The challenge for China’s ersatz ancient towns
Dozens of ’ancient towns’ are scattered across China. Most of them were rebuilt on historical remains after China’s reform and opening in the early ’80s to propagate (and profit from) local culture. In the past, these ancient towns were popular with domestic tourists, but they’re beginning to lose their appeal.
Water towns such as Zhujiajiao, Qibao and Tongli are just an hour or two from Shanghai, the right distance for a weekend escape from hectic city life. Being close together, though, they’re all somewhat similar and face challenges distinguishing themselves. All of them have white walled and grey brick buildings lining their canals. They all sell ceramics, batik textiles, wood carvings and local snacks. They all draw attention to the homes of a few famous former residents. This model of an ancient town as a living museum is just too boring for younger people, whose main means of engagement is consumption of new things and experiences.
Wuzhen, a busy water town two hours from Shanghai, is pioneering new ways to attract people. It previously hosted a stage play festival featuring some of China’s top theatre directors, and this year it’s home to an art exhibition, Utopias and Heterotopias, inviting leading international artists to create site-specific works. The event is attracting more and more young people. Similarly, Zhujiajiao established an ongoing contemporary music performance by composer Tan Dun in a "Ming dynasty-style house" in 2012, while blockbuster film director Zhang Yimou's created his Impressions Liu Sanjieshow for Yangshuo.
Chinese people are passionate about art experiences and art-related products, something retail spaces such as K11 have already cashed in on. But the use of art as a means to other ends is distorting its meaning. In the short term, contemporary art can draw crowds to these ancient towns, but in China’s accelerated culture, with trends changing constantly, how long will it last?
- Article by Jason Huang