BEIJING: "Ding Jinhao was here."
It was a banal declaration scratched by a teenager into an artifact at a 3500-year-old Egyptian temple that has launched a round of soul-searching about the bad behaviour of Chinese tourists.
They swarm into the elevator when the door opens
The Chinese-language graffiti was discovered at Luxor this month by a Chinese tourist who posted a photograph on a microblog in which he deplored the behaviour of his countrymen abroad. "I'm so embarrassed that I want to hide myself," the microblogger wrote last week.
Graffiti: The words 'Ding Jinhao was here' can be seen carved into a bas-relief in a 3500-year-old temple in Luxor, Egypt. Photo: AP
Within days, Chinese had outed the vandal as a boy from Nanjing who had visited Egypt with his parents.
The incident has set off a very public debate in China about etiquette and the country's image abroad. In response, the National Tourism Administration issued guidelines this week advising Chinese going abroad on eight key points of etiquette, from waiting in line to refraining from spitting and littering.
"They speak loudly in public, carve characters on tourist attractions, cross the road when the traffic lights are still red, spit anywhere and (engage in) some other uncivilised behaviour. It damages the image of the Chinese people and has a very bad impact," Vice Premier Wang Yang complained.
Vandal: Ding Jinhao.
Newly empowered by their rising wealth, Chinese have become the world's leading tourists, with 83 million going abroad last year, according to the United Nations World Tourism Organisation. Although the $US102 billion they spend is welcome, their behaviour often is not.
The media in China and elsewhere in Asia are full of stories of outrageous Chinese conduct. In Hong Kong, a child was allowed to defecate in a train carriage. In Paris, wealthy Chinese drive shop assistants in luxury boutiques to tears with their imperious behaviour.
"In general, Chinese tourists are too loud. When they get into a hotel they talk non-stop at the top of their lungs. They swarm into the elevator when the door opens," said Li Dezhi, a Guangdong-based tour agent who brings Chinese groups abroad.
He said he was embarrassed in Japan to see signs — only in Chinese — advising people to flush the toilet. "Obviously, they think it is only the Chinese who engage in this kind of bad behaviour."
In fact, there is plenty of non-Chinese graffiti in Luxor and elsewhere in Egypt. But the Chinese are particularly fond of writing their names on monuments. It is a tradition that is sometimes attributed to the Chinese classic Journey to the West, in which the Monkey King carves "I was here" on Buddha's finger. The magazine Caixin, in response to the Luxor scandal, ran a photo spread this week on its website of historic sites in China that were defaced with graffiti.
Liu Kaiming, a Shenzhen-based activist and social critic, sees parallels with destruction encouraged by the Communist Party from the founding of modern China in 1949 through the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s.
"Everything in China has the same kind of carvings. There is a lack of respect for social order and rule of law," said Liu.
Editorials in Chinese news media over the past few days pontificated on the lessons learned from the Luxor incident. People's Daily, the Communist Party's flagship newspaper, opined that "this instance shows our families and schools have failed to deliver to the children something that should be expected first and foremost of any education: moral principles and civic virtues".
Ding Jinhao's chagrined mother over the weekend said that her son, now 15, had carved the graffiti a few years ago.
"We want to apologise to the Egyptian people and to people who have paid attention to this case across China," she told a Nanjing newspaper.
The boy's father begged internet users to stop hounding the teenager. "This is too much pressure for him to take," he told the newspaper.
However, the retribution against the boy continues. Infuriated Chinese internet users over the weekend hacked into the website of his former primary school and defaced the home page with a message: It read: "Ding Jinhao was here."
Los Angeles Times