The Red Tour

The only thing worse than having your parents stay with you in your apartment for a few weeks is traveling with them.  When I called my parents from Hong Kong in the summer of 2011 to tell them that I would be arriving in Chengdu in two days to visit them, I was surprised to find them traveling in Shanxi province in North China---either I gave my mother the wrong first date of my visit or she heard it wrong.  There was no choice for me but join them on their "red tour" through the northern plains of China.

July 1, 2011 was the 90th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party.  The northern provinces of Shanxi and Shaanxi provinces are dotted with important sites in the genealogy of the Chinese communist revolution, including Yan'an, which was the base for the Red Army from the time when its depleted columns arrived in Yan'an at the end of the Long March in 1936, to the time a triumphant Chairman Mao crossed the Yellow River on his way to launch the People's Republic in 1949.  But it was testimony to the changed times that many people thought that the propaganda department of the Chinese Communist Party came up with the idea of promoting tourism in Shanxi and Shaanxi using the revolutionary sites.  

So red tourism was born.  The inland provinces of Shanxi and Shaanxi are among the poorest in China, and seem to have nothing to offer except the museums and monuments honoring the revolutionary heritage.  Many Chinese living in the eastern coastal provinces have cash, and having lost their moral compass, they fortunately seem curious about the revolutionary past.  Indeed, red tourism is a perfect example of the unique partnership of commercialism and socialism sanctioned by the Chinese Communist Party.  It is a win-win arrangement for the time being, as the newly formed and fatly expanding middle class Chinese occupy themselves with bettering their material lives while paying lip service to the proletarian persuasions of the Party, which in turn only pretends that it is still ruling the same republic it founded more than 60 years ago.  

No place in China better highlights the surreal contrast between the social and economic realities of China today and the pretensions of the Party than the sacred site of Yan'an.  It is in a remote corner of Shaanxi province, so remote, that the Red Army figured it was an ideal destination of their escape from the Nationalist Army called the Long March, that the Japanese Imperialist Army apparently had trouble seeing the strategic importance of taking the fight there, and that the wave of prosperity brought by the economic reform started in 1978 threatened to pass it by altogether.  It did not reflect well on the Party that the people of Yan'an were not getting any piece of the action just because they were redder.  Things started to change when a new freeway connected Yan'an to the provincial capital city of Xi'an.  Since then Yan'an became a draw in red tourism, for old people who harbor nostalgia towards the good old times when everyone was equally poor, to young people who romanticize Yan'an while television series about the revolutionary past are still popular. Yan'an today has gleaming new hotels catering to middled or old-aged red tourists that arrive by busloads and to curious young couples on honeymoons.  But how long is this good time going to last?  Tourists, red or otherwise, want the same things wherever they go in China.  Young people go dancing, old people play mahjong, and everyone wants to have a go at a karaoke bar.  Sooner or later, the novelty of seeing the furniture in the cave dwelling (yaodong in Mandarin Chinese) used by Chairman Mao and his hated wife is going to wear off.  All the nice hotels are going to become the first casualties of top bailout priorities when the bubble bursts, unless the people of Yan'an can innovate in the way they run the tourist industry.  It's doubtful they can though, because in the end, the Party will not allow Yan'an to become the vanguard of capitalism.  Being red is a comparative disadvantage when it comes to making money through free enterprises.   

For someone like me the litany of revolutionary museums and monuments became tiresome quickly.  Fortunately my parents' version of the red tour also included a number of historical places that were on my must-see list.  The most impressive one was the town of Pingyao.  Shanxi merchants were dominant in many trades for hundreds of years before the collapse of the last dynasty, and left some great mansions in towns like Pingyao and Qikou.  It was in Pingyao during the last dynasty that some Shanxi merchants banded together and founded the first merchant's bank in China, specializing in remittance, deposit and loan.  The first "piaohang," as remittance bank was called then, was Rishenghang. At the height of its banking business, Rishenghang had branch offices in cities like Calcatta, Moscow and Osaka.  Today the collection of the buildings that formed the bank is a museum, as is the entire old town, a reminder of the resilience of Chinese capitalism.