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Abstract

Located in recently renamed Xianggelila County in north-western Yunnan in the People’s Republic of China, Ganden Sumtseling Monastery constitutes a highlight for any visiting tourist. Originally erected in 1679 to reflect the significance of Tibetan Buddhism in the region, it now contributes to the tourism-generated income earned by the County. Religion has become a factor in tourism: as motivation, as a resource or even as a concept to describe the practices of tourism itself (Graburn, 2001; Oakes and Sutton, 2010; Strausberg, 2011). The question posed in this paper asks how religion is narrated in travel literature. Specifically: what story does travel literature tell about religion at Ganden Sumtseling Monastery? In order to trace an answer to this question, this paper studies and compares the introductions contemporary Chinese and Western tourist guidebooks give to Ganden Sumtseling Monastery.

Despite their differing cultural contexts, the guidebooks display a number of similarities in their treatment of religion: both groups construct religion as an ‘other’ that generally fits (self-)orientalist images. Western guidebooks do this by stressing the mystical qualities of the monastery and the usage of unfamiliar, religious terms. The same language is used by Chinese guidebooks, which furthermore, by referencing history, turn religion into a thing of the past as opposed to the tourist’s inherent modernity. In their instructions on how to engage religion, the guidebooks display different approaches: the Western guidebooks invite the tourist to remain a passive observer in order to not disturb local practitioners, while Chinese guidebooks encourage tourists to participate in religious rituals for good luck, or initiate conversations with local monks in order to satisfy their curiosity about local religious customs.

In both cases, religion becomes a commodity: to be engaged or purchased as the Chinese guidebooks suggest, and to be viewed and observed as their Western counterparts posit. Perhaps this approach constitutes a global constant in travel guidebooks’ treatment of religion: religion must remain both available and purchasable for those seeking a religious experience, yet mystic and ‘other’ enough to satisfy tourism’s inherent desire for otherness.

DOI

10.21427/D75X36

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