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Last Updated: Friday, 21 September 2007, 13:54 GMT 14:54 UK
The politics of guidebooks
Cyclists race across Tiananmen Square
This is one view of Tiananmen Square...

By Finlo Rohrer
BBC News Magazine

A new book for travellers to China plans to make no mention of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Should travel guides tell the whole history of a place, or bow to local sensitivities?

Hotels are a must. So are tips on the local cuisine. A few key phrases. Some maps. A list of the best tourist sites and their opening hours. Perhaps some cultural do and don'ts.

Man stands in front of tank near Tiananmen Square
...and this is another
All are key ingredients of a typical guide book. And yet many also feel the need to offer something more - a grounding in the history of the place that can help flesh out its culture, architecture and art.

Take Nuremberg. You could describe the city's medieval architecture, its beautiful perch on the River Pegnitz and its role in the German Renaissance.

But many travellers might find it strange if you didn't mention the Nazis' Nuremberg rallies. At least once.

And one might find it a little surprising that HarperCollins is to publish a guide entitled Travel Around China to coincide with 2008's Beijing Olympics that will make no mention of the Tiananmen Square massacre.

I don't think talk about the killings is appropriate for a travel guide
Phil Friedman, HarperCollins
The 1989 protest that culminated in demonstrators being fired on by soldiers, and the death of hundreds, is a taboo subject in China. Internet searches that would throw up results relating to the episode are censored. Newspapers do not mention it.

HarperCollins are yet to confirm the content of the book - compiled from contributions from native Chinese writers - but the prospects do not seem to favour a mention.

Years of history

Editor Phil Friedman - who is working on the book - says people want different things from a travel guide.

"I don't think talk about the killings is appropriate for a travel guide... Tiananmen Square had thousands of years of history before that occurred. Tiananmen is a feudal site, hugely important historic site. I'm not sure people travelling there would go there because there were shootings."

You could praise Nuremberg's architecture...
But to Independent travel editor Simon Calder, this attitude is problematic.

"Travel guides are not just about telling you where to get a cheap bed and meet the locals in civil circumstances. They are helping you to understand a place," he says.

"The notion you could get a proper idea of a country as complex, fascinating and in many ways alarming as China without knowing about the history and politics is preposterous."

There is an obvious commercial dilemma for publishers, with the Bookseller magazine reporting that some travellers have had copies of Lonely Planet confiscated by overzealous officials because of its references to the massacre.

Barry Turner, editor of the Writer's Handbook and a Times travel writer for 10 years, says avoiding controversy can be impossible. For example, a Kashmir guidebook that even alludes to its status or the dispute will upset both sides.

Nazi rally at Nuremberg
... but you might feel obliged to mention the Nazis
Mr Turner has some sympathy for those who do not want guidebooks to transform into political tracts.

"It seems to me that a travel guide is something to help people travel. It is justifiable to slide over it [a historical event], you can mention it but slide over it. I don't see the need to go into historical analysis.

"It used to happen with South Africa under apartheid. If you were trying to find a way from Capetown to Johannesburg you didn't need a lecture from a travel writer on the situation of apartheid."

Then there is the issue of whether to do a guidebook for a place which the international community regards as a pariah.

The Rough Guide doesn't do Burma because, as a spokesman says: "The democratically elected leader, who is currently held under house arrest, has called for a tourism boycott. We respect her request but understand that it is a personal choice for individual travellers to make."

But Lonely Planet - criticised for doing a Burma guide - takes a different view.

"We do have a guide but we leave it up to the traveller to decide. We see ourselves as an information provider," editor Frances Lindzee-Gordon says.

And while the world remains scoured with political divides and controversy, travellers and writers will continue having to make big decisions.

Below is a selection of your comments.

As an American student who lived in China for the last year, I find this move acceptable. While in China I had the good fortune to speak with two Chinese about the Tiananmen incident, both in hushed voices far away from prying ears. These are the sorts of issues that at the very least inspire Chinese police investigation if not outright imprisonment. There is a serious threat to Chinese citizen┐s security when they speak openly about touchy political issues. To protect them from awkward traveler┐s questions I believe it is appropriate to remove these aspects from the guide book. If travelers are interested in the Tiananmen incident they need merely to go to Wikipedia (not in China though, I┐m afraid that it is banned there).
Jacob Parker, Moscow, Idaho, USA

I totally agree with the views of Draggy from Manchester. Actually, in 1859, when Briish army occupied Beijing, the captial of China, hundreds of Chinese people, officials and soliders were killed by British army in front of Forbidden City--Tian'anman Square!
James, Norwich

Please be nice. When I travel to UK, the first I am thinking of is how this little island has moved the world forward on this a gigantic scale. I do not complain that, there is no sign saying this is also the origin of East India Company, that peddled opium to impoverished people.
john, Wayne/ Philadelphia/US

I'm quite sure that UK guidebooks don't mention that such and such a town was used by the British slave trade and USA. guidebooks don't say "This is where 2000 native American, men women and children were massacred by our glorious cavalry, just one of many similar incidents". Therefore why should anyone else's guidebooks be negative. The idea is to attract tourists not ghouls.
MikeB, St. Austell U.K.

If you believe BBC is an impartial media, why do I never read any news that so called "Tiananmen Square massacre" is a controversial topic among Chinese, let alone that so many people support the measure the government took then. Furthermore, why do you never mention the history of Tibet before 1950 at all?

As a Chinese who has been in the western world for 5 years, I seldom think your western media which are full of arrogance, prejudice, ignorance are better than Chinese domestic media.
Ian, Wellington, New Zealand

This is typical of the large publishing house: making a fast buck while pandering to the Chinese propaganda machine, from the people who brought you Wayne Rooney's "Autobiography".
Hugo Mander, London

You cannot compare what happened in Tiananmen Square to what happened in Nuremberg, there are major differences, for one thing, the regime that held the rallies in Germany, no longer exists. The Nazi's were quashed after the second world war and that was that, however the Chinese government that did the attrocities in Tiananmen Square are still in power, and are now one of the most powerful world leaders. Secondly, the Nazi regime happened over 50 years ago, not many people remember it, whereas the Tiananmen Square Massacre happened less than 20 years ago, and is painful for many people to think about! If you want to learn about the massacre, look somewhere else, not a tourism book!
Keith Smith, Bury

A lot of it depends on the reasons that people travel to a particular place. You may wish to visit a city due to its association with a particular event in history, for example you may wish to visit Ground Zero in New York or visit Hiroshima. This is different to including a little known something of historical importance to draw a car off a motorway to visit your town rather than race past it.
Steve, Bournemouth

Perhaps this could be done in a moderate way, i.e. using terms like "political unrest" or "convulsion" rather than using "massacre" since whether the notion itself is applicable in this case is still much debatable (in terms of the scale and of the consequence of the event).
Adam, Canada

Harper Collins is owned by Rupert Murdoch and found similar controversy when it dropped plans to publish a book by the last British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten. The book was dropped on the orders of Rupert Murdoch (according to an article in this website in 1998) so as to not offend the Chinese government. Nothing changes. Should this man really be allowed to have control of so much media in democratic countries?
Tristan, London, UK

I've only ever heard of Tiananman Square in the context of the massacre. I'd be put out if a travel guide didn't explain some of the politics surrounding it.
Andy, Worcester

The Lonely Planet way seems the most sensible - have the guide but be honest. The fact that some copies get confisgated makes me trust these guides. I'm planning a trip to Central Asia in 2008 to see a solar eclipse and explore the scenery and history but I also want to know about the human rights situation.
KryssTal, London

To have the full scope of any culture, one must experience and analyze both that cultures pinnacles of achievement as well as the periods where all vestiges of human freedom were squashed.
Brian Slaught, La Canada USA

You cannot rewrite history. At the front of The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich ( from which your Nuremburg picture is taken) there is a quotation - 'Those who do not learn from history are condemned to relive it - Santayana' - it should be mentioned but not as the main aspect of the place or era.
Norman Cook, Hemel Hempstead

Tian'anmen has witnessed a very long history since its foundation in Ming Dynasty. Through Qing Dynasty and times of Republic of China before the People's Republic, the killings did not happen only once in 1989, but hundreds of times even thousands of times around there through this 600 years. You want to read massacre in a tourist book? Fine, let's go back to 1644 when rebels overthrew the Ming Dynasty and chopped off thousands of officials' heads right there, or to 1859 when the British troops looted the impirial capital and burnt down their winter palace, or to 1927 when demonstrators were shot, or 1976 when Tian'anmen square thousands of people in commemoration of their deceased Premier were brutally beaten by Mao's mobs, etc. etc. Com'on, it's tourism! To understand a place doesn't necessarily mean to sniff the trace of blood in the air.
Draggy, Manchester, UK

As someone who is about to go backpacking through China for three weeks, I found this interesting but alarming. Lonelyplanet has also recently reported that some backpackers have had their guides confiscated on the Chinese/Vietnam border because they depict Taiwan as a seperate country. Such censorship attempts are pointless - guides are in too many languages and are too easily disguised for it to succeed.

HarperCollins move is one I find alarming though. It's bad enough that TV is dumbed down, but is this the start of a slippery slope of dumbing down travel guides? I sincerely hope not otherwise we could end up with guides to the UK that don't mention the IRA struggles, guides to the US that don't mention the racial protests of the 50's and 60's or a guide to Poland that completely misses out Auschwitz.
Alex, Midlands, UK

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