The ‘Grand Tour’, Chinese style

Illustration courtesy The Economist
From The Economist, Dec 2010

IN THE grounds of King’s College, Cambridge, grows perhaps the most famous willow tree in China. It was immortalised by Xu Zhimo, a 20th-century poet with all the attributes required for lasting celebrity: talent, a rackety love life and a dramatic early death (plane crash at 34). With each passing year, growing crowds of Chinese tourists visit the tree and a nearby marble boulder inscribed with lines from Xu’s poem, “On leaving Cambridge”.

Locals and tourists from elsewhere pass the tree without a second glance. But for educated Chinese, who learned Xu’s poem in school, this tranquil spot, watched over by handsome white cows and an arched stone bridge, is a shrine to lost youth. Many are visibly moved, even as the cameras click and flash. Xu’s verses help explain the great prestige Cambridge University enjoys in China, nudging it a notch or two ahead of Oxford. They also explain why many educated Chinese have heard of punting.

For decades Asian economic might has gone hand in hand with government programmes to encourage newly affluent citizens to take holidays abroad. In Japan the Ministry of Tourism launched a “Ten Million Programme” to double outbound tourist departures from 5m to 10m between 1986 and 1991. Tourism from South Korea exploded a decade later.

Officials in these countries hoped that despatching tourists around the globe would signal their new wealth. It also offered a tangible reward to citizens toiling in the pressure-cooker atmosphere of an economic boom. In China foreign travel is part of a slightly different compact between the state and the new middle classes: unprecedented freedom and fun in exchange for the maintenance of one-party rule at home.

Read full essay at The Economist …