The party spirit
Some of China's poorest, most remote regions are steeped in the history of the communist uprising. Beijing has launched a cultural revolution, of sorts, to turn them into tourist hotspots, writes Caroline Cooper.
Tan Longwu was born and raised in Jiangxi province's rugged Jinggangshan area. Tan and his family lived for decades steeped in Communist Party lore and history. They cherished plates of Mao Zedong's favourite braised pork, made especially fatty in these parts, and an 83-year-old neighbour even claims to recall seeing the youthful Mao at work. The area is rich with stories and Tan and his family regarded their proximity to one of Mao's many 'old homes' as a harbinger of great fortune.
Now consider Tan's good luck. Thanks to China's fast-forward push towards development and away from finicky revisions of history, the Tans have found themselves with an unprecedented opportunity. Collectively, craftily, Tan, his family and his neighbours have begun cashing in on a major new drive sweeping China: red tourism.
The Tan General Store, situated just 50 metres from Mao's second home along the Jinggangshan Trail, sells a curious mixture of dried fruit, beer, sewing supplies, cooking oil, fuel, Mao trinkets and revolutionary paperweights. 'Whatever the traveller needs,' Tan explains casually.
Tan and the mainland government are both expecting a great influx of visitors. Last year, China embarked on the Year of Red Tourism, trumpeted with a full marketing campaign that will last until 2010. Mainland authorities are working hard to drum up enthusiasm for some of the country's most remote yet revolution-imbued areas. For the party, it's a win-win chance to foster economic development in some of China's poorest regions while boosting its ideological zeal and political lore. For Tan, it's a business opportunity too good to pass up.
'Tourism is our primary source of income now, with hundreds of thousands of people visiting this site in recent months,' he explains. 'And that is up from tens of thousands a few years ago.'
China's red-tourism figures are testament to the ambitions of the programme. According to Xinhua, the state news agency, 700 million yuan was allocated last year alone to support the campaign, which aims to highlight key sites in the Communist Party's history until the establishment of the People's Republic in 1949.
It is expected that red tourism's patriotic fervour will have brought in 20 billion yuan and directly employ two million people by 2010, according to Xinhua. With most of China's revolutionary sites located in remote, underdeveloped areas, the campaign is already being credited with bringing funds to poorer regions.
The present framework for the campaign includes roughly 100 sites and 30 tours among them. We focus our tour on Jiangxi, starting with scenic hikes across the Red Army's old Jinggangshan terrain, followed by hair-raising drives along the mountain's Red Routes.
We race through Mao's two homes, the Revolutionary History Museum and the old party staging ground high on a mountain, where mock battles were fought, ending at the top, at the Monument to the Martyrs. Although we stop only once, for a bowl of noodles near Mao's second home, we manage to cover only half of Jinggangshan's revolutionary attractions.
Down from Jinggangshan Mountain, we take a 30-yuan express-bus trip east to Ruijin, in eastern Jiangxi. As the first site formally occupied by the Chinese Communist Party, in the early 1930s, Ruijin looms large in party history. It covers an area of 50,000 square kilometres, within which the party governed 3.5 million people.
Today, daily tours are provided by a guide dressed in military uniform and full of revolutionary ardour. The Ruijin Revolutionary Performance Troupe performs daily tributes to the party's past, dancing and lip-synching to deafening music.
Other sites in and around Ruijin are also now part of the red-tourism circuit. The Great Hall of the Provisional Central Government of the Soviet Republic of China, a woodland auditorium that seats up to 2,000 people, is supposedly shaped like a Red Army cap. The nearby Monument to the Red Army Martyrs, a giant pockmarked bullet, stands at the centre of the old soviet grounds.
Our Ruijin visit is crowned by a celebratory banquet in the presence of Ruijin party secretary Xiao Yi. Our feast, held at the stately Ruijin Hotel, set among a stand of trees, includes liberal helpings of snake balls and splashes of Great Wall red wine mixed with 7-Up. Xiao delicately serves us one gooey snake ball after another.
'These taste just like what the Red Army used to eat,' he assures us, before adding: 'Of course, theirs were flavoured with a great bitterness.'
Like other party officials at designated red-tourism sites, Xiao is eager to see tourist cash flow into the region and hopes red tourism will become Ruijin's leading industry.
'Our economy has only just begun to bloom,' he proclaims. 'Red tourism will provide more jobs in our area.
In the future, it should become our leading economy.'
What would the Great Helmsman have made of the capitalist fervour surrounding his revolutionary strongholds? 'Well, Mao didn't specifically say anything against red tourism, so I guess it should be allowed,' says Xiao, reaching for his wine glass.
Getting there: China Eastern Airlines (www.ce-air.com) flies from Hong Kong to Nanchang, Jiangxi. Buses run daily from Nanchang to assorted red-tourism sites. The Ruijin Hotel (100 Dong Shen Jie, Ruijin, tel: 86 797 252 2001) offers rooms from US$30 a night. See www.crt.com.cn for more information on red tourism (in Chinese only).