This November, Shanghainese writer Chen Danyan was appointed as Serbia's Tourism Ambassador, a unique and historical announcement that demonstrates China's growing influence in Southeastern European nations.
Chen was born in Beijing and moved to Shanghai as a child. She started her writing career after graduating from East China Normal University with a major in Chinese literature. Today, her most famous masterpiece is the Shanghai Memorabilia, Shanghai Princess and Shanghai Beauty trilogy.
She is also considered China's first "backpacker writer," having written 14 travel books about various countries that she has visited since the 1990s. One of her most recent works is Dream-catcher's World, in which she covers Serbia and Turkey. The book directly led to her appointment as tourism ambassador.
Cao Yuanyong, editor of Dream-catcher's World at Zhejiang Literature and Art Publishing House, believes that Chen's travel writing has the ability to bring Chinese readers on her journeys abroad. Cao feels that this type of writing symbolizes a remarkable bridge between cultures.
"Chen is a crazy, enthusiastic, vigorous traveler who also writes during her trips. Unlike novelty-seeking tourists, Chen's travels are based on a rich understanding and love for every culture," Cao told the Global Times.
Marija Labovic (left), chief executive officer of the National Tourism Organisation of Serbia presents the certificate of Serbia's Tourism Ambassador to Shanghainese writer Chen Danyan.
When Chen first visited Turkey in 2013, she decided to write a travel book after being inspired by a well-known Serbian novel, Dictionary of the Khazars, whose theme covers the history of Turkey and Serbia. She spent three years of her life on this work, visiting Serbia, Austria, Hungary and Turkey many times throughout the course of her writing.
She also visited Dictionary of the Khazars author Milorad Pavic's home to meet with his widowed wife. Chen was even given permission by her to lie down on Pavic's bed. "Chen had really strange requests in the beginning. We were thinking 'what is she doing?'" said National Tourism Organisation of Serbia's chief executive officer Marija Labovic.
"She also wanted a ballet dancer. Then she wanted to shoot a movie inside a monastery while the liturgy was taking place. We were like 'what is going on?' But finally, when we saw the results, it made sense," Labovic added.
During her time in Serbia, Chen also participated in a local book fair in order to introduce Chinese literature to the Serbian people. According to recent statistics, the Republic of Serbia is now Europe's fastest growing tourism market. Chinese tourism to Serbia grew by 27 percent in 2016.
The end of visas
To better accommodate this rising interest, Labovic announced new visa regulations between China and Serbia, which starting 2017 will effectively end all visa requirements for Chinese tourists to Serbia as well as Serbian tourists to China.
After appointing Chen as their new tourism ambassador, Labovic announced that this was the first time in world history that a Chinese writer was appointed to such a position by any foreign country.
"When she came for the first time to Serbia, we thought that it was just another media visit. But when we realized how well-prepared she was - she knew so much about our culture and history - we were so amazed," said Labovic.
"I hope, through my own experience and all the things I saw there, I can help Chinese tourists to understand and enjoy Serbia," Chen said during her speech at the event.
"Serbia is a small place in the world, but has a long history, a rich culture and warm and friendly people. From its delightful cuisine to its spiritual enjoyment, this is a place that never feels tedious."
Group photo of Chen Danyan, Labovic, Dejan Marinkovic (fourth from right), Consul General of the Republic of Serbia in Shanghai, and guests to the event Photos: Courtesy of Ding Xiaowen