Tuesday, 20 August 2013

The China Tour 1966-71: The Cultural Revolution Revisited

Guided tours are typically recreations of a journey that has already taken place. The guide has already passed the same way before and then repeats or fashions a route out of this experience for the benefit of those being guided. It can happen that the emphasis is more upon the territory in general than on a specific path, but this does little to alter the fact that what is presented is the recreation of a previous experience, whether it is explicitly named as such or not. A city guide, for example, will usually learn and then repeat their tour and only make deviations from it if there are problems following the normal path. It is rare that a tour is deliberately open and the route not planned in advance: the flâneur or those on a dérive are typically self-directed and not led by a guide.  

And this brings us to a special subset of tours: recreations of famous journeys. Here the guide is not a living person but rather historical documents that record a previous traveller's journey. One of the attractions that this form of tour has is that the guide is less present. Another comes from comparing both the differences and similarities between what was there and what now is to be found on the route. The two of these put together can make for a stimulating but not overly prescriptive journey. What's more, from a travel writer's or broadcaster's point of view, it can be easier to capture the imagination of the reader/viewer by hooking contemporary experiences of a big name, like Marco Polo or Alexander The Great. 

Yesterday I came across this curious book, Travels in China 1966-71 by Rewi Alley. The author, a New Zealander who settled in China, was a supporter and member of the Chinese Communist Party who wrote a great many other books about the country too. The time frame is a very specific one in Chinese history; first part of the Cultural Revolution. Whilst the book does record his travels far and wide across China, it does not read as a single journey start to finish, but rather as a series of trips made over the course of 6 years. These trips have very specific political themes and are often to such things as cement factories or farming communes. Given the highly politicised time and the author's political sympathies, ideology jumps out of every page, and yet, at base the book does still retell a series of journeys around the country.

Possibly inspired by the notion of the unreliable guide, which was pervasive in Father Courage, the mobile performance I recently worked on, I am attracted to the idea of following Alley's journey and having him as a guide. Even though the book is only 40 years old, given the rapid redevelopment of China, particularly over the last 10 years, the burying of much of the cultural revolution and embrace of capitalism, this book has aged very badly. The places he visits, however, may very well still exist, such as the commune headquarters Kwangtung (pictured above) meaning that it would be entirely possible to retrace his route. Indeed, it may be the case that the places which no longer exist are just as telling as those which remain. 

The people he met may well also still be alive and might even remember their visitor. Did this boy grow up to drive a truck, as he said he wanted to, or did the future hold something very different for him? Does he remember his photo being taken, and is he aware he featured in this New World Press's 1973 publication? I'm not about to rush out tomorrow and find out; such a tour would take serious preparation and resources. What the idea of it does do for me, however, is it highlights the value of having a guide who is not so present and not so reliable. It may be that those who follow such a guide are more or less obliged to look more closely at what  is in front of them, than those who travel with a guide who is, at least on the surface, reliable and wholly present.

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