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China Travel Culture

Perhaps due to the influence of the adventurous story of Odyssey’s journey back home, in Western culture, travel has long since been used as a way to remould oneself. In Europe, there has been a culture of “grand tour” since somewhere in the late 16th century, when a custom developed for privileged young men to fill their time (known as the “gap year”) between a university education and the beginning of a career with an extended tour of continental Europe. It is believed that such a tour can help enhance the young man in a variety of ways: brushing up foreign language skills, improving personal competitiveness such as the abilities of independently addressing problems, disciplining oneself, and interpersonal communication, and exposing him to the cultural legacy of classical antiquity and the Renaissance on the Continent.

Underlying the human beings’ need for travel seems to be a universal innate desire to expend their existence in two dimensions: time and space. While an individual’s lifespan is always limited, it becomes more important for an individual to broaden his horizon. And the mortal being meets his desire in this regard through traveling.
Confucius' visit with his students around seven states during Spring and Autumn Period when he relieved himself from Da Si Kou of Lu State

This is a statue themed with Confucius visit together with his students to the other states of middle China in period of  Spring and Autumn except Qin and Chu States, both of which were discriminated to be the uncivilized states during the states under the regime of Zhou. Confucius' long-term tour starting with his dismissal of Da Si Kou of Lu State

The ancient Chinese were no exception in this regard. Like the Westerners, they developed a travel culture of their own, too. The earliest record of travel relates to King Mu (976~922 BC) of Western Zhou Dynasty, who traveled west from central China to as far as the Caspian in Central Asia. His trip was somewhat legendized by historical records, stating that he met with certain goddess, and became a source of inspiration for literature of successive dynasties. More travel stories took place in the Spring and Autumn Period (770~476 BC) and the Warring States Period (475~221 BC). Philosophers of almost all schools used to travel between the states either to disseminate their ideologies or seek official employment. Among them, Confucius’ travel to other states in China has become the most frequently mentioned.

Pilgrimages were part of ancient China’s travel culture, too, in which monks (mainly of Buddhism and Taoism) traveled to the holy places of worship, as many of the famous temples and monasteries were located in the depth of remote mountains. Xuanzang, the Buddhist monk fictionalized in Journey to the West (one of the four greatest Chinese classic novels), made it to India, and his travel notes Great Tang Records on the Western Regions is a valuable text for studying the culture and history of Xinjiang and Central Asia. Other religious travelers include FaXian and Jianzhen, to name but a few.
China Travel CultureChina Travel Culture

Pilgrimages were part of ancient China’s travel culture, as Buddhism originated in India. Monks had to endure numerous hardships before making it to the holy places in India.

The story of Xuanzang's pilgramage to India in Tang Dynasty was later to be fictionalized in Journey to the West, an immensely popular Chinese novel.


Men of letters carried on the travel tradition over successive dynasties. Sitting for the imperial civil services examination used to mean a lot of traveling for the intellectuals, for they had to take a long journey from hometown to the imperial capital. Beside this, they may also travel to seek official employment under local officials or warlords, or just for tourist purposes. Their traveling experiences often had considerable influence on their future career (either political or literary). Li Bai (701~762 CE), the top poet in Tang Dynasty and the whole Chinese history, traveled from Afghanistan to central China when young and spent much of his lifetime visiting the places of historic or scenic interest. Another literature master of Northern Song Dynasty, Su Shi (1037~1101 CE) often trod the hard, strenuous roads linking Sichuan, his hometown, to central China. The literary styles of both men feature bold, unconstrained Romanticism with rich imaginations and open-mindedness.

Short excursions were also popular with the ancient Chinese intellectuals. It was a custom that, on festive or similar occasions, a group of them gather at certain place (often rural or suburban, of scenic beauty) where they held a party and exchanged poems or essays. Preface to the Poems Composed at the Orchid Pavilion (兰亭集序 lan ting ji xu, by Wang Xizhi), the most well-known work of Chinese calligraphy, has just been a product of such a poetry party.

Some travelers were almost professional travelers, who were dedicated to finding more about the geography of distant places. The most famous personalities in China’s travel culture are Li Daoyuan (470~527 CE) and Xu Hongzu (1587~1641 CE). The field visits of Li Daoyuan almost cover the whole vast Chinese regions south of the Great Wall and east of the Qinling Mountain Range. Li’s Commentary on the “Waterways Classic” (水经注 shui jing zhu) discusses as many as 1252 watercourses and is also a valuable literary work. Xu Hongzu was even more legendary a geographer and travel writer. He traveled throughout China for more than 30 years, documenting his travels extensively, which would be compiled posthumously into The Travel Diaries Xu Xiake. He is popularly known to every Chinese household as Xu Xiake (霞客), meaning “one who is in the sunset clouds”, as he made it to so many mountains where the sunset clouds perch.

China Travel Culture

Xu Xiake, whose name means "one who is in the sunset clouds", is the best known traveler of ancient China.



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