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Tourism Along the Yellow River Glorifies China's Past

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Tourism Along the Yellow River Glorifies China's Past

Tourism Along the Yellow River Glorifies China's Past

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

All week, NPR's Rob Gifford is taking us along China's Yellow River.

SIEGEL: We visited with Tibetan nomads near the source of the river, with students learning about the risks of pollution, and with farmers seeking out a living from the parched fields of Northern China.

BLOCK: For today's leg of his journey, Rob takes a step back to consider the symbolic importance of the Yellow River, often called the cradle of Chinese civilization. And he sent this report on the changing culture of the region.

ROB GIFFORD: They may be constructing the future all across modern China, but in some places along the Yellow River, they're also constructing the past. Just west of the river, as it emerges from the Black Triangle of China's coal country, is a tourist site that's being rapidly refurbished.

This is the Tomb of the Yellow Emperor, a site not in any foreign tourist books, but thronged with Chinese tourists. They've all come to see the tomb of the mythical leader considered to be the ancestor of all Chinese.

History is of course never just about the past. And with the Communist Party concerned that its legitimacy now depends entirely on a booming economy, one of the aims in enlarging and refurbishing this tomb may be to burnish the party's credentials as champion of the new Chinese nationalism. As China rises, it occurs the ordinary Chinese people need little encouragement to support.

LIU: (Speaking in foreign language)

GIFFORD: A middle-aged visitor from the city of Xi'an, a businessman whose name is Liu, says it's just like America. You guys have a book called "Roots," right? Well, this is just the Chinese people going in search of our roots.

He and his friends visiting the tomb say they're all very proud to come here and celebrate their history and their culture.

Many of the visitors are heading, like me, to another tourist spot nearby, this time on the Yellow River itself.

Right here beside me is the roaring Hukou waterfall. The Yellow River has come sweeping southwards from its great arc up towards Mongolia. It's 300 yards wide here, but it narrows into these falls throwing spray up into the air and onto the crowds of Chinese tourists around me. It's these falls and the intensity of them that inspired one of China's most famous poems of the 20th century, which was then set to music in the 1930s.

(Soundbite of song "Yellow River Cantata")

GIFFORD: The "Yellow River Cantata" received its premiere in 1939 at the Communist Party base in Yan'an, about 70 miles from the Yellow River. Communists under Chairman Mao had retreated to this remote spot on the loess plateau in 1935, as they tried to mobilize China's peasants and bring about a communist revolution.

The cantata was another rallying cry of patriotism against the invading Japanese. Now, visitors to Yan'an are greeted with a different tune.

Unidentified Man #1: (Singing in foreign language)

GIFFORD: A performer dressed in traditional peasant clothes welcomes tourists with the communist classic, "The East Is Red," to the caves where Mao and the other leaders lived in the 1930s and '40s. Now, you can dress up as a revolutionary and pose for a photo outside the caves, inspect the bed where Chairman Mao slept, or sing along with the performers.

Unidentified Group: (Singing in foreign language)

GIFFORD: Beside a large statue of Chairman Mao, I find myself talking to a group of Chinese baby boomers visiting Yan'an for the first time.

Unidentified Group: (Speaking in foreign language)

GIFFORD: I'm asking them what they think Chairman Mao would think of modern China. As they're saying, they think he'd like it because it's stronger and richer. I'm not sure I agree. I'm not sure he'd like it at all.

I'm sure Chairman Mao wouldn't have liked the beauty pageant that was recently held here just near his former cave or the commercialization of Yan'an, including the new government-promoted concept or Red Tourism, as described by my tour guide, 27-year-old Han Ning.

What is Red Tourism?

Ms. HAN NING (Tour Guide): You know Red Tourism.

GIFFORD: I've heard of it. What is it?

Ms. HAN NING: Don't know Red Army?

GIFFORD: The Communist army that came here in the 1930s?

Ms. NING: Yes. Mm-hmm.

GIFFORD: Yeah?

Ms. NING: Yeah. Where the Red Army went in the past, the route is Red Tourism.

GIFFORD: Isn't that a little bit contradictory to be earning money from the history of the Communist Party?

Ms. NING: You're saying that…

GIFFORD: A little bit contradictory?

Ms. NING: A little bit, a little bit, yeah.

GIFFORD: I mean, China isn't, doesn't seem very communist anymore. Do you know what I mean?

Ms. NING: I think it is only political things, nothing with us. We keep only living in our way. That's enough. We don't think too much about the political things.

GIFFORD: That much is very clear. What strikes me about formerly isolated Yan'an now is how open it is, how accessible. After lunch at Kentucky Fried Chicken, I leave in a new Buick sedan made in Shanghai along the shiny, four-lane highway south towards the ancient capital of Xi'an. Xi'an and its surrounding area is steeped in Chinese history. You could still visit the tombs, the temples and, of course, the famous Terracotta Army. Xi'an is booming too as the Communist Party invests more money in inland cities in its push westward towards its own manifest destiny. I visit Xi'an's first online gaming company, a take in a movie, visit a new Wal-Mart, eat some sushi and just generally catch up on the renaissance going on at the cradle of Chinese civilization.

Unidentified Woman: (Speaking in foreign language)

GIFFORD: Well, you don't necessarily think of Starbucks as heralding a renaissance of any kind, but this is clearly where the action is in Xi'an early on a Saturday evening. It's pack with Chinese people and with Westerners. And the streets outside are thronged with shoppers. The cradle of Chinese civilization is clearly rocking once again in more ways than one. I'm just going to get my last order in before I head back to the Yellow River.

Hello. Ni hao. I'd like the green tea blackberry frapuccino, please.

Unidentified Man #2: What size do you want?

GIFFORD: A large one, please, to go. Thank you very much.

This is Rob Gifford, NPR News, in Starbucks in the city of Xi'an, Northern China.

Unidentified Man #2: Grande green tea, blackberry frapuccino on the bar. Thank you.

NORRIS: Tomorrow, Rob concludes his journey at the mouth of the Yellow River, stopping along the way to see a couple of massive government projects. Our series this week was produced by Andrea Hsu. You can find her audio slideshow of the journey and catch up on all of the week's reports at npr.org.

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