ON a lovely May morning, Yizheng Wu and Xuanruo Hu are standing in glorious sunshine on the Castle Howard lawns. Behind them, the graceful outline of Sir John Vanbrugh's mansion soars upward, outlined against a sky of perfect blue.

It hasn't been particularly easy for Yizheng and Xuanruo to get here.

The pair, both studying for MA degrees in Leeds, took the train to York, and then a Stephenson's bus to Castle Howard itself.

So what made them make the effort to come?

"We heard about it from some of our friends," says Yizheng. "They said this is a beautiful place."

No arguing with that. Xuanruo has another reason, however.

"I'm a fan of Jay Chou!" she says. "We heard he had his wedding reception here!"

Ah, Jay Chou.

At the beginning of last year, the Taiwanese popstar married his Australian model girlfriend Hannah Quinliven at Selby Abbey. The pair then reportedly held their reception at Castle Howard.

York Press:

Jay Chao and Hannah Quinlivan's wedding ceremony at Selby Abbey

You probably haven't heard of Jay Chou unless you've seen the 2011 film The Green Hornet, in which he starred alongside Seth Rogan.

But in his native Taiwan and in mainland China he's a megastar - the 'Chinese Justin Timberlake' - and he has a huge following on social media.

The marriage was big news in China, and led to a rush of Chinese and Asian visitors to both Selby and Castle Howard as legions of fans came to see where their idol got married.

After the wedding, Selby Abbey said it had had no fewer than 500 Asian visitors coming through the doors in just ten days.

Castle Howard has been a little more circumspect. In the way of celebrity weddings, the reception there was all a bit hush hush, so staff won't talk about it. But Castle Howard marketing manager Rachael Underwood does confirm that last year set a new record for visitors to the great house - and that much of this was down to a big increase in overseas visitors, amongst them Chinese people.

More than 250,000 people visited Castle Howard last year. The number of international visitors - many of them coming as part of group bookings - was up by a staggering 256 percent year on year. "And this was driven by Chinese bookings," Rachel says.

Not all Chinese people visiting Castle Howard are coming to see where Jay Chou had his reception, of course.

The Poon family from Hong Kong - parents Tony and Brenda Poon, and their two grown-up daughters Grace and Clara - have been staying in York for a few days.

York Press:

The Poon family at Castle Howard. L-r, Tony Poon, Brenda Poon, and daughters Grace and Clara

They don't mention Jay Chou, and they haven't even heard of Castle Howard's starring role in Brideshead Revisited.

"But I read about it (Castle Howard) in a tourist guidebook," says Grace, who has taken on the role of family spokeswoman. "It said there are gardens, and a lovely building, and interesting designs, and it is very close to York."

Actually, cities like York and tourist attractions such as Castle Howard don't need to rely on Chinese celebrities as a selling point when trying to attract visitors from China, says Dr Lily Chen, a lecturer in Chinese Studies at the University of Sheffield who lives in York.

Chinese people have long admired certain aspects of British culture, she says.

Not, perhaps, our history of imperialism. The opium wars and the destruction of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing in Victorian times marked a low point in relations between Britain and China.

But that was a long time ago. Today, many Chinese people learn English. And classic English literature - the work of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte, for example - remains hugely popular in China.

York Press:

Rachel Underwod at Castle Howard

From that, Chinese people have developed an idealised image of the typical English lady and gentleman, Dr Chen says. They represent an ideal of manners, courteousness and elegance that Chinese people often look up to. So much so that in Chinese there is a term, "Yinguo fanr", which means something like 'English style'.

There's no equivalent term in Chinese for American style, or French style, or Italian style, Dr Chen says - demonstrating just how highly regarded a certain kind of British manners are.

The huge popularity of Downton Abbey in China (if not, sadly, of Brideshead Revisited) has only served to underline this - and the choice by Jay Chao of an English abbey and an English country house for his wedding and reception are just another example of how much a certain type of Chinese visitor appreciates English culture and style.

That is good news for cities such as York and regions such as North Yorkshire, which traditionally rely on tourism.

According to Make It York, the number of Chinese people travelling abroad has risen steadily over the last five years - and is expected to continue to increase.

Where once it was the British and then the Americans who did the 'grand tour', taking in the sites of Italy and Europe, today it is Chinese people who are setting out to see the world.

Often, they begin by going on organised coach tours with other Chinese people, in which they pack a tight itinerary into a few days, says Castle Howard's Rachel Underwood. But then, having once tasted foreign travel, some return independently to see and do more under their own steam.

There are also increasing numbers of Chinese people studying at UK universities who, like Yizheng Wu and Xuanruo Hu, are keen to see Britain while they're here.

If tourist destinations such as York and Castle Howard can tap into this market, there is potentially a huge new source of visitors, therefore.

York Press:

The Chinese-language guide to Castle Howard

Make It York is fully aware of this. Five years ago, Chinese people were only the 11th largest group of overseas visitors coming to York, says Make It York's Michelle Brown. Today, they make up the fourth largest group of overseas visitors.

"Whilst the market share of visitors from China is still relatively small in comparison to other countries it is the fastest growing international market," she says. "Our aim is to continue to promote York robustly in China."

It has certainly been trying to do that - as has Castle Howard.

Both York and the great stately home near Malton now have Chinese language guides - 35,000 copies of the Chinese-language guide to York are being distributed at UK airports, key London hotels and through top Chinese tour operators.

Make It York and Castle Howard also both have Weibo accounts - one of the most popular Chinese social media outlets - are are getting started on WeChat, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter.

Last November a delegation from York - which included Castle Howard's Rachel Underwood - took part in a sales mission to Beijing, in which they met with Chinese tour operators. "We were meeting travel companies, and had about 50 appointments in two days," says Rachel. "We were really selling York."

Make It York has even organised three 'China Welcome' courses for tourism businesses in York.

"It has been an amazing ride," says Rachel. "But it's potentially a huge opportunity, and there's so much more that can be done."

All we need now is for a Chinese popstar to be invited for dinner at the Mansion House. Here's hoping...

How to say 'hello' in Chinese

"Huanyin nimen dao Castle Howard lai," says the brochure - Welcome to Castle Howard.

Inside, there's a brief history of the house, a guide to the house and grounds, and a handy map, all in Chinese.

There's an even more impressive Chinese-language guide to York, complete with glossy photos and descriptions of all the city's main attractions.

York Press:

Cover of the Chinese-language guide to York

They're both clear signs that we're waking up to the importance of Chinese visitors in this country.

Chances are that you'll have seen a few Chinese tourists around and about in York recently - possibly taking a selfie in front of the Minster or wandering in a chattering group through Shambles.

But how can you break the ice and actually get talking to them?

There are many Chinese dialects. They're all written the same, but the spoken forms are different. The official language is Mandarin. So here are a couple of very simple Mandarin phrases you could try...

  • 'Ni hao', or 'hello'. This is pronounced 'knee how', with the how extended into a long syllable with a curious dip in the middle because Chinese is a tonal language. But just say 'knee how' and you'll be OK.
  • 'Huanyin ni dao Yueke lai' - Welcome to York. You'll need to pronounce this something like "Hwan yeen knee dow You-eh-ka lie." Good luck with that.

But however bad your pronunciation, you're almost certain to be greeted with a widening of the eyes, followed by a spontaneous - and genuine - 'You speak very good Chinese!'

Their English will almost certainly be far better than your Chinese. But it's a great way to break the ice, and your efforts will be very much appreciated...