Sunday, January 27, 2013

Book Recommendation- Scenic Spots by Pal Nyiri

Because I am applying for jobs in different (generally interdisciplinary) fields, I've had to prepare a lot of syllabi and course proposals (or versions of syllabi with somewhat different approaches) in the last few months. I highly recommend that you prepare a few syllabi before you ever enter the job market, because a good one takes quite a lot of time (I can bang out a course proposal pretty fast, but when it comes to planning each course meeting of a semester/quarter it takes days to plan a good class).

One recent syllabus was for the course "Cultural Tourism in East and Southeast Asia." As I prepared readings I discovered a review for a book that sounded so interesting I just had to use ILL (Inter-Library Loan) to get a closer look. Although I initially included it as an optional reading for the planned course, now that I've read it, if I have to submit that syllabus again I'll re-order my readings to make this one the first tourism ethnography the students will read. The book is by Pal Nyiri, and it's called Scenic Spots: Chinese Tourism, the State and Cultural Authority. It came out on the University of Washington Press in 2006.

To tell the truth I wasn't even planning to read it. I thought I'd skim the introduction, check out the quality of the writing, and get a feel for the level at which it was written (there is no point in assigning highly theoretical works to the average undergraduate, or at least not if you expect them to finish the reading and participate in a lively discussion). Instead I found it difficult to put down, high praise for an academic publication. Nyiri's writing is clear and precise, without meandering paragraph-long sentences. In addition he adds the occasional quip with just a hint of dry humor. One of the things I appreciated the most about his book, though, was the way that he provided an excellent demonstration of fieldwork technique. That's why I would assign it to undergraduates early in the term: a discussion of how Nyiri approaches and participates in tourism from multiple perspectives would make it clear to a student how they could visit a tourist site near their university and conduct their own field research project. Because I am interested in issues of performance and presentation of performances to tourist audiences, his observations on how performances were presented, what the narrative surrounding the performance was, and how other tourists engaged with the performances just makes the book that much more useful. And finally I loved it because it dealt with issues of ethnicity and Tibetans, including fieldwork in parts of the greater Tibetan ethnic area (not the TAR) that I have visited.

I leave you with a few passages from Nyiri to whet your appetite:

"Some examples drawn from promotional materials published by tourism authorities in 2002 and 2003 illustrate the features of the contemporary marketing of scenic spots. Promotional materials are structured in the gazetteer tradition of the pastiche, cataloging sites--from temples to theme parks-- with photos and brief texts without setting up a geographic or historical relationship between them. We learn, for instance, that a site lies "in the midst of high mountains" or "on crystal clear waters," but most of the time we do not get any of the tectonic details that we've come to expect from Western travel literature, such as the height, name, or geological origin of mountains, or the names of rivers or lakes.Following a tradition started by early twentieth-century guidebooks, or "local specialties" (tutechan) to taste and buy are included among the cameos." (p. 22) 

"As is customary in China, the show was led in dialogue by female and male hosts who presented the introduction and text between the performances. It covered the standard repertoire of an "ethnic culture" evening, providing a cultural master narrative of the place. This "culture," according to the narration at the show, consists of "solemn and mysterious religious rites, cheerful folk songs, and wild folk dancing," including alluded-to-mating or drinking rituals. Although some songs were in Chinese, each song and dance was identified as either Tibetan or Qiang. The representation confirmed Gladney's observation that while minority women in China are invariably presented as highly feminine and sexualized, "when minority men are portrayed... they are generally exoticized as strong and virile, practicing strange and humorous customs, or possessing extraordinary physical abilities in sport, work, or the capacity to consume large amounts of alcohol" (Gladney 2002). To complete the picture, the Qiang and Tibetans were established as patriotic Chinese citizens through the song "China, I love you" performed by a Tibetan singer." (p. 39) 

"As with its policy reversal on domestic tourism, China changed from a state that prevented foreign travel to one that encouraged it but attempted to control its meaning. The public discourse in 1990s China, from academia to the media, equated travel abroad with migration in pursuit of individual "development" (fazhan) through education or work and, ultimately and optimally, entrepreneurship." (p.99)

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