Written by Camilla Casale & Claire Ping, under the supervision of Dr. Gaoheng Zhang

Travelers have moved between Italy and China for many centuries. From Marco Polo to Michelangelo Antonioni, China symbolized a distant land of interest and, occasionally, mystery. The legacy of the Venetian merchant remains a landmark in Italian-Chinese relations, while Antonioni’s supposedly “anti-revolutionary” film faced severe censorship from the Chinese government until recently. Nowadays more Italians are traveling to China for tourism and sightseeing, but this number is limited compared to the number of Chinese tourists heading for Italy each year. Different from 20th-century Chinese intellectuals who enjoyed Italy for its art and history, modern Chinese tourists see Italy as a touristic paradise. This increasing trend of mobility has resulted in both new illusions and misconceptions about the country.

History of Italian exploration of China

Marco Polo

There has been a long and rich history of Italian explorers reaching the shores of China. The earliest contact between Italy and China can be dated to the Roman times when it is believed that an embassy of the Roman Empire reached the Chinese Emperor Huan of Han at Luoyang in 161 AD, thus possibly creating an initiation for the trade of Chinese silk. Of course the most famous of all Italian travelers to have explored China remains the Venetian merchant Marco polo, whom in 1271 set out with his uncle and father to travel to Asia. The details of his travels, which were published in his book, to this day constitute an important source for the study of Chinese culture from a European point of view. Although many other Jesuits and diplomats have been dispatched into the Chinese empire (most notably Matteo Ricci in 1582), the constant influx of travelers from Italy to China has not stopped even within the modern period. While older travelers sought to either explore the cultural aspects of China or to import Christian beliefs, post-WWII explorers in the country have mostly included journalists, writers and artists who were mostly in search for artistic inspiration in a land that is considered fundamentally different to the western sphere of influence.

Post-World War II exploration of China

Notable Italian examples of artists that traveled through China include the novelist Alberto Moravia, the film director Michelangelo Antonioni and the journalist Tiziano Terzani. Antonioni was formerly invited by the Chinese government during the Cultural Revolution in order to present to the world the newly established country, which resulted in a 1972 documentary titled Chung Kuo, Cina that explored the lives of working-class Chinese people. The initial request was a clear attempt on the part of the Chinese government to form diplomatic contact again with Western powers. Yet this documentary proved to be a controversial issue in Italian-Chinese relations, as Mao’s wife Jiang Qing opposed the screening of the movie in China due to its being perceived to have an anti-revolutionary message. Indeed, the documentary will only be screened in China for the first time in 2002. While it may be easy to assume that Antonioni’s effort could be considered a desperate attempt to attract the viewer to an “exotic” land with the intent of “othering” the subject, Antonioni clearly states at the beginning of the film through a voiceover that “We’re not pretending to understand China…the fact is, most of China remains inaccessible and forbidden”, hence clearly showing his perspective as a foreigner being thrust into an unknown land. Yet regardless of the controversies that this documentary has faced, this remains a fascinating example of a diplomatic adventure, similar to past experiences from travelers such as Matteo Ricci and Marco Polo, who essentially became symbols and means through which to communicate with a country that had largely tried to steer away from Western rhetoric and influence. It is interesting to note how cultural and artistic exchanges seems to be the prevalent method in opening up diplomatic relationships.

An important figure in Italy that represents to this day a bridge between Italian culture and Asian perspectives is Tiziano Terzani. For many years, Terzani lived throughout the Asian continent as a journalistic correspondent who detailed his travels in Italian newspapers. One of his most memorable books which depicts life in China after Mao’s death is Behind the Forbidden Door: Travels in Unknown China (1985), again a title which echoes Antonioni’s description of a “secret” and “forbidden” country as quoted earlier. Although his journey to the East was meant to be a purely journalistic exploration, Terzani became increasingly interested in the diversity that Asian culture could offer him and often communicated this awe for this alternative lifestyle to his Italian readers through his books. He essentially personifies for many of his fans an epitome of the search for a better life in Asian philosophy and way of life, thus creating a new philosophy of tourism and migration in the most recent decades into Chinese and Asian lands.

Contemporary tourism to China

In recent years, tourism in China has expanded to a great length. Cities such as Shanghai and Hong Kong attract each year many tourists for their mix of traditional historical flavor with modern high rise buildings that encapsulate the essence of a leading world economy.

Many Italian websites deal with the experience of traveling to China (from Visa issues to preferred itineraries). China remains one of the few countries where programmed tour packages are still highly sought out due to the perceived difficulties many locals feel they would have in traveling in the area. An example of the most popular tour operators is the website that lists numerous itineraries based on interest and theme. The first theme this website suggests is the Marco Polo tour, which indicates the popularity this figure still has when visualizing China for Italians. The most sought-after aspect for the average Italian tourist remains the cultural aspect that China can offer as most organized tour include historical and cultural stops for Italian visitors. While the numbers of Italian visitors into China are much fewer than other European nationalities, tourism is undeniably increasing and will certainly see a positive increase in the next few decades: while in 2008 150,000 Italians visited China, the number has increased to 240,000 in 2011.

Chinese tourists in Italy

While Italians traveled to China, so did the Chinese to Italy. For Chinese intellectuals and artists of the 1900s, Italy was a country with art, heritage and a romantic atmosphere no longer found in China. Since the 21st century, it has become a popular destination for the Chinese consumer-tourist. The country’s romantic lure and high fashion appealed to the rising upper-middle class with newly gained purchasing power. On the other hand, Italy also came to be associated with backwardness and criminality as tourism boomed. Chinese tourists often complained about thieves, hideous streets, and disorganized and filthy urban environments. Whereas Antonioni and Moravia might have seen China as a socialist utopia in the 1960s and 70s, Chinese tourists nowadays travel to Italy with the hope of immersing themselves in a touristic paradise.

In the early 1900s, well-known writers such as Zhu Ziqing (朱自清) and Xu Zhimo (徐志摩) traveled to Italy and wrote about it. The country continued to be a subject for writers like Yu Qiuyu by the end of the century. For these writers, Italy had a particular historical and artistic lure that was lost in China. Both Zhu Ziqing and Yu Qiuyu (余秋雨) wrote about Venice. Zhu described Venice as a “peculiar” (别致) place. He gave lengthy descriptions of Venice’s paintings and architecture. Decades later when China was experiencing rapid market growth and a loss of cultural values, Yu Qiuyu also praised Venice for its peculiarity and heritage. He highlights the unique “ecological scenery” (生态景观) that the city struggles to preserve as large numbers of tourists flowed in. He puts emphasis on the preservation of craftsmanship in a business-oriented world through describing his encounter with a Venetian mask maker. These earlier Chinese travelers appreciated Italy for its artistic heritage and its preservation of culture. Mobility and movement were particularly important in the writings of both Zhu and Yu, who highlighted moments of wandering through small alleys and along canals as a key part of their experiences in Venice. Yu’s writings also showed an awareness of historical mobilities between Italy and China through references to the Venetian merchant Marco Polo.

Chinese tourists traveled abroad in increasingly larger numbers following the economic boom around the turn of the millennium. Italy is currently one of the most preferred destination for the Chinese tourist-consumer. Chinese tourists rushed to Italy as the country came to be associated with luxury shopping, fancy cuisine, romance films and the idea of la dolce vita. For the modern Chinese tourist, Italy is often seen as a touristic paradise as described by Stephanie Malia Hom in The Beautiful Country. A hint of the typical Chinese tourist in Italy can be found in the travelogue Next Step, Naples by several writers including Guo Jingming, a commercially successful writer in China. Writers of this book present Italy differently from those of the 20th century. Their travel accounts focus more on food, luxury brands and popular touristic sites. Although Italy’s heritage and artistic tradition are acknowledged, there is little engagement with its history and local life. Traveling along a planned touristic route, the writers seemed to be moving through a fantasized space that resembles Hom’s touristic paradise. Nonetheless, there is a certain sense of disillusionment with this paradise. Like most Chinese tourists, the authors of the book occasionally complained about the disorganization and backwardness of Italian cities. Theft, criminality and the mafia were also mentioned. For Chinese tourists of the 21st century, Italy seemed to have turned into a consumer experience. Its history and art became less important than the apparent romantic and fashionable glamor associated with the country. The same impression of Italy is conveyed through popular Chinese films as it becomes a trend to shoot in Europe. An example is Guo’s much publicized film Tiny Times 3, which was set in Rome and Shanghai.

Tourism forms a key part of Italian-Chinese exchanges both in the present and the recent past. Chinese writers became fascinated with Italy as early as the Republican era. Writers like Xu Zhimo and Zhu Ziqing produced works inspired by their experiences in Italy. By the end of the century, writers like Yu Qiuyu continued to write about Italy. For writers of this era, Italy was attractive for its artistic heritage and preservation of culture. In the new century, the Chinese consumer-tourist began to experience Italy differently. They traveled to Italy for its sunny weather, food and fashion. Meanwhile, Italian filmmaker Antonioni and writer Moravia found China a socialist utopia in the 1960s and 70s while Terzani took a more negative view of the country. Movement remains an important factor in all of these accounts. The traveler’s movement through Italy or China determines the way in which they experience and see the country.

Sources and further reading:

Edwards, Dan. “Looking at / Looking in Antonioni’s Chung Kuo, Cina: A Critical Reflection Across Three Viewings.” Senses of Cinema. June 30, 2015.

Hom, Stephanie Malia (2015). The Beautiful Country. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Michaelangelo Antonioni (1972). Chung Kuo.

Vita, Alberto. December 01, 2014.

Zhou, Wenting. “Italy rolls out red carpet for Chinese tourists.” China Daily. May 11, 2017.

Chinese travel forums on Italy:




Italian travel websites for China:

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