Tour Suzhou and Hangzhou Like an Emperor

Jun 10, 2015

Following in the footsteps of China’s ancient roving royalty, TOM O’MALLEY discovers how the inspection tours of old helped establish a template for travel in the Middle Kingdom today.

Onlookers in fine robes line the edge of the water as the magnificent barge cuts through the canal. In the background I spy grand pagodas and walled gardens overhung by native ornamental scholar trees. Elaborate theatrical performances unfold on stages along the shore, and the great Chang Gate (above) in Suzhou, the Venice of the East, stands ready to receive its most honoured guest.

Alas, it’s not me. I’m at the National Museum of China’s new digital gallery in Beijing, and the VIP is none other than Emperor Qianlong, brought to life in an animated rework of a classical scroll painting. Qianlong was the sixth emperor of the Qing Dynasty, ruling from 1735 to 1796 in what was considered a golden age, where he beefed up China’s economy, expanded its borders, and enhanced cultural and intellectual life. He’s also, to my mind, China’s greatest tourist.

Qianlong and his grandfather Kangxi revived an Imperial tradition that had fallen out of favour with previous dynasties: the grand inspection tour. Every few years the emperor would journey south from Beijing via the Grand Canal, calling at around a dozen cities to levy taxes, inspect troops and flood projects, make religious sacrifices and generally remind the provinces who’s boss.

Strictly speaking, a tourist is defined as one who travels for pleasure, but Qianlong clearly had plenty of business to take care of on route. And yet, both Kangxi and Qianlong commissioned a set of 12 humongous scrolls – surely the 18th century equivalent of travel photography – to recount the story of this ultimate pleasure cruise. In his 1751 inspection tour of the south, Qianlong was even inspired to compose over 500 poems. Most of all, on my own wanderings in the south, practically everywhere I went Qianlong had been there, done that.