China’s Named and Inscribed Places


Chinese tourist sites follow a set of conventions that seem to go back hundreds or thousands of years, far into a past when tourism, as we understand it, did not yet exist. Essentially we’re dealing with named and inscribed sites. I have visited many in my Chinese travels, but since I can’t read the language I have formed my ideas about them from reading English-language signage and asking my wife to translate or explain. So I may have misunderstood the nuances. Here nevertheless are my impressions.

A Chinese tourist site always originates with an educated male member of the elite some time during the past 2000 years. On his travels he sees something poetically inspiring, usually but not always a piece of unusual natural or rural scenery, and he writes a few lines about it. The following causal chain is unclear to me, but what ends up happening is that the place gets named for the guy’s poem, something like “Moonlight On Crane Pond” or “Tiger Boulder With Dragon’s Tail”, the poem is incised on a stele or convenient rock face at the site, and the place enters some kind of central canonical list of poetic places. (I guess the site’s success in this regard will depend to some extent both on the man’s fame and on the quality of his poetry.) Through the centuries similar men will then continue to visit the site, write poetry about it, and possibly add more inscriptions.

Wednesday we visited a typical example of these places near Hecheng (“Qingtian City”). Shimen, “Stone Door”, is a dramatic canyon with an extremely high and beautiful waterfall at the inner end. Under a large rock shelter at the side of the waterfall’s lower pool are poetic inscriptions from about 20 famous scholars, and in the vicinity are several other named sites that apparently owe their existence to other elite tourists who came to visit the waterfall site and ended up writing their “Kilroy was here” poetry about something else nearby that caught their fancy. It’s the same around the West Lake in Hangzhou, where you’ll find a named and inscribed site behind every bush. I imagine that stone carvers could always make a living at places like these by waiting for rich men to come by for a peek, and immortalising their poetic effusions in stone.

The Chinese tourist sites I’ve visited since 2001 have all been very well kept, to the extent that there is little to be seen there that is older than the 1990s. Paths, signposts, buildings, terracing and flood-control walls: everything’s new. The only old stuff visible is mostly cliffside sculptural reliefs, vandalised during one or another of the Chinese’s recurring iconoclastic phases such as the Cultural Revolution (or by European colonial powers). And then there are the inscriptions, which I cannot date at all since the script was standardised millennia ago and they’re usually well painted in. But under the Shimen rock shelter I was pleased to find a number of badly worn, unpainted inscriptions that the management clearly didn’t expect us tourists to want to read. I guess they’re from visitors who came long ago and are not much remembered today.

The Chinese concept of a famous site is similar to the Japanese uta-makura, a term I picked up from the 17th century poet Basho’s lovely little travelogue “The Narrow Road to the Interior”. Literally meaning “poem pillow” (!?), the uta-makura is a kind of poetic allusion. Poet A writes about, say, plum blossom in Yokohama, and the poem becomes widely read. Poets B, C and D can then mention Yokohama as a poetic shorthand for plum blossom: it has become an uta-makura. During their trip to the interior, Basho and his friends move from uta-makura to uta-makura, paying little attention to anything that hasn’t been written about in famous poetry. To them, poetry is not about beautiful scenery – it’s the scenery that is about poetry.

This seems very similar to the Chinese idea. Classical education was all about studying and memorising famous ancient texts. And nature appreciation is all about visiting named and inscribed sites whose beauty is vouchsafed by famous ancient poets. If I visit a beautiful place that nobody has written poetry about, and do not write poetry about it myself and hire a stone carver, I might as well not go at all.

Author: Martin R

Dr. Martin Rundkvist is a Swedish archaeologist, journal editor, skeptic, atheist, lefty liberal, bookworm, boardgamer, geocacher and father of two.

11 thoughts on “China’s Named and Inscribed Places”

  1. that is fascinating, thank you.

    Random thoughts: the Symbolist movement in poetry starting with Baudelaire and going on through Eliot’s Waste Land uses the same approach:
    “The physical universe, then, is a kind of language that invites a privileged spectator to decipher it, although this does not yield a single message so much as a superior network of associations.”

    Ezra Pound and the Imagists drew directly on Japanese and Chinese traditions to say simply “the natural object is always the adequate symbol.”


  2. This is consistent with the old Chinese belief that legitimity of an idea comes with deriving it from older ideas of accepted philosophers/scholars. This is connected with the weltanschaung of a golden age in the past, and the present as a degenerated version (actually, a bit like the Greek beliefs cited by Platon, and the belief system glimpsed in Tolkien’s fiction).
    You can launch a new idea but need to describe it as naturally derived from previous orthodoxy.
    And a beautiful scene only gets accepted as “beautiful” if it has the seal of approval of poets, the more poets the better. If I, the son of a farmer simply state that this landscape is beautiful it means nothing.

    The Greeks managed to lose some of the dependence on past authorities since so many of their philosophers (many of them literally sophists) practised law; reasoning is something you test against an audience as you try to sway them to your way of thinking. Thus they invented both rhetoric and the principle of logic.


  3. This is also like the current American insistence on “Kodaks”– the photographing of one’s self and/or party at famous sites. It is as if one has not been to a sight if there is no photo to prove it. That means that a stop at a lookout point in the badlands consists of piling out of the car, turning all backs to the vista, posing the shot, clicking the shutter, and piling back into the car to roar off to the next sight on the itinerary.


  4. A more interesting approach is the nuances of the contemporary travel style of the Chinese – mass groups in tour buses going to only pre-destined locations to “view” what others have deemed necessary to see. Exploration, innovation and personal discover is lost in this manner, so it seems that the past plays a larger role on the presents perception of place, beauty and importance than is at first obvious. Living in Taiwan this is ever so present.

    Whenever I go somewhere (for me that means driving someplace, xia-che’ing (as we call it!) and hiking into the woods, looking around the corner, poking our heads down alleys, walking up streams….exploring. When I relay this to friends here they always ask me “what did you go to see?” wanting me to mention a popular destination or artifact. When I reply “nothing, we went to explore” they are more than aghast that we didn’t have a specific place that was told to us to be important, and that we had the audacity to look for ourselves.

    Travel, importance and perception of what is worth our time is a curious cultural artifact.


  5. This made me think of a discussion I had with a chinese friend when we had dinner in Beijing. We decided to drink some beer and he suggested that we should order two bottles of Qingdao beer. I replied that I prefer the local Yanjing beer over Qingdao, so lets take two of those. He looked surprised and said: But Qingdao is Chinas number one beer! I then proceeded to try to explain that in “my personal taste” I find Yanjing slightly better. I don’t think he really ever got my point, he repeated several times that Qingdao is Chinas Number One Beer and then finally just gave up, shook his head and ordered the Yanjing.


  6. When I reply “nothing, we went to explore” they are more than aghast that we didn’t have a specific place that was told to us to be important, and that we had the audacity to look for ourselves.

    I don’t know whether this answer will satisfy them, but you can point to the words of the Western philosopher David Byrne: “You may ask yourself, where does that highway go to?”


  7. I think it is a common human thing to want to put places into narrative form, and often that narrative is of discovery by a poet. The pilgrimage tradition is rather old, and usually involves hauling off on a group tour to see some site or shrine. Why that site or shrine? Because everyone had heard stories about it or descriptions of it. (I know this was a big thing in Japan and England.)

    New York City attracts a good number of tourists by being the backdrop for all sorts of movies. Who would care about the Empire State Building, a so so architectural effort and a disaster as an office building, except that King Kong was shot off its broadcast tower and that’s where the lovers reunited in A Night to Remember. (Really, the office space in the ESB is problematic and has been since it was built in the early 30s.)


  8. The differences in eastern and western thought have always fascinated me. Thanks for sharing that!


  9. Interesting, although I’m not entirely sure on your characterization of many of these sites predating tourism. I can’t speak to the Chinese part of it since I have read exactly nothing about tourism in ancient China, except insofar it related to Japan and the exportation of Buddhist teachings.

    However with respect to Japan, it was at least in the opinion of my professors, and I tend to agree, that “The Narrow Road to Oku/Interior” was part of a rich tradition of travelogues and tourist maps, where the authors often visited already famous places and wrote poetical commentary on the locations as opposed to validating the locations. The fact that Basho’s turn of phrase then gets picked up and becomes synonymous with the location later is part of the later literary tradition and a tribute to Basho’s genius and/or his contemporary fame, but is separate from the tourism aspect. Obviously, I may be wrong or misremebering some of this, as it’s been a while. I also haven’t studied anything on this since I left school and the consensus on the topics may also have changed.

    With that in mind, I think it can be pretty convincingly shown that tourism, as we understand it in modern terms, existed in Japan as far back as the early Korean tribute missions. Obviously it was much more limited, but it was undeniably present. Also, by the time the Edo period is underway you definitely can find entertainment as opposed to ‘famous sites’ tourism – Nam Lin Hur goes into somewhat excruciating detail on this in ‘Prayer and Play’.

    I should leave it there, before I get stuck plowing through the source material and don’t get any work done.


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