1 Introduction

Observations on Asia through the lenses of travellers from different parts of the world in the 1960s were hugely diverse. They stretched from critical images of Western automatized modernities over glorifications of exotic temples of consumerism and gazing tourist views to politicized descriptions in appreciation or criticism of different emerging ideological spheres in East Asia. However, the experiences and reflections that shine through the accounts of travelling as acts of self-realization, consumption, ideological alignment, identity formation and curiosity deserve a more thorough analysis than scholarly writings on travel and travel writing after 1945 has suggested.

One of the classics on British travel writing, Paul Fussell, remarked bitterly that genuine travelling and thus insightful and remarkable travel writing disappeared after the interwar period. “Because travel is hardly possible anymore, an inquiry into the nature of travel and travel writing between the wars will resemble a threnody, and I'm afraid that a consideration of the tourism that apes it will be like a satire”.Footnote 1 Fussell and many scholars after him have thus focussed on the curious and exotic travellers like Peter Fleming, W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood who were widely accessible to an English-speaking audience and reflected the colonial hero adventurer stories that came with a long-standing tradition of adventurer explorers in Central Asia since Sven Hedin and Aurel Stein.Footnote 2 Less known figures like Ella Maillart or André Malraux were equally famous for the interwar travels and literary production of observations.Footnote 3 In scholarship, these heroes and heroines have been studied with respect to their limited ways of exploring the genuine characters of the parts of Asia in which they travelled.

More generally, the problem with works on travel writings after 1945 is that they evaluate their study objects in respect to two questions: how accurate the descriptions of specific spaces were, and how well the descriptions fitted the assumption of an overtly exoticized Western Orientalism in travel writings following Said’s claims towards power structures in the context of Cold War and decolonization. Studies on the politics of tourism rightly claim that by applying the concept of “gaze” as a skilled cultural practice and socially learned ability reflective of one’s particular filter of ideas, skills, gender, desires and expectations, the specific views on East Asia in the 1960s are heavily influenced by the context of the Cold War and the travellers’ positions in it.Footnote 4 Classic interpretations claim that Western leftist intellectuals were involved in constructing positive images of communist countries and position travellers as political pilgrims that created favourable ideological “Orients”.Footnote 5 In the context of the escalating Vietnam conflict and the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the mid-1960s, in particular China and Hong Kong as adjacent spaces of high political relevance moved to the forefront of travel observations.Footnote 6 However, both tourism and travel writing became highly political phenomena that attracted constructions, consumptions and new curiosities about East Asia beyond questions of social and geographical accuracy and mere Orientalist gazes for the sake of dominance.Footnote 7

This article argues that travel writings on Asia, in particular on China and Hong Kong in the 1960s, are much more nuanced and serve a multitude of purposes that go beyond clear identifications of political pilgrimages, Orientalist marketing and capitalist consumerism in the advent of jet-plane long-distance travel. In unpacking the problematic assumption of ideological “gazes” of Western travellers and the complex constellations of ideology and consumerism in the context of Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China, we argue that travels in the 1960s and their literary reflection diversify and to some extent counter the notions of post-colonial stereotypes that emerge in the political spheres of British and US American presence in East and South East Asia and the rise of Orientalist consumerism. The contribution thus juxtaposes the politicized discourses around East Asia on the Vietnam and China issues and the creation of a specific Orientalist image of Hong Kong and other Asian metropolis in the 1965 Cathay Pacific campaign with an in-depth analysis of a travel account by the Italian writer Goffredo Parise in his article series for the Corriere della Sera in Italy—Cara Cina.Footnote 8 In Parise’s work, this contrast between the PRC in transition during the early phase of the Cultural Revolution and his visit to consumerist and tourist capital of the region, Hong Kong, connects the two elements of the analysis. Through the analysis of different forms of creating collective identities under the pretext of rapid and diversified modernizations in Asia, we capture different aspects of the radically diverse agendas of travelling, observing and constructing Asia as a variety of spaces and places. At the same time, we add another layer of analysis to the discussion on knowledge by questioning the dominance of colonial Orientalism during the Cold War through witty and genuine curiosities of authors like Parise, who generate with a European reflectiveness a non-stereotypical China.

2 Cold War Imaginations of East Asia

East Asia between 1945 and 1970 was a region in rapid transition. The political changes following the Civil War in China and the establishment of a KMT regime to continue the Republic in Taiwan as a political entity apart from the PRC in 1949 was an important, but by no means the only political change.Footnote 9 Decolonization of the former formal Empires in the region, Britain, France and the Netherlands, and the intense legacy of Japanese occupation happened side by side with the continuous presence of France (in Vietnam) and Britain (in Hong Kong) in East and South East Asia.Footnote 10 The United States of America as the new aspiring dominant power in the Pacific engaged in active foreign policy, of which the Korean War and the Vietnam War bore testimony to the world and challenged a developing new equilibrium of power in East and South East Asia.Footnote 11 In all of these re-alignments, rapid industrial modernizations, at times carried through with immense social costs, and efforts of nation-building in post-colonial societies coincided with competitions over ideological supremacies between Communism and Capitalism as economic, and Communism and Western Liberalism as political systems. The travel writers, their personal or political preferences and alignments, and their pre-conceptions of Asian spaces in political and social terms reflected these rapidly changing political landscapes without necessarily being accurate in their descriptions of them.

The perceptions and “gazes” on Asia influenced the way in which the landscape of the Cold War and readjustments in international relations in Asia unfolded. Beyond mere stereotypes of Orientalism, the political scenario around the escalation of the early Vietnam War and the tensions between the PRC and the United States of America over the US American presence in the region and in Hong Kong in particular put France on the plan. As former colonial power in Vietnam, France under de Gaulle tried to pursue its own strategy in East Asia towards China that was not aligned with the United States of America in strategic or ideological terms.Footnote 12 For the French government, the key to “understanding” China better in its ambitions and sensitivities towards Hong Kong and Vietnam in particular was a proliferate intellectual and travel writer who had travelled China in the 1920s and early 1930s and had written one of the most influential fiction reports, “Man’s Fate”, on the political turbulences in 1927 Shanghai—André Malraux (1901–1976). In his own words from the novel, “Europeans never understand anything of China that does not resemble themselves”.Footnote 13 But with this reflexive advantage and his history as an ardent non-Stalinist communist before the Second World War, Malraux thought that he would be able to come to a better understanding of China’s policy towards Europe, Hong Kong and Vietnam.Footnote 14 Here the travel writer and his constructions of Asia take on a political mission towards negotiating collaboration and peace.

André Malraux was a highly influential novelist and art critique but he also served as first Minister of State for Cultural Affairs to the Republic of France under Charles de Gaulle from 1959 to 1969.Footnote 15 Besides his belief in enhancing the educational level of the masses, he was a prominent supporter of decolonizing movements in Africa and Asia, among them for Algeria and Bangladesh. But more importantly, Malraux had travelled Asia extensively as a young literary scholar, Cambodia and French Indochina between 1923 and 1927, and China continuously since 1931. He became highly critical of French colonial administration in Indochina and remained a keen interest in bridging the alleged dialectical relationship between Orient and Occident, East and West.Footnote 16 Very much like the Swiss traveller through Central Asia Ella Maillart, Malraux was curious about the human condition in its search for creating forms of existence and the spiritual world as part of this creative process.Footnote 17 However, he also criticised severely in “Man’s Fate” the way in which Europe still dominated China and the way in which it perceived China. Clappique, one of the characters, states in the book as he leaves Shanghai: “Europe, the party is over”, indicating that Malraux observed the decline of a system where all the European heroes played on an exotic stage of China with the native population only having a supernumerary role in a scenario largely written for and by a westernized elite.Footnote 18

His own stance on politics changed from a revolutionary leftist in the 1920s to an outspoken critic of communism as it emerges from the end of the Second World War into the Cold War of the 1950s and 1960s.Footnote 19 This change in political bias however does not automatically indicate a change in perception of Asia or China in particular. Malraux claims to separate ideology from observation of countries and people especially because of his curiosity about humans and their agency in a given space. In his “Anti-Memoirs” published in 1965, Malraux reflected on the rapid change of Asia within his lifetime and the ways in which technological acceleration had revolutionized travelling and the conditions of observation since the 1920s: “Not so very long ago, a journey to Asia was a slow penetration into space and time combined. […] Now [I] contemplate the upheavals which […] have convulsed Asia – on my way to rediscover, at the other end of the earth, Tokyo, where I sent the Venus de Milo; Kyoto, changed beyond recognition; and Nara almost intact despite its gutted temple […]; and China, which I have not yet seen again”.Footnote 20 What guided his travels and made his observations influential beyond a mere gaze is his open curiosity for what he calls the human condition “What interests me in any man is the human condition; in a great man, the form and the essence of his greatness; in a saint, the character of his saintliness. And in all of them, certain characteristics which express not so much an individual personality as a particular relationship with the world”.Footnote 21

Within Malraux two personalities emerged—the travel writer novelist and the French minister in support of Charles de Gaulle. The open curiosity of his early writings and his self-idealization in his Anti-Memoirs is not always in line with his efforts to limit the damage done to France both internationally and domestically by its colonial warfare in Algeria and his rhetoric against Communist subversion in France. Malraux’s turn against Soviet Russian Communism after the Moscow trials in the 1930s however did not mean a general retraction from his interest in the masses as an agent of social change.Footnote 22 He increasingly perceived the human condition as a comparative effort to understand human agency within national frameworks and thus regarded his earlier observations on China as part of his effort to understand and reconcile Mao’s aim towards Chinese nation-state building with a revolutionary agenda.

As the first Western minister to enter long political talks with the People’s Republic of China, in particular with Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong, Malraux staged the outcome of French re-alignment strategies in foreign policy that de Gaulle had orchestrated since the late 1950s. Through the rapprochement with Western Germany under the equally USA-sceptic chancellor Konrad Adenauer, manifested in the Elysée Treaty in 1963, de Gaulle felt in charge of a stronger economic bloc in Western Europe to counter the USA and the Soviet bloc, respectively.Footnote 23 The chance emerged to utilize the Sino-Soviet split in friendly relations in 1963 and 1964 to re-establish diplomatic relations with the PRC, also through Chiang Kai-Chek’s withdrawal of Taiwan’s ambassador to France, to tacitly fulfil Beijing’s claim of a one-China policy recognition.Footnote 24 Malraux’s mission to China in 1965 was thus seen as a major coup in the Cold War international relations which France leveraged against the alignment of too strong a supportive Western bloc to support Washington’s containment policy in Vietnam. Malraux himself was seen as the travel novelist turned political spy, “President de Gaulle’s 007” who created “a novel out of [his] own life”.Footnote 25

Within the French strategy for the future of Asia and France’s place in it as a benevolent and decolonizing power, de Gaulle aimed at capitalizing on Malraux’s socialist legacy and his prestige as being a curious travel writer and intellectual critical to Western imperialism and open to rewriting stereotypes of Orientalism towards China. In reflecting on Mao’s China, Malraux stated in 1965 that he saw in him “a man who dominates [China’s] problems absolutely as a life-long intellectual”, likening him in a Nietzschean fashion to his French counterpart and head of state, Charles de Gaulle.Footnote 26 The rebirth of nationalism to form radically new nations would only be possible through what he considered great men in history. Mao emerged in his own perception as the creator of “a China that will be fundamentally national, and unlike the old Imperial China”.Footnote 27 Malraux thus signed responsible for establishing “the only channel of communication between China and the West” to stress the point in a conflict between the United States of America and a Vietnam supported by the People’s Republic of China, “neither side can hope to achieve a full military victory in Vietnam”.Footnote 28 In autumn 1965, Malraux served with his openness towards China and his reverence to Mao a window for de Gaulle and France to stage its new diplomatic ambitions and hopes for closer ties with a rising China.Footnote 29

France did not follow up the rather idealist mission of a negotiation between the USA, China and Vietnam over the growing hot phase of the war and the US military campaigns in Vietnam in August and September 1965. With the declaration of Luo Ruiqing on Radio Peking on August 1st, 1965 that China would be ready to fight the USA again as they had in Korea, the focus of the world shifted in 1965 towards East Asia as the new scenario of conflict in the Cold War. Malraux’s mission and his positive and open take on China was one side of the political game. The US stationing of a large number of soldiers in Hong Kong also sparked China’s sharp protest.Footnote 30 Hong Kong had been transformed into a major export hub that focused increasingly on the USA business since the late 1950s. In the years following the beginning of the Vietnam War, Hong Kong also saw the constant influx of an increasing number of US military personnel taking “rest and recreation” (R&R) leaves in the British Crown Colony.Footnote 31 The US American soldiers next to numerous businessmen created a rather different space of imagination of Asia than the one that the French minister of Culture Malraux had publicized in his works on China. In the 1960s, Hong Kong was “constructed, represented, and performed as the ‘exotic’ East with Western colonial characteristics”.Footnote 32

3 Beyond the “World of Suzie Wong”—Tourist Imaginations of East Asia in the 1960s

The 1960s in particular saw a new interest in East and South East Asia both in the region and from Western travellers into it. For the US soldiers, the image of Asia was largely formed by stereotypes of the exotic and sensual East. “The World of Suzie Wong”, a British-American motion picture released in 1960, featured prominently in the stereotypical representation of a bohemian Westerner meeting impoverished pretty Chinese prostitute in the precarious district of Wan Chai. The cliché romantic story made Hong Kong and Wan Chai in particular attractive for the R&R retreats from the Vietnamese battlefield despite strong Chinese protests.Footnote 33 Even during the 1967 Hong Kong riots, both the local Maoists and the Chinese government did not turn on visiting American personnel, and Beijing in particular was not prepared to jeopardize the “tourism space” of Hong Kong.Footnote 34

What emerged between 1965 and 1969 was a strong concerted campaign emanating from Hong Kong to sell new images of East Asia to the world. In a move to guide and channel Western and intra-Asian curiosity about travelling and visiting places with the advent of faster jet travel, the Hong Kong based airline Cathay Pacific launched several major campaigns to create an image of ambivalent yet distinct Asian imageries to attract Europeans, US Americans and Asian tourists alike to its growing inter-city services. In the 1967 brochure “The Cathay Pacific Story”, the company advertised itself as “the airline that knows the Orient best”, thus playing with notions and imaginations of Orientalism.Footnote 35 “The travelling public in the Far East will continue to be offered the fastest and most modern aircraft [and] first class British crews and maintenance”.Footnote 36 The route network marketing focused on creating Asian city spaces that would attract tourists beyond the growing ideological tensions and war-time impediments on tourism, covering “the major cities from Tokyo to Calcutta, and from Seoul to Singapore”.Footnote 37

This corporate image of an Asian experience tied into the marketing of Hong Kong and Cathay Pacific since 1965 when the airline had launched a major “Contemporary Art in Asia” exhibition throughout their flight destinations to exhibit the diverse imaginations of Asia. Lu Pan has impressively shown that these exhibitions focussed on air hostesses as agents of generating empowered female images of Asia.Footnote 38 In presenting the diversity of Asia through works of art, the focus shifted from national or colonial stereotypes to an intra-Asian network of cities that showed inter-Asian cosmopolitanism as an alternative identity for tourism and travel images.Footnote 39 Cathay Pacific’s active usage of “Orient” beyond the binaries of East and West in all its brochures, pamphlets, exhibitions, travel magazine (Oriental Travel) and luggage tags indicates a change in semantics towards more equal intra-Asian recognition of diversity than an outside perception of the “Orient” by the “West”.Footnote 40

The United Nations General Assembly reacted to the growing trend in tourism with long-distance jet travel also as a means of envisaging to promote peace through closer encounters and travels. With its motto “Tourism, Passport to Peace”, the UN hoped that the tourism industry would “contribute even more strongly towards the welfare of mankind”.Footnote 41 For Asia, this rise in tourism numbers at a steady growth of 12% from 1961 to 1967 meant a considerable rise in turnover and income for many businesses located in tourism spots. Hong Kong in particular, but also other cities like Tokyo, Singapore or Bangkok felt this economic development strongly. This in turn generated a whole different form of images of Asia that were designed to attract tourists not only with the promise of cultural sites and landscapes, but straight forward shopping consumerism. The new capitals of tourism generated Asian images of consumerism that showcased in its diversity different forms of Asian modernities in which post-colonial images, capitalist features, Western lifestyle and Asian traditions were merged into city-based shopping paradises. A stunning example of these consumerist-guided travel offers provided Hong Kong with its annual brochures issued by the Hong Kong Tourist Association. Flanked by colonial events like the “British Week in Hong Kong” (in March 1966 under Princess Margaret) by the British Board of Trade and the British National Export Council, the Hong Kong Tourist Association increasingly focused on the diversification of offers and generation of images and experiences “to cater to the widest range of tastes and interests”.Footnote 42 Overseas publicity indeed sold Hong Kong as a temple of modernity and consumerism with photos depicting modern empowered women in both Western style trouser suits and traditional Chinese dresses. Under the slogan “Hong Kong has more to sell”, the Hong Kong Tourist Association in Toronto promoted the shopping and hospitality experience in Hong Kong in 1968 as key to the travel experience.Footnote 43 Asia emerged in these advertisements and in prominent newspaper comments in North America as the humane face of modernity apart and beyond the automated anonymity of North American highway cities, motels, and malls.Footnote 44

4 Seeking China’s Heart—Goffredo Parise, Cara Cina, and Curiosity

In the 1960s, Western readers consumed and absorbed also a radically different genre of travel literature on Asia: war reportages by journalists at the war front in Vietnam and other counties torn by armed conflicts.Footnote 45 Goffredo Parise (1929–1986), one the most important figures in twentieth-century Italian literature, and sophisticated novelist, author of masterpieces such as Il Prete Bello and Sillabario n.2, would contribute to this kind of writing with his work on the Vietnam War (and later, beyond Asia, covering Biafra and Chile).Footnote 46 But here we would like to explore Parise’s earlier articles on China. In 1966, he used and to some extent reinvented for the Italian readership this genre of realist travel writing when he was sent as a reporter for the Corriere della Sera to Maoist China, which was not a war front but was on the edge of the most tragic phase of the Cultural Revolution.Footnote 47 Parise was moved by a genuine desire to learn the true character of the Chinese people and to understand their civilization, but he could not have chosen a less propitious historical period to accomplish such endeavour, because Chinese society in 1966 was thoroughly imbued with the political ideology of Marxism. Chinese culture and customs would have already been hard to grasp for a foreign traveller under normal circumstances, but they risked to become a complete mystery in a context shaken and obfuscated by a contingent ideological rhetoric, a totalitarian notion of politics that touched every aspect of daily life, and a distracting, omnipresent cult of personality.Footnote 48

Yet Parise’s persistence and intelligence allowed him to succeed where other visitors of China had failed even in more promising periods. His articles for the Corriere, soon collected into a volume entitled Cara Cina, had to unavoidably depict the oddities and tragicomic dialogues resulting from the politicization of everything in contemporary Maoist politics, but each of them also introduced the readers to some non-contingent, permanent and pre-political aspect of China’s millenarian mentality, value system and social patterns. This is the reason why the book, even after so many decades, remains a fascinating reading: the Cultural Revolution, with its slogans and its banalization of violence, has passed, but the sense of wonder felt by Western travellers entering China has remained. Parise has been able, amidst some frustration, to find words and silences that come close to shed light on the object of his curiosity, which under those circumstances was truly a treasure underneath mountains of ideological viciousness and emptiness: the Chinese people’s heart. The images and dialogues, the misunderstandings and mysteries, the smiles and colours contained in Cara Cina confound any attempt to generalize the perception of Asian spaces received and absorbed by Western readers in the 1960s: the sensitive, humanist realism in Parise’s pages existed side by side with consumerist portrayals of the East as a tourist destination for mass consumption.

The first article, which corresponds to the first chapter of Cara Cina, functions almost as a blueprint for the entire book. Parise immediately introduces the reader to a frustrating dialogue that he had with one of his translators, a young Chinese man who brings every conversation and every imaginable subject back to political issues and the teachings of Mao. The Italian traveller attempts repeatedly to know a bit more about the character, hobbies and affections of his Chinese interlocutor, but everything, including the relationship with his wife is considered as “political”.

I ask if politics is truly above all. He looks at me scandalized:

‘Of course, not only we have to put politics above all, but politics is, in reality, above all. What is our life if not politics?’

‘But are your relations with your wife and your family political relations?’

‘Of course.’

‘In what sense?’

‘In the sense that we both work, under the leadership of president Mao Tse-tung, for the socialist edification of our country.’Footnote 49

This surreal conversation exemplifies many (if not all) dialogues that Parise has during his months in China. In Beijing, he visits a church where he realizes that all the usual smells (incense, candles) are missing, alerting him that there is something strange, and indeed he then sits for hours discussing with a Chinese priest who not only attacks the Vatican but even bizarrely denies that Catholics in China are persecuted.Footnote 50 And yet, already here at the start of the volume, Parise finds a way to insert themes and brief reflections that show his interest towards more permanent, perhaps timeless characteristics of the Chinese. For instance, he explains to the reader how Chinese people exhibit the most positive traits of children, allowing themselves to be amazed (stupefazione), to experience carelessness (distrazione), but also expressing genuine kindness (dolcezza) and love (amore).Footnote 51

The reader is therefore drawn into Parise’s own curiosity. An Italian reader of the Corriere or of Cara Cina would have wondered how the rest of the articles and chapters could substantiate these intuitions, while at the same time testing the limits of concepts and ideas across cultures. Parise is acutely aware of this problem, and he soon declares that there is little hope of reaching a true understanding of Chinese culture, not only because of the difficult political circumstances, but also because of the intellectual and psychological baggage that a Western traveller carries. He writes:

[…] only by becoming at least a bit Chinese, and abandoning at least in part humanist education and Western individualism with all their tools of knowledge, it is possible to understand (a little) the Chinese of nowadays and their way of life.Footnote 52

By the expression “of nowadays” in this instance Parise is not hinting only at the ideological fumes of Marxism, but rather he is completing a reflection on the long history of China and its partial continuity from empire to Communism that he begins in the paragraphs above the one just quoted. Parise first introduces the idea that Maoist China is in fact an enormous seminary where instead of Christianity people learn a “political theology”, then he reconstructs the situation in imperial China, where individualism had already failed to develop: “the individual, individual freedom, individual expression have never mattered in China”.Footnote 53 The conclusion is hypothetical, but the suspicion that Maoism matches somehow a previous predisposition of the Chinese people, “a centuries-old soul and habits of collective” (animo e abitudini secolari di collettività), remains.Footnote 54

As a travelogue, Parise’s pages on China are unexpectedly missing descriptions of landscapes or detailed analysis of architectures. The author himself acknowledges this towards the end of the book, explaining how the Chinese countryside maintains the same character and colours for vast tracts, changing too slowly for the eyes of a European, which are used to “a rapid variety”.Footnote 55 Parise is however a meticulous examiner of human geographies and spaces where people show their character and inclinations, so he gifts his audience with brief descriptions of the atmosphere of streets in general, or parks in general, when he pens incisive passages such as these:

Just like it happens to stare for hours at a line of ants that bump into each other and each ant seems to greet the one that proceeds in the opposite direction, similarly one contemplates the Chinese crowd in the streets and it looks as if they greet each other with the gesture used by ants. But in reality, they greet each other with their heart.Footnote 56

And again:

Early in the morning, the men go to public parks and do some exercises. The youngest practice modern gymnastics […], but they also try to learn from the older and especially from the elders traditional Chinese gymnastics. In this gymnastics, every person moves by himself, yet if seen from afar they form a large dancing unit. […] Seen for the first time, the parks peopled by elders with long white beards moved by the dawn’s wind and by youths with wooden swords look like backyards of insane asylums. Seen for the second time they are one among many, almost infinite verses of a poem called China.Footnote 57

Ably avoiding coordinates of specific streets or names of particular parks, Parise transfers the impression of a vast area where the traveller is surrounded by repetitive spaces and encounters; after all, he describes the Forbidden City precisely through the idea of an incredible, endless and “hallucinating” repetition, but one upon which an order at once abstract and figurative rested, symbolizing the perfect harmony that was at the core of the empire’s ideological narrative.Footnote 58 Still, Parise delves deeper, and realizes that apparently repetitive spaces and encounters nevertheless never cease to surprise, teach and tease one’s curiosity. Furthermore, actions and movements, such as nods revealing the heart and gestures from a traditional dance, replace here in Parise’s China both words and sounds, which have been shown to be more easily polluted by politics and obscured by the intermediate step of translation.

The visit to the Great Wall is another example of how Parise attempts to take advantage of some of the most famous symbols of China’s past to sideline the contemporary political ideology saturating China in the 1960s. It is not by chance that he describes some clumsy and unconvincing military exercises that he spots while crossing the countryside, on his way to the monument. He promptly uses this episode to dismiss the militarist rhetoric that so many Chinese officers and citizens (have been conditioned to) repeat. In fact, according to Parise, it is not true that the Chinese people is warlike, ready and eager to fight a future war against the US.

For now, they [the Chinese] have only the aspect of a meek people, scarred by great pain, leaning towards defence, unity, self-enclosure, peasant diffidence, ethnic pride, in one word: a centripetal people, not a centrifugal one.Footnote 59

This thorough rejection of the regime’s warmongering propaganda is followed by the description of the Great Wall:

But the drawing on the page of a notebook by the child-poet is also the greatest construction in the world, the most gigantic example of collective labour in the world, the greatest act of pride in the world: it demonstrates, at once and in just one instant, what idea of itself China had, to what point it could desire peace and autonomy, and finally what was its opinion about the rest of the Earth.Footnote 60

Although here one can still perceive Parise’s genius writing style, and although the analysis is fascinating, its level remains unsatisfactory, for both the author and the readers. There is more that can be uncovered about the Chinese heart, and Parise in the following articles goes back to dialogues and meetings that while apparently repetitive help him and his readers to suddenly get glimpses of the Chinese identity that cannot be accessed merely through space and historical remnants.

In an article entitled “New Generation”, Parise focuses on his visit to Peking University, where he hopes to meet students at the Institute of foreign languages and literature, in order to speak with them directly and without using a translator. After being welcomed by officers, and after a bizarre conversation with professors who seem to label every canonical writer as “bourgeois”, he is finally introduced to a group of six students. Parise is struck by one of them in particular, a girl, who is less shy than the others and speaks an excellent French. He correctly guesses that she must come from a bourgeois and intellectual background, and then he reports the conversation, without commenting on the most shocking passages such as the following:

I ask her what she will do after graduation.

‘I will do whatever the Party will order me to do.’

‘But don’t you have a preference? Teaching, translations, interpreting…’

‘I will do what the Party will determine is the most useful job for my country, and I will do it as if I had chosen it. To me what matters is not the job but rather the end of the work. The end of every job must be the triumph of the Marxist idea in the world.’Footnote 61

The astonishing and saddening dialogue is the price that Parise has to pay to obtain some glimpse of the Chinese heart, to open a small window on the deeper mentality and culture of the Chinese people. And he is not disappointed, because towards the end of the meeting with the students he mentions the word psychologie, which none of them, not even the talented girl whose name is Li-Pai-Pien, can understand. Even after one of the professors tries to explain the meaning of this word to the students, they fail to grasp it. Parise continues:

We go to the sport fields where some students play basketball while a small orchestra practices traditional music and songs. […] they play for me a boring melody [nenia] that must be extremely difficult, considering the concentration on their faces, but that keeps repeating itself and I do not understand. However, I clap.Footnote 62

It is important to notice here Parise’s own repetition of the words “do not understand”. First, the students cannot understand the term psychology, then immediately after, he is the one who does not understand the point of a musical piece played for him by the university orchestra. This, rather than the bland and unsettling discussions polluted by political ideology, is the core of the article and points to the idea behind the whole book: capturing each of the brief moments of misunderstanding and understanding that allow Parise and his readers to glimpse at China and partly satisfy their curiosity. The chapter, in fact, ends abruptly with one of such moments:

The students leave. But Li-Pai-Pien cannot find peace. She wants to know what exactly psychologie means, and she asks me to please explain it to her. I try to do it in the simplest possible way, translating from Greek: the study of the soul. She reflects for a while with her hands folded and finally, with a whisper, she tells me:

‘I believe, sir, that the soul of man cannot be studied. Either it exists or it does not, and that’s it.’Footnote 63

Parise does not comment, leaving the readers free to draw their own conclusions, but it is clear that Li-Pai-Pien’s response is intriguing. To some extent it illustrates the intellectual distance separating two philosophical traditions, but also the possibilities and limits of cross-cultural communication. The Venetian novelist deliberately avoids measuring the depth of this intellectual, metaphysical distance, and refuses to flesh out its historical consequences. The last word is Li-Pai-Pien’s, the next thought is the reader’s.

This is a literary choice that somehow recalls Antonio Pigafetta’s colourful yet ambiguous descriptions of apparently strange behaviours or rites: there is no clear judgement or evaluation on the part of the author. Another example of this in Cara Cina is the abrupt ending of the article recounting Parise’s informal meeting with an unidentified party officer (un uomo politico) out of Nanjing. After the usual, tedious political discussion, which in this case lingered on the Italian Communist Party, China’s military organization and the impossibility of coexistence of Marxism with capitalism, Parise and his interlocutor walk towards a small shop that sells coloured stones.

The small shop is crowded with customers who examine the stones, chat, bargain and finally buy them. I ask to my companion what do they do with them.

‘Nothing. They bring them home and look at them.’Footnote 64

This same article is important because it is juxtaposed with Parise’s experience at a rural school in the Nanjing countryside. I would suggest that these two articles are significant because Parise offers examples of individual agency, even in the context of a millennial civilization that has favoured the collective, and even in the contingent circumstances of Mao’s totalitarianism. When visiting the school, Parise is initially pleased and touched by the pupils’ excitement and friendliness, expressions of their curiosity towards him, since “curiosity is an unpardonable defect in China”.Footnote 65 However, during a meeting with the school staff, Parise has the first and only argument with a Chinese in the entire trip, when for the first time he dares to contradict some of the most absurd stories spread by the Party. The school principal asks him how many people are murdered by Americans with their jeeps in Italy, before declaring that China is ready to fight not only against the US, but also against “Khrushchevian revisionists” who have reduced soldiers to beg and are to blame for the extremely low living standards of the Soviets.

This time I do not stay silent. I respond that it is not true, that the Americans are not killing anybody, at least not in Italy, with their jeeps, and that is it not true that the living standards in the Soviet Union are extremely low. I know that country and I can witness to that. He [the school principal] insists, repeating in its entirety the same sentence. I insist as well. He repeats once more, with an angry tone. At this point I realise that he is turning pale and starts to tremble. The traits of his face become sharper, tense, the mouth becomes a thin cut, from which an ever shriller and louder voice comes out, the gestures express violence and the hand cuts the air like a sword. Eventually, he stands from the chair and his words become screams. He looks ashen, and he tries to control the stutter with acts that are at once trembling and sudden. I think that he may be ill and that it could be epilepsy. Instead, it is fanaticism. This is the first time in my life that I see political fanaticism face to face: it is repugnant and pathetic at the same time, but also terrifying.Footnote 66

The principal’s reaction is easily understandable in the context of the horrors that the Chinese countryside had lived through in the previous decade. For instance, even in the years preceding the Cultural Revolution, Mao had “herded the villagers into giant people’s communes that heralded the leap from socialism into communism. In the countryside, people lost their homes, land, belongings and livelihoods. In collective canteens, food, distributed by the spoonful according to merit, became a weapon used to force people to follow the party’s every dictate”.Footnote 67 But as I said above, in Cara Cina this sad episode of fanaticism is juxtaposed with a very different example of human agency, because in his encounter with the party officer Parise experiences a mutual respect and the desire for friendship. He immediately recognizes in his interlocutor a calm, intelligent man, who often pauses to think in silence. Parise also ventures to imagine that this man must have been an intellectual, perhaps a poet, and then he takes care to report an interesting digression, even in the midst of the dull discussion on Marxism and the structure of China’s military forces. This digression is, in reality, the most important part of the chat:

He often smiles and is, after all, almost a European. Unexpectedly he says: ‘I know that you are a writer and will write articles for an important Italian newspaper. Before you, ten years ago, another Italian writer came here, Malaparte, whom however I did not meet. I know that he has died and he left his villa in Capri to the Chinese writers as a gift. Unfortunately Italy and China do not have diplomatic relations, so the Chinese cannot enjoy this gift. Let us hope that these relations will start soon, just like they were born between you and me at this very moment, walking peacefully together. Perhaps we will be able one day to walk together in Capri. The island must be very beautiful, and every time I hear its name, I wonder why, it makes me think of Homer.Footnote 68

This brief, splendid passage is a literary pearl, paradoxically dense of those humanist and individualist undertones that Parise himself had promised to at least partly leave behind to understand China. The officer’s friendly, melancholic words are not only a counterpoint to the mad fanaticism of the school principal, an example of human agency moving in the opposite direction, but also a delicate, almost poetic introduction to the theme of curiosity.

The motive of curiosity, both personal and collective, both felt by the author towards China and by the Chinese people towards him, embraces almost every page of Cara Cina. In a 1968 interview, Parise himself drew a connection between the strong emotional attraction towards a core “idea”, placed at the centre of one of his novels, and the emotional force leading him to write as a journalist in Vietnam and China: “Un viaggio, un’inchiesta in un certo Paese, m’interessa come un romanzo”.Footnote 69 But at one point in the volume, Parise takes some time to more explicitly analyze the concept of curiosity, the multiform obstacles on its path, and how they change over time:

Today’s man is not anymore the same man of Marco Polo’s times, a single individual directly feeding his own knowledge, but rather now he is the ideological and political convention of the ethnic group to which he belongs. In other words, instead of the individual (Marco Polo) there is now the mass (the capitalist West) and instead of the object of knowledge that used to be unpredictable, mysterious and direct (China in the thirteenth century), there is now the predictable, unshadowy and indirect mass (Communist China), because it belongs to an identical albeit opposite convention. To sum up, at least with regard to our planet, between man and object, or the variety of objects that he, indefatigable traveller, wishes to encounter, the unknown abyss (always fascinating) is not opening anymore, but there is the plain (and always boring) road of the convention. Nonetheless, curiosity still remains a powerful impulse and the heart of men still unexplored.

Hence it is to the heart that Parise turns and keeps returning throughout the articles composing Cara Cina. In Shanghai, at the end of a pleasant if perplexing conversation with the most famous neurologist in China, he receives both a warning—that the Chinese heart can never be fully understood by a foreigner—and an encouragement—as if precisely the idea of a people’s heart should be the dignified object of any thoughtful traveller entering China. In the words of the professor, as reported by Parise:

But the structure of relations among Chinese would have appeared to you as paradoxical even five centuries ago, because even five centuries ago it was very different from the Western one. Five centuries ago in Italy humanism was at its apex while in China, instead, the great Chinese empire, and not man, was at its apex. We [Chinese] can understand you because European culture is more explicit than implicit, and in general, way younger than Chinese culture. […] in China, you should not try to understand the reason of the Chinese, which is very simple, sound, and almost childlike, but rather the heart of the Chinese: which is rather complicated, has suffered from many sorrows, and is old, extremely old, so old that only an ear used to Chinese sounds could perceive its beat.Footnote 70

Parise seems to test his ability to detect the Chinese heartbeat immediately after, in the article recounting his meeting, still in Shanghai, with six women of the female association. He proposes to his readers a delicate reflection on womanhood, Chinese identity and the boredom of bureaucracy. The latter encompasses all the political reasons for which these six women have been selected to speak with him, and it surely represents an obstacle to his intention to explore the Chinese heart, yet he guides the reader through an analysis of the dichotomy of beauty, with regard to women, in the West and in China: instinct (intuito), not the eye, is necessary to appreciate a Chinese woman’s true beauty.Footnote 71 The dichotomy is developed by Parise in a later article, where he admits the inadequacy of his conclusions but seems to imply that these are more real (or more worthy of discussion) than all the false dichotomies with which the ideological conventions of contingent ideologies blind the modern traveller. The inadequate and imperfect yet still captivating conclusions about the Chinese heart unavoidably lead Parise to the topic of love, so central to so many of his novels:

Love is, for the Chinese, a feeling so personal, delicate and fragile that not only you cannot touch it, but you cannot even express it in a way that anybody, including the loved one, can ever see or touch it. Indeed all the feelings, but especially the love between man and woman, are to the Chinese an absolute and almost sacred property of the individual who feels them, and to manifest them would mean not only manifesting oneself but also losing automatically such property. However, to love is also to possess, and nobody can prevent the instinct [intuito], if not to the reason, to grasp what it can. But the instinct [intuito] proceeds in the dark, and in these conditions, it possesses only the illusion of possessing, just like a blind man has the illusion to see what he touches.Footnote 72

Nothing could be further from the consumption literature that we discussed in the first part of this chapter. What is more, Parise’s curiosity does more than merely confounding monolithic notions of European attitudes towards Asia in the 1960s. His inquisitiveness is yet another example of a literature that, far from sustaining colonial discourses, escapes any sort of centrism. Orientalism here reacquires its old meaning, before Saidian narratives turned it into a “bad word”. Parise—though in his uniquely Venetian, ironic, minimalist yet meticulous realism—witnesses once again the long Western tradition of self-criticism that we mentioned in the Introduction chapter of this volume. This anti-imperialist stream erupts more powerfully in Cara Cina when Parise describes the city of Shanghai:

Actually Shanghai is a perfectly Northern European city, but instead of being in Europe it’s in China, in a country that has nothing, absolutely nothing in common with Europe. It’s as if the Chinese, but this the Chinese would never do, had built, say, a city filled with pagodas on the coast of Normandy. In sum, it is a folly that can be understood only for two reasons: on the one hand, the irrationality into which Europe fell at the end of the past century and from which it has yet to re-emerge, and on the other hand the freakish and insatiable industrial colonialism that in those years accumulated enormous fortunes in China.Footnote 73

Obviously, what matters here is not the accuracy of Parise’s historical evaluation of nineteenth-century Sino-European trade, but rather the extraordinary promptness with which he perceives and artfully describes the most bizarre and sad consequences of modern European imperialism.

Goffredo Parise was one of the last Italian writers who visited China before the market-oriented reforms and the economic development brought by Deng Xiaoping. His eyes encountered poverty, but—as he repeated several times in his articles—never misery. This was partly due to that profound dignity, composure and kindness, which he found to be a lasting trait of the Chinese people’s character. He tried to give a name to this trait, calling it stile:

[…] the Chinese are a people that possesses naturally that quality that can be acquired, and with the greatest efforts, only historically. That quality is style.Footnote 74

Still, beyond the important limits on the path of any Westerner who wished to understand China in the 1960s, Parise’s own curiosity and literary abilities offered to the Italian readership of the Corriere (and, later, of his volume) a unique form of reportage, a sort of expressive realism. China emerges as a country where the traveller finds himself both overwhelmed by anonymous, enormous and repetitive crowds and spaces and drawn into conversations and images of people in their individual embodiments of a Chinese heart and style shaped by a millenarian history. Emotions and ideas are in no way less real simply because they remain mysterious to the Western mind. In fact, Parise himself attempts a synopsis of his experience in the Conclusion of the volume, where he writes:

the Chinese have an urgent need to learn from us, Europe, two things: analysis and synthesis: that is, freedom. And we should learn from them two other things, not less important: the life style [stile della vita] and mutual help: that is, love.Footnote 75

Yet not even the most superficial reader is allowed to draw from these words a comforting or self-congratulatory feeling. Just a few pages earlier, Parise ends the last article, written in Hong Kong, with the bitter description of the sensations that he felt when crossing the border to leave China and return to the West. A West that appears prisoner of its own modern cults, oddities and materialisms, where everything is for selling, and “where ideas are the only things that are worth nothing”.Footnote 76

5 Conclusion

The complex political analysis produced by André Malraux, the shining consumerist visions of the “Orient” diffused through marketing campaigns by Hong Kong and Cathay Pacific and the realist travelogue on China penned by Goffredo Parise represent three very different instances of a quest for authenticity that characterized the Cold War period. This chapter has suggested that even as Western inquisitiveness became apparently more guided than ever, ideas about the East did not lack a genuine effort to discover a reality that went beyond simplistic cultural and ideological divisions. In fact, by the 1960s, Western curiosity disintegrated into a multiplicity of curious attitudes that generated, invited and made sense of collective and individual human agency. Knowledge, a key concept in our volume, needs to be fleshed out of these sources and considered seriously, beyond the dated categories of post-colonial theoretical frameworks. In fact, our findings suggest that, at a time when France’s geopolitical repositioning questioned the dichotomy of monolithic blocs, the travel and tourist industry was reinventing narratives about urban Asia, and Italian readers were enthusiastically responding to delicate and self-critical yet also frank descriptions of Maoist China. Parise’s account in particular met with a great success, with his articles being soon republished in the volume entitled Cara Cina, which itself quickly went through several editions. This can be explained by the Italian public’s interested response when offered a piece of travel literature that was more realistic and less ideological than, for instance, Curzio Malaparte’s 1959 book on China—which had been sponsored by the Italian Communist Party and pushed an overall rosy picture of Mao’s regime.Footnote 77 Still, Parise’s work is fascinating not merely for its relative lack of political bias; rather, the Venetian novelist articulates a credible search for China’s heart, paced by the authentic struggle with the various obstacles on the path of any modern Marco Polo. That Parise was able to vividly express at least “the illusion to see what he touched like a blind man” is a testament to his literary brilliance. Cara Cina, Malraux’s humanism, and the inventiveness of the tourist industry together exemplify the diverse wealth of images of Asia in the 1960s. In addition, they represent a serious challenge to the assumption that Western travellers moved across Asian spaces exclusively (or even mainly) with pettily and unsympathetically colonial eyes.