- A Landscape of Travel: The Work of Tourism in Rural Ethnic China by Jenny Chio
In A Landscape of Travel, Jenny Chio presents a vivid ethnography about how rural tourism is transforming local communities in two ethnic minority villages in Southwest China. Domestic tourism, long lauded as a stimulant to economic growth, has been thriving in China since the 1990s. Thanks to their scenic landscape and exotic culture, ethnic minority regions are among the most desired tourist destinations for Chinese sightseers. But rural tourism is a relatively recent phenomenon. Starting in 2006, during the campaign for building a Socialist New Countryside, the Chinese government introduced a policy to promote the village-based sightseeing industry as a means to kick-start the rural economy. Colloquially dubbed as “Peasant Family Happiness” ( nongjiale), rural sightseeing is anticipated not only to meet the urbanites’ needs to experience the idyllic, exotic, and rustic countryside, but also to reverse the flow of migrant workers by encouraging villagers to make a living without migrating to the city. Chio conducted her fieldwork research in two sites during 2006-2007: Ping’an, an ethnic Zhuang village in Guangxi, and Upper Jidao, an ethnic Miao village in Guizhou.
Previous scholarship on tourism studies has tended to focus on the experiences of the tourists, but Chio’s research centers on the lives of the residents living in the tourist-site villages. In other words, she analyzes tourism from the perspective of the host, rather than the guests. The book particularly emphasizes the agency and subjectivities of the residents who are “doing tourism” ( gaolüyou)—those who profit from the sightseeing industry by serving as guides, ticket agents, or photo models, running souvenir shops, restaurants, or hotels, and so forth. As a form of the service trade, tourism establishes a transactional relationship between the tourist and the host. As Chio insightfully puts it, “one person’s leisure is another person’s labor” (p. xvii). Defining tourism as the movement and sightseeing of the traveler, Chio further identifies two fundamental characteristics of tourism—visuality and mobility. Since visuality is crucial to the leisure of sightseeing, the sightseer’s expectation for a bucolic, exotic, and natural scenery demands a labor devoted to the visual consumption of the tourists: the village landscape needs to be refurbished to acquire the best veneer of rusticity and ethnic exotic -ness, even though the desired appearances of tourism are disconnected [End Page 195] from the lived experiences of the modern-day rural residents. This, in Chio’s terms, indicates the “politics of appearance.”
In Chio’s ethnography of Ping’an and Upper Jidao, we see ethnic identities in tourism are represented through the sartorial, architectural, and performative genres that are reiterated, reproduced, and reinforced by the dual power of state and market. Except for a Ping’an villager who lamented the loss of the environmental consciousness of the ethnic Zhuang under the influence of tourism (pp. 21–25), nobody else mentioned a concern over ethnicity dissolution or distortion. Most villagers seem to have internalized and comfortably capitalized on the stereotyped ethnic representation to meet the expectations of the sightseers. The most striking example of this internalization can be found in the case of “sweet talk” (discussed in Chapter 4): two female models dressed up in ethnic attire solicit male tourists for a fee-based photograph service. While promoting special clothing as an ethnic marker is innocuous in itself, Chio contends, the encoded power, gender, and socioeconomic imbalances as well as the Orientalized aesthetic pursuit for exoticness and the erotic underlying the sartorial representation can deepen the precarious sociocultural position of ethnic minorities in China.
In a time when many ethnic minority groups in China are caught in the dilemma of choosing between ethnic identity and economic development, Chio’s study provides an optimistic alternative. Compared with the anguished Tibetans who are offered the “gift of development” at the cost of political and religious freedom (see Emily Yeh, Taming Tibet, 2013), and the young people of Lisu, Nu...