Red tourism in Zunyi
An excerpt from Joey Dembs’ “Red City, Blue Roofs”
The city name of ‘Zunyi’ was first recorded in AD 642, and it officially became recognised as a prefecture-level city in 1997. After this long swath of history, Zunyi is most associated with one date. On January 15, 1935, members of the fledgling CPCC party came together in a two-storyhuizhuan-style house to discuss the future direction of the Communist party. Among them was 41-year-old Mao Zedong. The conference, later known as the Zunyi Meeting (Zunyi huiyi), propelled Mao and Zhou Enlai to the forefront of the party, both in terms ideological thinking and wartime strategy. The meeting at Zunyi and the following Long March led to a deepening of ‘Mao-ism’ amongst CPCC members and is seen as a turning point in the Communist revolution that still exists to this day.
Zunyi’s ‘red’ history dominates its local identity. All the cultural landmarks sprinkled around the city have ties to the rise of Chinese Communism. The city is recognised as one of the top five red-tourism destinations in China (along with Yan’an, Shaoshan, Jinggang Mountain, and Nanchang). Tourists line up to purchase tickets to enter into the great ‘meeting’ hall or travel in mass tour-groups through other hallowed halls of Communist history.
The ideological contradictions of ‘red’ tourism are on full display in Zunyi. Yu Luo Rioux notes in his thesis, Marketing the Revolution: Tourism, Landscape and Ideology in China that “On one level, Red Tourism is strengthening the ideological power of the state and the party by exploring significant revolutionary events; on the other hand Red Tourism is concerned with commercial development and generating revenue by marketing the significant historical sites of China’s communist revolution.
But in Zunyi, ‘red’ ideology is felt throughout the structure and fabric of the city, often extending beyond marketable tourist traits. Fenghuang Mountain acts as a mountain escape for urban residents to stroll through the hills, exercise and gain spiritual strength. Lining the paved paths are red Communist stars; women and men old enough to remember the Communist struggle happily practicing hongge or ‘red’ songs; even manhole covers feature ‘red’ symbols and dates.
The term ‘red’ tourism, as Rioux states, did not come into existence until 2002, however communist landmarks and other ‘destinations for patriotic and moral education’ have existed since 1949. Rioux goes on state that the catalyst for ‘red’ tourism is the “development of tourism necessitated by fiscal decentralisation along with the crisis of faith as a result of China’s political and economic reform over the last two decades. ‘Red’ tourism also resulted, in part, from a need to re-establish patriotism and nationalism in the wake of the ideological vacuum after 1989.”
Zunyi is lucky in the sense that it has a tangible identity to market to outsiders. The influence of tourism is felt all over the city. New five-star hotels are being built to accommodate an influx of high-end tourists. Zunyi has three key developmental zones – the aforementioned airport district, a CBD district and a high-speed railway hub set to open sometime in the next five to ten years. These significant urban developments are set to have an impact on access to Zunyi. Situated 239km south of Chongqing and 143km north of Guiyang, amidst heavy, mountainous terrain, Zunyi is known by historical context but not seen as an accessible tourist destination. Zunyi’s rate of urbanization is tied directly to two areas: infrastructural development and cultivating a local identity that is unique and differentiated from other nearby cities.
There’s precedence for ‘red’ tourism to play a role in economic growth, particularly in smaller cities such as Zunyi. One case study in a graduate thesis by Zhiyi Hu, titled “A Study of Red Tourism in China: Exploring the Interface Between National Identity Construction and Tourist Experience”, highlights the success of Guang’an, Deng Xiaoping’s hometown, in using ‘red’ tourism as a way to leverage economic growth. As more and more ‘red’ tourists came to see the great Communist leader, local residents began emphasizing nature-oriented sightseeing. An increase of domestic tourism also brought “new opportunities for local service sectors in catering, accommodation, transportation and shopping.”
Where Rouix sees a contradiction in ideologies within ‘red’ tourism, the Chinese government places an intrinsic link between progressing communist ideals while promoting economic growth. Local governments are essentially saying, “come to our city and pay reverence to your revolutionary comrades – as long as you literally pay to do so. And while you’re at it, stay in a luxury suite for three nights and shop in our sparkling new malls.” It’s as the communist forefathers would have wanted.
I walked through Zunyi’s Red Army Street (hongjun jie) a pedestrian street built with 70 Million RMB of government investment, filled with shops and restaurants selling local baijiu, cigarettes, snacks and niurou fen – luxuries likely unavailable to those who were actually in the Red Army.
I stumbled on The Little Garden Café, a coffee shop clearly out of place in this communist heartland, and followed signs up a small alley-way. Inside I was greeted by Xiao Wangyue, a late-20s woman dressed over-formally in a shin-length dress and heels. I ordered a coffee and sat there with my map, slightly sweaty and disheveled, enjoying the rest before venturing over to the famous Zunyi Meeting site.
Wangyue came to Zunyi to attend the Zunyi Medical College, a renowned medical college in the region. An errant love that ended in heartbreak kept in her Zunyi, a place that she’s now accepted as home. After working in the family-planning bureau of the local Zunyi government, Wangyue decided to move to part-time and open up a coffee shop.
Wangyue chose this location for her coffee shop specifically to be located in the old section of Zunyi. Besides the wayward foreigner, her consumer base doesn’t overlap with the busloads of tour groups visiting the Zunyi Meeting site.
Sitting in the coffee shop, I felt as if I had stepped into another realm. The rooms were too dark, the furniture had no cohesion, old American and European movie posters faded into the walls. Neon, handwritten sticky notes echoed messages from visitors. It was a mix between a youth hostel and an old person’s living room – but it was charming and it worked. It held a transience that was further emphasized by undelivered postcards on the wall from Tibet and Xinjiang.
The café details typified Wangyue herself: transient, aspirational, never pleased with her current condition. She agreed to help connect me with several of her government friends and help me gain a better understanding of Zunyi itself.
Wangyue’s café and dream would not be possible without the city’s infrastructural investment of the nearby ‘old’ city. This cultural investment has created an area of the city that at once feels modern and traditional. Residential complexes built in the ’80s are covered with Southwestern Chinese style decor – brown and white siding that covers up cracked concrete. Glossy stone streets lined with wooden tree and flower boxes create a distinct demarcation from normal urban areas in Zunyi. It feels more like a communist Disneyland and a typical ‘traditional’ style pedestrian street than an authentic representation of what Communism once was. But in Zunyi (and other historical places in China), the significance is not only derived from the authenticity of the building or the artifacts within, but of the location, the history that occurred on that very spot.
Tourists arguably aren’t looking for authenticity; they’re looking for nostalgic context. This is why creating a tourist zone in a traditional style makes economic sense – tourists want to feel like they’re consuming authenticity, but don’t want the actual hardships that come with it. And in turn, this highlights the largest paradox within ‘red’ tourism – people don’t want to relive the hardships of the early communist revolutionaries. They want to celebrate the memories of their past in a contemporary way. For Zunyi, forging a cultural ‘red’ identity provides a direct link to economic growth and increased consumer spending. Whether or not it is contradictory or clashes ideologically is beside the point. At this stage in Chinese society, if selling communism for a profit has direct economic benefit, more power to the red dollar.
To read a full-length PDF of “Red City, Blue Roofs”, click here.
- Article by Joey Dembs