Aspiring to be Global: Language and Social Change in a Tourism Village in China

Aspiring to be Global: Language and Social Change in a Tourism Village in China

by Shuang Gao


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This book makes a novel contribution to the sociolinguistics of globalization by examining the dynamics between language and social change in the tourism destination of West Street, Yangshuo, China. The author makes use of multiple sources, including ethnographic interviews, tourist literature, public signage and policy documents, to examine how tourist mobilities are embedded in and interact with historical, geographical, social, cultural, economic and semiotic factors in the creation of a ‘global village’. The transformation of West Street is emblematic of changes in Chinese society under globalization, revealing new subjectivities, tensions and struggles inherent in this ongoing process of social change.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781788922753
Publisher: Multilingual Matters Ltd.
Publication date: 03/28/2019
Series: Encounters Series , #13
Pages: 184
Product dimensions: 6.21(w) x 8.72(h) x 0.56(d)

About the Author

Shuang Gao is a lecturer in the Department of English at the University of Liverpool, UK. Her research interests include sociolinguistics, globalization, identity and language ideology.

Read an Excerpt



Starting the Journey

This research originates from two main inspirational sources, one in the chair, another on the road. Back in May 2006, when I was about to finish my bachelor's at a university in Hunan Province, China, a couple of classmates suggested that we went on a graduation tour. We finally decided to go to Yangshuo County and the city of Guilin, which is located in the neighboring Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region (see Map 1.1) and is well known for its beautiful natural sceneries. As the popular saying goes: 'Guilin has the best scenery of mountains and rivers; Yangshuo boasts even better'. So, there we were on the road.

On the train, we found ourselves in the same carriage with another group of students. Actually, it was such a large group that we looked like outsiders; it quickly became apparent to us that it was 'their' carriage. With us were a cohort of college students, about a hundred of them, going to Yangshuo together with their teachers. I was told that they went there to practice English with foreigners. I had heard that Yangshuo was quite popular among foreign travelers, but the idea still intrigued me because I was not sure how they were going to do that. Maybe as intern tour guides, I supposed, but I quickly forgot about it as travel fatigue got to me.

After travelling around the city for about three days, we headed without a break for Yangshuo. It takes some time to reach Yangshuo County from the city; however, unlike many journeys, the time on the road was not dull. As the bus left the city of Guilin behind, the views along the road were refreshing and soothing – rivers, Karst mountains, extensive farm lands. One would have a more intimate experience of the natural beauty if one chose to take a boat down the famous Li River that runs across the county from the city (see Figure 1.1). Indeed, Yangshuo has always been attractive. It is unique and well known among backpackers for its Karst geography; it was a resort for imperial officials during the Song Dynasty (1100s).

On arrival, we quickly found a nice and affordable hotel (a triple room for only 40 yuan per night) near Yangshuo bus station. Then, we were ready to exhaust the place and ourselves – cycling, mountain climbing, bamboo rafting and other activities. That evening, one of my friends suggested that we went for a walk in a local street, West Street ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] Xi Jie). A traditional neighborhood street on the west bank, West Street winds into the town from the dock of the Li River. Over the last three decades, this street has been the place where many travelers take a short break after their journey or base themselves if they plan to further explore the countryside. It is not a very long street, several hundred meters, paved with large uneven black marble stones and lined by Ming-Qing-style residential buildings (see Figure 1.2). But further into the street, it is a different world. In contrast to the laid-back countryside, West Street is busy. At night, the street is lit up with colorful neon lights. Before you realize it, you are part of the crowd, passing souvenir shops and artistic craft tables, and seeing people of different color chatting over beer, coffee and pizza. I remember watching a foreigner with a white beard happily playing his guitar in front of a bar, smiling for the many tourists and their cameras. Obviously, he was much more at home than I was. After walking for a while, my friends insisted that we went for a drink in a bar. Amid colorful lights and live band music, a sense of displacement and uneasiness came over me, making me wonder how everything had ended up here in this small town in a faraway countryside. Never quite used to this kind of bustling nightlife, I quickly finished the worst lemon tea ever and left my friends to enjoy themselves. The next evening, as we used our cameras to capture one last picture of the sunset over the river while running to catch the last bus, I told myself I must come back again. I never expected, however, that I would return as a researcher.

This research is about West Street, Yangshuo, a changing place in a rapidly changing China. What brings me back to Yangshuo is a concern for the changing roles of language in its sociohistorical transformation. In the current phase of globalization, it has been observed that socioeconomic restructuring has led to the reconceptualization and re-evaluation of language, especially among ethnolinguistic communities. Notably, Heller's (2003) pioneering research 'Globalization, the new economy, and the commodification of language and identity' examines a tourism site in francophone Canada. She reveals how economic restructuring and entry into the global market has led to the re-evaluation of multilingual repertoires in francophone Canada and the valorization of the local variety of French for heritage tourism, which she succinctly describes as the entrance into the 'language industry' (Heller, 2010: 352; 2017). This strategy is also seen among other ethnolinguistic communities. Coupland et al. (2005) discuss the commodification of Welsh for the heritage tourism of mining in Wales. Thurlow and Jaworski (2010) show the use of minority languages in traveler's language textbooks and television tourism programs, which helps produce a sense of exoticness (see also Chen, 2016; Kelly-Holmes & Pietikainen, 2014; Sharma & Phyak, 2017; Wang, 2015).

The case of West Street, however, differs from the above-mentioned cases in that its sociohistorical transformation involves the mobilization and re-evaluation of non-local, instead of local, resources. While located in a region with multiple ethnolinguistic minorities, most notably Zhuang, the tourism development of Yangshuo in recent years has been capitalizing on the English language, as well as other semiotic resources, as opposed to local ethnolinguistic varieties. The image of foreigners living happily in Yangshuo figures prominently in the media, particularly in tourism promotional discourses targeting domestic Chinese tourists. West Street is advertised as a 'global village' ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) and an 'English Corner' ([TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII]) wherein Western elements, the English language in particular, are highlighted and indigenous local elements are downplayed if not erased.

This study thus seeks to examine the tourism site of West Street, Yangshuo, as an important case for the sociolinguistics of mobility. Blommaert (2010), in his seminal book The Sociolinguistics of Globalization, observes that there have been shifting perspectives in language and society, one of which involves a shift

from a view in which language is narrowly tied to a community, a time and a place, and in which language is primarily seen as having local functions, to a view in which language exists in and for mobility across space and time. This shift, I would say, is conceptually far more momentous ..., because it forces us to consider linguistic signs detached from their traditional locus of origin (in a speech community, and with a specific set of local functions), and instead replaced, so to speak, in a very different loci of production and uptake – where the conventional associative functions of such signs cannot be taken for granted ... it is only when we think of linguistic signs as being very much 'open' signs, onto which several functions (simultaneously) can be projected, that we can start to find answers to the complex and often bewildering phenomenology of language in globalization. (Blommaert, 2010: 181–182)

Adopting this perspective, my research examines language as 'open signs' where the social meanings of language cannot be assumed or taken for granted, but can only be revealed by exploring the historical processes of meaning projection. More specifically, I investigate

• How has West Street become a so-called 'global village' and 'English Corner'?

• What roles do language and communication play in this process of social change?

• What are the implications of this sociohistorical change for the local community?

Through asking these questions, this research seeks to understand West Street's social change from the perspective of changing language ideologies and practices. As I will show below, the recent transformation of West Street, Yangshuo, into a 'global village' occurs in tandem with ideological and economic changes in China during the past few decades. In this sense, it represents a 'telling case' (Heath & Street, 2008: 64) of the complexities, contingencies and tensions involved in China's globalization process.

Before providing a proper introduction to Yangshuo, however, it would be useful to explain first what tourism is, and how I approach the tourism site in question. I will suggest that tourism provides one important domain for understanding the sociolinguistics of mobility, both theoretically and empirically. I then introduce the tourism site of West Street, Yangshuo, focusing on several aspects of its recent social change from a global, national and local nexus. I then provide a theoretical framework for the present study, discussing the key concepts of globalization, mobility, locality and historicity. An overview of the book is provided at the end of the chapter.

Tourism as a Social Field

Tourism is often considered the biggest industry in the world and represents 'the largest movement of human populations outside wartime' (Crick, 1989: 310, as cited in Wang, 2000: 1; see also Dann, 1996). It has been a topic of research in disciplines as varied as geography, economics, anthropology, sociology and sociolinguistics (see e.g. Dann, 1996; Nash & Smith, 1991; Stronza, 2001; Thurlow & Jaworski, 2010). This multidisciplinary exploration of tourism, however, does not mean that tourism has always been a key concern in social sciences (Wang, 2000: 1). Indeed, tourism itself cannot yet claim to have its own disciplinary integrity and has been having difficulty finding itself a disciplinary home (Dann & Cohen, 1991; Leite & Graburn, 2009). It is therefore not surprising that definitions of tourism vary not only across disciplines, but also according to the specific theoretical perspectives one takes within one discipline (Dann & Cohen, 1991; Leite & Graburn, 2009; Nash, 1981; Wang, 2000).

This is not necessarily something regretful. Indeed, Dean MacCannell, one of the founding scholars of tourism, suggests that the significance of tourism research lies in exposing 'a deep flaw in discipline thought':

Whatever its methodological or theoretical orientation, and even when it does not intend to do so, tourism research exposes a deep flaw in discipline thought: specifically, a methodological commitment to, or at least a dependence upon, the assumption of cultural homogeneity within the various fields of study ... But mainly (and this is their central failing when it comes to analysis of current social forms), sociology, anthropology, psychology, economics, political science, even history, operates as if their subject matter is framed by a single culture, unifying logic, intersubjective agreement, parallel intentions, and motivations. (MacCannell, 1989: 2, italics original)

One telling example might be the conception of tourists. The study of the 'tourist' originated from an embarrassing situation when 'in the 1960s, some anthropologists were struck by the intrusion of tourists into their field' (Leite & Graburn, 2009: 39). As mentioned earlier, due to the disciplinary bias of documenting the 'authentic', many anthropologists adopted an attitude of resistance by either ignoring tourists during fieldwork, in particular when they themselves could be (mis)taken for tourists, or intentionally omitting tourists from their publications (Leite & Graburn, 2009: 38–39; see also Graburn, 2002). This is especially the case when tourists could also claim knowledge about the field. Such disciplinary practice based on assumptions of homogeneity or rigorous commitment to the uncontaminated, isolated and therefore authentic, MacCannell (1989: 2–3; c.f. Pratt, 1987) argues, has resulted in the exclusion of those social forms that are 'emerging, new, unplanned, unstable; shaping thought and behavior in still unknown ways'. In this sense, it is a groundbreaking epistemological statement when Nash (1981: 461) states that 'at the heart of any definition of tourism is the person we conceive to be a tourist'. Over the past decade, scholars in tourism research have been debating over how to move toward a post-disciplinary perspective and rethink tourism not just theoretically but ontologically (see e.g. Winter, 2009: 22–23). Recently, this need for rethinking has been most strongly advocated by Sheller and Urry (2006) who propose a 'new mobilities paradigm':

Social science has largely ignored or trivialized the importance of the systemic movements of people for work and family life, for leisure and pleasure, and for politics and protest. The paradigm challenges the ways in which much social science research has been 'a-mobile'. ... Travel has been for the social sciences seen as a black box, a neutral set of technologies and processes predominantly permitting forms of economic, social, and political life that are seen as explicable in terms of other, more causally powerful processes. (Sheller & Urry, 2006: 208)

On a more general level, they observe that:

Social science has thus been static in its theory and research. It has not sufficiently examined how, enhanced by various objects and technologies, people move. But also it has not seen how images and communications are also intermittently on the move and those actual and potential movements organize and structure social life. (Sheller & Urry, 2006: 212)

It is in this mobility turn that tourism research gets most integrated with social science (see Cohen & Cohen, 2012; Leite & Graburn, 2009: 52; Mavric & Urry, 2009). Taking this mobility perspective, my analytical scope is not confined to touristic activities in a narrow sense (c.f. Cohen, 1984)1; rather, I explore the tourism site of West Street, Yangshuo, as what Leite and Graburn (2009) term 'a social field':

an anthropological approach precludes viewing tourism as a distinct entity in itself, to be defined everywhere in the same way. It is, instead, 'not one, but many sets of practices, with few clear boundaries but some central ideas' (Abram et al. 1997: 2), all embedded within broader social, political, and historical framework. As a cultural phenomenon, its significant components will shift depending on one's starting point. Thus 'tourism' can refer to a category of experience counterposed to everyday life; a local, national, or global industry; an opportunity for employment; a source of strangers in one's home locality; a force for social change; a form of cultural representation and brokerage; an emblem and a medium of globalization; a venue for the construction and performance of national, ethnic, gendered, and other identities; or any combination of these and more. Tourism is thus most productively viewed not as an entity in its own right, but instead as a social field in which many actors engage in complex interactions across time and space, both physical and virtual ... [so as] to explore the ambiguities, contingencies, and slippages revealed in the particularities of each instance. The resulting body of scholarship attends to how actual people understand and conduct their involvement in the interrelated practices of travelling, encountering, guiding, producing, representing, talking, moving, hosting, and consuming. (Leite & Graburn, 2009: 37)

This approach enables us to explore the embeddedness of tourism sites and touristic activities within larger social structures across time and space, as well as the contingencies and tensions involved. For our purpose here, it also has implications for the politics of knowledge production. With the rise of Asian tourists during the past decade (Cohen & Cohen 2012; Winter, 2009) and China's likely domination of the global tourism market in 2020, as predicted by the World Tourism Organization (Nyíri, 2009: 153), it is important to ask whether Asian tourism can be explained by existing tourism research established from an ethnocentric perspective. As Winter (2009) notes:

Given that the paradigm of tourism has in large part been constructed around an analysis of west-to-east, north-to-south encounters, rooted in ideas of globalization as a process of westernization, our tourist has been silently conceived as white (and male). (Winter, 2009: 23–24; see also Cohen & Cohen, 2012: 2195)

Indeed, after the Second World War, postcolonial countries were first advised by their former colonizers to establish tourism sites to regain economic development (Leite & Graburn, 2009: 40). This neocolonial practice helps perpetuate the presumption that Asia is on the receiving end of tourism mobilities. Approaching tourism as a social field helps avoid such ethnocentrism and theoretical reductionism, and enables us to appreciate the empirical richness and complexities of tourism in Asia. A first step, as Winter (2009: 28) suggests, is to make up for 'the lack of historical accounts' on Asian tourism by 'situat[ing] the historical growth of travel ... within their appropriate societal changes'. This is the task of the next section.


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Copyright © 2019 Shuang Gao.
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. IntroductionChapter 2. Approaching the ‘Global Village’ Chapter 3. Commodification of Place, Consumption of Identity: Making ‘Global Village’ a Brand Chapter 4. Tensions of Space: Living on the Margins of the ‘Global Village’Chapter 5. Global Village as ‘English Corner’: ‘Enjoy Speaking English All the Time’ Chapter 6. Globalization: A Short Reflection ReferencesAppendix

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