Theses Doctoral

The Political and Cultural Economy of Sightseeing: Foreign Tourism in the "New China" (1949-1978)

Healy, Gavin

“The Political and Cultural Economy of Sightseeing” examines how personnel within the state tourism bureaucracy struggled to balance the use of foreign tourism as a form of political, historical, and cultural representation with the demands of developing a revenue-generating service industry in a socialist economy. I argue that tourism, particularly the practice of sightseeing, played an important role in the creation of the “New China”: a re-imagination of the Chinese nation-state as a political, economic, social, and cultural entity under socialism. By focusing on particular elements of the state’s production of the tourist experience, including the formulation of itineraries, the regulation of tourist photography, and changing notions of customer service, this dissertation reexamines the ways the political and economic goals of the state converged during the Mao era (1949-1976) and through the early period of market reforms under Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s. This dissertation traces the development of tourism infrastructure in the first three decades after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, locating this history at the intersection of public diplomacy and economic development. It will help further our understanding of modern Chinese political and economic history, as well as the broader history of socialism in the twentieth century.

“The Political and Cultural Economy of Sightseeing” focuses on the production of tourism rather than the consumption of it. It follows three main groups of actors in the tourism industry of the New China: tourism industry officials; the rank-and-file workers who fed, transported, and guided the tourists; and, to a lesser extent, the tourists themselves. Tourism officials, tourism workers, and tourists all had their own conceptions of the New China and the place of tourism in it. Tourism officials needed to know what the tourism industry meant for the politics and economy of the New China before they could show that new nation to others. Tourism workers needed to understand where their labor fit into the narrative of the New China in order to serve the tourists and serve “the people.” Finally, foreign tourists gazed upon the landscape of the New China in ways that tourism planners, guides, and service workers often struggled to anticipate and manage. Together, these three groups built a tourism industry and contributed to the establishment of a new national narrative.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Zelin, Madeleine H.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
March 22, 2021