China is very sensitive about its international reputation. That explains why a single act of tourist vandalism—committed by a Chinese citizen while overseas—has created a social-media uproar in the country. The controversy began last Friday, when a Chinese traveler named Shen Yuwen logged on to the social media site Weibo and posted a snapshot of a 3,500-year-old Luxor Temple carving that had been scratched over with the phrase, “Ding Jinhao was here.” (“It was the saddest moment during my stay in Egypt, and I felt ashamed,” Shen lamented.) The photo quickly went viral, prompting online outrage, and in less than 24 hours netizens had publicly identified “Ding Jinhao” as a 15-year-old middle school student from Nanjing. Amid online declarations of national disgrace and social-media death threats, Ding’s family came forward to express their regrets in a local newspaper. “We want to apologize to the Egyptian people and to people who have paid attention to this case across China,” Ding’s mother stated, adding that the boy had “cried all night” out of shame over the incident.
Ding should be ashamed—but he’s hardly the first. Indeed, the teenager’s defacement of a priceless piece of Egyptian antiquity is merely the latest expression of a tourist tradition that is nearly as old as tourism itself. In Travel in the Ancient World, historian Lionel Casson notes that evidence of the practice dates back at least to 2000 B.C., when Hena, a high official under Mentuhotep III, chiseled his name and accomplishments into the sandstone of Wadi Hammamat, near the Red Sea. Elsewhere, at Giza, scratchings on a temple wall, dated to 1244 B.C., read: “Hadnakhte, scribe of the treasury, came to make an excursion and amuse himself on the west of the Memphis, together with his brother, Panakhti.” Scribes, perhaps unsurprisingly, accounted for the bulk of such graffiti, and Casson notes that their inscriptions follow a fairly standard formula: “Scribe So-and-So … of the clever fingers came to see the temple of the blessed King So-and-So.” Most such messages were painted onto monuments with a brush or scratched into the stone with a sharp point.
The Golden Age of graffiti on Egypt’s tourist-circuit monuments coincides with the heyday of the imperial Romans. In Pagan Holiday, a travel-themed account of the ancient Roman Grand Tour, author Tony Perrottet observes that travelers of the era regarded the Great Pyramid as “a vast, open visitor’s book, where every tourist could chisel his or her impressions. This was not considered defacement, but a grab at immortality—an effort by visitors to join their own fates to the most enduring of mankind’s creations.” Many inscriptions read, simply, “I was amazed!” One Roman tourist visiting the Valley of the Kings took a cue from Julius Caesar’s famous line and enthused, “I looked, I investigated, I arrived, I marveled.”
Touristic graffiti underwent a modern renaissance in the 19th century, as Industrial Age European travelers fanned out across what came to be known as the “Near East,” leaving thousands of inscriptions in their wake. So common was the practice of scratching one’s name into Egyptian monuments that French writer François-René de Chateaubriand, having no time to visit the pyramids during an 1806 Egypt sojourn, sent an emissary out to engrave his name for him. (“One has to fulfill all the little obligations of a pious traveler,” he noted in his journal.) Italian explorer Giovanni Belzoni is as much remembered for his prolific graffiti as he is for his contributions to Egyptology—and the large “Belzoni” inscription he left on the walls of the Ramesseum can be viewed not far from the serif-engraved surname “Rimbaud,” allegedly left by the French poet, on the sandstone walls of Luxor Temple.
The French novelist Gustave Flaubert was not impressed by the graffiti he found during an 1850 journey through Egypt. “One is irritated by the number of imbeciles’ names written everywhere,” he wrote, noting that the name and address of a certain Parisian wallpaper manufacturer had been written, in black letters, at the top of the Great Pyramid. “In Alexandria,” he added, “a certain Thompson, of Sunderland, has inscribed his name in letters 6 feet high on Pompey’s Pillar. You can read it from a quarter of a mile away. … All imbeciles are more or less Thompsons from Sunderland. How many of them one comes across in life, in the most beautiful places and in front of the finest views!”
With the rise of mass tourism in the 20th century, Flaubert’s chagrin was echoed by upper-class travelers alarmed by the spectacle of tour buses at ancient monuments. Soldiers and sailors famously indulged in tourist graffiti during the World War II era (“Kilroy was here” inscriptions, left by American GIs, have been found everywhere from the Arc de Triomphe in Paris to the Marco Polo Bridge in China), but by the mid–20th century, travel guidebooks were specifically condemning the practice, which fell out of favor among middle-class travelers.
In Egypt, defacing monuments is a serious offense. The crime can carry a fine of more than $20,000 and up to 12 months in prison. It’s unlikely that young Ding Jinhao will ever face prosecution in Egypt. (The country’s local tourism authorities have announced that the marks made by Mr. Ding were superficial and have been removed.) Still, the issue has catalyzed an important discussion among Chinese travelers. In the wake of the uproar, China’s National Tourism Administration has stepped up its efforts in promoting a new set of guidelines for countrymen traveling abroad. Asserting that “being a civilized tourist is the obligation of each citizen,” the government agency is urging Chinese tourists to refrain from touching or writing on cultural relics, and avoid engaging in uncouth habits such as spitting, littering, jaywalking, vandalism, and cutting in line. Even before Ding’s shaming, well-publicized reports of Chinese boorishness in places like France and Hong Kong compelled the nation’s officials to draft new tourism laws that give tour companies the power to “revoke the contracts” of misbehaving clients. Meanwhile, Xinhua News Agency reports that the nation’s netizens have begun to investigate incidences of domestic graffiti, including a tourist etching on an ancient iron jar in Beijing’s Palace Museum and an inked message in a Xia Dynasty grotto in Gansu Province.
What makes this all significant lies less in the specific incidents than in the fact that China is on the cusp of a travel boom that may well dwarf all previous waves of tourism to places like Egypt. One teenager scratching his name into Luxor Temple is hardly remarkable, given the history of the site—but the reality of 100 million Chinese citizens expected to embark on international journeys by 2015 means that a little public shaming could ultimately do us all some good.