterations. You can access this information from here: http://news.xinhuanet.com/society/2010-06/22/c_12245354.htm; http://news.xinhuanet.com/society/2010-06/23/c_12250024.htm; http://news.xinhuanet.com/politics/2010-06/23/c_12252209.htm; http://news.sina.com.cn/c/2010-06-23/235520533602.shtml;

  • unknown

    Dear Xiaoxiao,

    I attentively read your post because I have always been pre-occupied with post-colonial thinkers like Edward Said. I also had a look at the magazine. But don’t you think that what you have mentioned in your post is an oversimplification of Said’s grand ideas? I think it is clear for whom such a text has been produced as it is clear who goes to red light districts!

  • @ Jane: Said’s argument is that Western images of the Middle East have served as a justification for colonialism and imperialism. Many post-colonial thinkers have extended the meaning of “Orientalism” to describe any ideology that serves to justify (neo-)colonial relationships. If the Naxi are internally colonized in China and the discourses you mention serve to justify that relationship (and I have no idea whether that is actually so or not), then I don’t see why the term “orientalist” couldn’t be used. However, I wonder whether your point is just about terminology? Or is the argument actually that Xiaoxiao’s analysis isn’t valid because Orientalist discourses and colonial relationship pertain not only between the West and the rest but elsewhere as well? If yes, isn’t that a staple of orientalist discourse? “Colonialism is justified because the colonial other is just as bad, if not worse, than we are.”…

    @ unknown: you seem to object to applying Said’s “grand ideas” to so mundane a text as travel writing. Said himself, of course, used examples from travel writing. Mass-mediated texts of questionable “quality” form the huge repository of orientalist imagery, and tourism discourse certainly keeps a lot of orientalist ideas in circulation … so, imho, post-colonial thinkers do well to keep an eye out for such mundane discourses.

  • Oops – I should think before dashing off comments. The term ‘Orientalism’ places the focus on the non-“Orientals” romanticising the “Orientals”, which was the context in which Said used it. What he did was really useful – it was just a pity he used such a lousy term to describe it. It’s even more of a pity that people took up the term. To use a term which draws attention to the (often unconscious) idiotic practices of one group as if no other group does it is itself a form of stereotyping. It can lead to sloppy thinking. Maybe this escapes attention because the term ‘Orientalism’ is indirectly stereotyping, rather than directly stereotyping, like ‘welsh, scotch, ikey’. On content, Chen’s implication is that this romanticisation occurs because the author is an ignorant English speaker writing for “Westerners” (more specifically, readers of English). And yet what we read in the English media is affected by how Chinese tourism industry operators present the ethnic minorities. Many Han writers romanticise or patronise non-Han minorities of China, sometimes out of ignorance (it’s a big country!), sometimes for the obvious political reasons associated with wanting to integrate disaffected regions, and increasingly because of interest from the massively increasing numbers of Han tourists who want to see something out of the ordinary, just like their counterparts from Australia.

    • Interesting empirical question whether there are many intertextual links between English travel writing about China and Chinese travel writing about it. My hunch is that textual flows are more from English into Chinese than vice versa. We’ll have to wait for Xiaoxiao’s PhD thesis to appear, though, as her research addresses precisely that issue.

      • Xiaoxiao Chen

        Thanks, Ingrid. I have been greatly inspired by all the comments. I do agree with your hunch that textual flows are from English to Chinese rather than the other direction. The works of Western travel writers such as Cumming, Gill, and Hosie had presented an Orientalised image of China in the 19th century. This image still has repercussions on the contemporary English travel writings about China.

    • Xiaoxiao Chen

      Hi Jane, Thanks for your comments. I have to clarify that your observation “this romanticisation occurs because the author is an ignorant English speaker writing for “Westerners” (more specifically, readers of English)” is not my implication. As indicated by Professor Piller, my PhD is about the issue whether Orientalism has affected China’s national travel dicourse, or rather if China practises self-Orientalism in its tourism discourse (see Kimie’s comment). So Orientalism is not simply about Western discursive contructions of the East; the powerless East can internalise Orientalism and follow the construction patterns of the West in its own imaging.

  • Hi Jane, thanks for your comment! Good point about the issue of marginalisation of ethnic minorities by the dominant group, the Hans, which is obviously, equally problematic. At the same time, that doesn’t make Orientalist and non-Western Other as ‘misleading’ labels or render centuries of Orientalist representation of all things Asia as irrelevant. There are different types of oppressors of varying power and aims with differential results at play. Orientalist practices in travel writing today embody the dominant ideology of the capitalist market in that minorities are commodified as product to be consumed, while the oppression of the minorities by the Hans underlie their interest in keeping non-Hans in their place. “Chinese themselves are doing it” isn’t a good reason why we should stop challenging the power imbalance between the West and Asia, which itself has been created and maintained in Orientalist discourses. Orientalism and also the practice of self-Orientalism (‘Orientals’ themselves taking up the Orientalist discourses) are powerful concepts that help us to do just that.

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