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February 12, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright February 12, 2008 Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom. Used by permission.


One thing that American newspaper readers can’t help noticing—no matter which section matters most to them—is that people, objects, and images are circulating between China and the West at a dizzying pace. In 2007 alone, business reporters told of tainted food and dangerous toys coming from East to West, while their colleagues covering entertainment reported that film crews were heading in the opposite direction to shoot “Survivor: China.” Sports fans got reports of U.S. athletes preparing for the Beijing Games as well as articles about Yao Ming moving back and forth across the Pacific, to shoot baskets in Houston and get married in Shanghai.

What’s more, on a single recent Sunday (December 2, 2007), the Los Angeles Times greeted subscribers like me with not just one but two headline-grabbing stories about 21st century tourism with Chinese characteristics. On the front page, a story titled “Opening the Door for China” described changed visa rules that are likely to “unleash a new wave of tourism,” bringing Chinese visitors streaming into Southern California in record number to go to theme parks, stay at hotels and shop in the heavily Mandarin-speaking San Gabriel Valley, and buy herbal medicines and brand name luxury goods (confident, as they wouldn’t be at home, that they’ll get the real things, not fakes). The cover of the Travel section, meanwhile, showed snowcapped mountain peaks topped by large white lettering spelling out “REVVED UP for the SILK ROAD,” with smaller type above reading “Countdown to the 2008 Olympics” (a reminder of the media frenzy and big upsurge in West-to-East tourism predicted for this year).

The increasing intertwining of China and the West—and the excitement and anxiety it’s generating—has inspired breathless forward-looking commentaries about things like whose century this young one will be, as if it has to belong to either Us or Them. But what really seems in order during this countdown to the Olympics is slowing down and trying to catch our breath. Instead of peering anxiously ahead into the unknown, we would do well to pause, look back over our shoulders, and ask: Can we learn something useful from revisiting past moments when East-West exchanges increased? And those interested in the topic have some attractive places to turn just now, thanks to the recent appearance of four books and the mounting of two new exhibits.