Sat, Jan 01, 2011 - Page 16 News List

China’s ‘red tourism’ taps Communist pride for profit

An airbrushed version of the Communist Party’s glory days awaits the visitors flocking to China’s revolutionary sites to rekindle their long-lost proletarian principles

By Edward Wong  /  NY Times News Service, YANAN, China

With the help of government investment, historical sites like the cave in which Mao Zedong lived for five years are attracting increasing numbers of visitors.


The explosives had been set, the watchtower manned and the dirt battlefield cleared of rubble. Communist soldiers armed with rifles took up positions at the foot of the barren hills. Their foes, the Chinese Nationalists (KMT), loomed in the distance, advancing on the garrison town of Yanan.

Then someone yelled, “There’s no electricity!”

No electricity meant no show.

Hundreds of Chinese tourists streamed toward the front gate demanding their money back. Other visitors stripped off their gray uniforms on the battlefield — they had paid US$2 to take part in the production.

So went a recent performance of “The Defense of Yanan,” an hourlong re-enactment of a crucial moment in the Chinese Civil War, when the KMT tried to overrun the Communists in 1947 in their mountain redoubt here. The show, complete with live explosions and a fighter jet that swoops down on a wire, takes place every morning on the outskirts of Yanan, a dingy city of 2 million in the northern province of Shaanxi.

Capitalism is thriving in China, but red is far from dead, at least in Yanan. “The Defense of Yanan” is a recent addition to tourist attractions that try to evoke the glory days of the Communist Party, after its leaders entered Yanan in 1936 following the Long March. Local officials and businesspeople are profiting handsomely from a boom in “red tourism,” in which Chinese, many of them young professionals, journey to famous revolutionary sites to rekindle their long-lost sense of class struggle and proletarian principles.

“Commercialization is not bad as long as we don’t vulgarize the traditions and as long as we keep the spirit without violating it,” said Tan Huwa, a historian at Yanan University. “It’s like the advertising slogan for Yanan Cigarettes: ‘There is Yanan, but there is also the spirit.”’

The Yanan area, with its distinctive cave homes and yellow loess hills, was used as the main revolutionary base until 1948, enduring bombing by the Japanese during World War II and assaults by KMT troops. It was here that the top Communist leaders — Mao Zedong (毛澤東), Zhou Enlai (周恩來), Zhu De (朱德), Liu Shaoqi (劉少奇) and others — forged the ragtag Red Army into a populist guerrilla force and hammered home socialist ideology.

“I’m here to be educated,” said Ma Tao, 32, a pudgy civil servant who was struggling into a Red Army costume at the entrance to Yangjialing, a narrow valley in Yanan where the Communist leaders had resided in caves for several years. A woman renting out the costumes handed Ma a leather holster.

“I feel proud wearing this uniform,” he said as a friend — or rather, a comrade — snapped photos of him.

Ma and his tour group, all sporting red Mao pins on their lapels, were among thousands of tourists, including real soldiers from the city of Xian, wandering through the revolutionary sites that day. The Yanan tourism bureau says on its Web site that visitors to the city surpassed 10 million last year, up 37 percent from the previous year.

Tourism got a big lift in 2008 when the local government decided to waive ticket prices to the main sites; the same year, the city invested almost US$15 million to build plazas, museums and other showpieces. Officials and investors even wanted to hire Zhang Yimou (張藝謀), a well-known Chinese filmmaker, to produce “The Defense of Yanan,” but they had to settle for one of his associates.

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