Projecting Modernity: China’s Obsession with ‘Theme Parks’

After an hour’s drive with my host professor and his spoilt son, arrived in a town called Donggang (donggang 東港).  A few days before, I had arrived in the Shanghai suburban city of Wuxi to research a civil rights discourse among substitute farmer migrants (daigengnong 代耕农) in the area. However, after having been paraded around as “Oxford research student” from one local CCP ‘party banquet’ to another for several days without seeing any daigengnong, I started to question whether these farmer migrants were actually there. “No, they left two years ago, we are a modern countryside now”, was the answer. My host professor had been quiet on the journey’s destination, as it was a surprise. And a surprise it was [1].

Giant fish on top of the 'ecological history museum'

Giant fish on top of the ‘ecological history museum’

The Wuxi government had followed centrally directed guidelines to ‘modernize’ the countryside. This policy was launched in 2006 by Wen Jiabao in an attempt to “build a new socialist countryside” (jianshe shehui zhuyi xinnongcun 建设社会主义新 农村) . Incentivized by performance targets and inter-regional competitions, the Wuxi government had been determined to outdo other regions, and had built the the Donggang ecological agricultural park (wuxi donggang nongye shengtaiyuan 无锡东港农业生态园) to demonstrate how ‘modern and sophisticated’ the park and their agricultural methods were. The park was meant to be a showcase of modern agricultural practices with an ecological approach, while at the same time it was catering to urban tourists seeking a countryside experience – the comfortable and romanticized version.

The Wuxi government had definitely outdone any of my expectations, but not in a good way. Who does not enjoy the scenery of concrete beehives and plastic giant watermelons? Or a ‘heavenly countryside dining experience’ (as they called it) in an airconditioned greenhouse with giant waterfalls and fake plants? [see photos above] The only thing that was going through my head was: “I do not know what they consider to be ‘ecology’ but I think they have fundamentally misapplied the concept”. For all those Europeans reading this: the place is like a cheap and really tacky version of a CenterParcs.

Beehive in 'Ecological Restaurant'

Beehive in ‘Ecological Restaurant’

'Ecological' Restaurant

‘Ecological’ Restaurant

Plastic watermelon

Plastic watermelon

After the ‘ecological agricultural park’ I was taken to the fields where the ecological practices were supposedly implemented.

A few months after my visit, international media (BBC, CNN etc) reported that watermelons in this area in Jiangsu province had been exploding due to an overuse of growth-inducing chemicals. “Liu Mingsuo, a farmer from the eastern province of Jiangsu, told China’s state broadcaster that he couldn’t sleep because he kept picturing his precious melons exploding in his field like “landmines”.”[2] Not only did they display ‘ecology’ in a very tacky Disneyland-manner, their ‘ecological’ approach in agriculture was doubtful to say the least.

In the eyes of the Wuxi government, a ‘modern’ countryside equated to the construction of ‘nature’ to provide for a countryside-Disneyland experience to its urban consumers. The government intends to superimpose this highly prescriptive (blueprint) of ‘modernity’ on society, but as an empty shell this concept has no intrinsic value to the population and sometimes leads to dubious results. In 2007 the central government presented guidelines to ‘green’ society. Which was taken quite literally by a local government in Yunnan who decided to actually paint a barren mountain green[2]. The Chinese government therefore relies on incentive structures, mass campaigns and model plots to implement this blueprint and mould reality accordingly.

Using model villages and citizens is a propaganda method/mass campaign style that can be traced back to Classical Chinese texts (the Confucian ‘gentleman’ who exemplifies ‘virtue’), and was also adopted in the Mao era. The infamous example of “Follow the examples of Comrade Lei Feng” (向雷锋同志学习) was used to set an example to everyone for the most virtuous comrade whose behaviour was supposed to be emulated (even though it is said he was merely fictional). “The belief in the powerful educational effect of emulating the good deeds of exemplary persons is demonstrated in the current pedagogical literature, and would appear to be another cultural truism that modern China seems to be redeploying from the past”(Bakken, 2000; p. 173)[3].  Whereas such an approach may work in terms of literally telling people how to behave in certain situations, it is much harder to instill on people “soft” concepts such as ‘civilization’,  ‘greening’ and ‘ecology’. Nonetheless, this is exactly what the Chinese government has so desperately tried to do.

The government started with ‘civilization’ campaigns in the 1980s “as a counter to popular disillusionment with the CCP and admiration for foreign ideas and models” (Brady, 2009; p. 25)[4]. Enter any Chinese city and you will see ample signs promoting ‘civilized’ behaviour’.  Just before the Olympics, Beijing saw a crackdown on spitting where CCTV and patrol vans were used to locate ‘violators’ of the anti-spitting regulations. And of course the the stereotype of the Chinese competitive  ispresent as well: all cities compete for being the most ‘civilized’ city (wenming chengshi 文明城市) in inter-regional and national contests. China expert A-M Brady describes this as a form of ‘spiritual civilization’ that forms part of the government’s strategy to exert control over its citizens. “Spiritual civilization is a soft form of social control, which is backed by the law and policy system.”(p. 117) It is therefore very much part of the Chinese ‘thought dicatatorship’ that even wants to direct the thoughts and morality of its citizens.

Despite these efforts by the Chinese government, traditional culture is still pervasive in Chinese society, although it has now acquired a ‘modern’ – consumerist – gloss. A great example is that of the tradition of Tomb Sweeping Day (qingming jie 清明節) when Chinese pay tribute to their ancestors by burning paper money and other items that may help the ancestors in their afterlife. In recent years, they have now also started to burn paper TVs, paper-made iPhones and iPads – in case their ancestors have WiFi up in heaven [5].

I feel that the Chinese government has been unable to reconcile traditional culture with ‘modernity’.  ‘Modernity’ often merely equals consumerism, and not the reinvention and integration of traditional elements in contemporary society not as something of the past but as something of the future. For example, in urban landscaping, the Beijing government has been tearing down all the traditional hutongs (small alleyway neighbourhoods), but instead of renovating them or replacing them with similar architecture, t, , he hutongs have to make way for architecture that has often not even been designed by Chinese (the Beijing landmark building, the CCTV building, was designed by a Dutch architect). When Chinese want a ‘modern’ apartment, they will look for European furniture and European architecture. In some cases they even have started to replicate entire European cities [6].  (see: There is a replica of an entire Austrian village at a lake [7], a replica of a Dutch village in Shenyang [8], and you do not have to buy a plane ticket to see an Eiffel Tower [9]. It is just quite sad that becoming ‘modern’ does not mean reinventing elements of Chinese culture and heritage and giving this a place in a wealthier and technologically more advanced society. Instead, ‘modernity’ in China to me is an empty shell and merely equals crude capitalism and consumerism. This is a shame, and as the CNN news anchor rightly puts it: “I would rather see a replica of a Chinese village but these are hard to come by these days.”

Building an Austrian village in China

Building an Austrian village in China

There are a few gems of originality and examples of how Chinese traditional culture and national heritage is reconciled with ‘modernity’. My favourite area in Beijing was the 798 Art District. Originally an area of military buildings known as Joint Factory 798 it is now home to many well-known Chinese artists, cafes, galleries, boutiques of upcoming designers and artist studios. Rather than replacing the décor of the factory, the artwork makes use of the atmosphere and style of the military factory [see photo below].

798 Art District -- Gallery in a former factory hall

798 Art District — Gallery in a former factory hall

Unfortunately the Chinese government has plans to commercialize this art district and turn it into a tourist theme park [10] “with an aquatic theater, a gallery, a stage for laser shows, and a luxury hotel and apartments”. Not only does the Chinese government commercialize art, it has also plans to commercialize literature. The NY Times reported in Feb of this year: “China’s new laureate, Mo Yan, lauded by the Nobel committee for his “hallucinatory realism,” may soon be living in his very own hallucinatory reality. Following his triumph, local authorities announced plans to build a Mo Yan Culture Experience in his hometown, Gaomi”[11]. The local authorities had forced Mo Yan’s father out of his house to build a literary theme park.  Sadly these are not the only examples where certain areas are commercialized and turned into certain kinds of ‘theme park’.

Although the government is trying to direct its citizens into a forced program of ‘civilization’ by using these model parks promoting ‘modernization’ and ‘civilization’, these “soft” concepts often get lost in translation (like in the painted mountain example), and in reality these parks are the archetype of crude consumerism and commercialization. Traditional culture is still pervasive in Chinese society, but rather than reinventing ‘traditional’ culture and reconciling this in a more wealthy and advanced society, it is posed in juxtaposition with being ‘modern’. I hope that the next generation of Chinese will be able to change this, and incorporate its rich and ancient civilization into their version of ‘modernity’ – not in a socialist way but in a truly Chinese way.

— Views expressed are entirely my own, unless stated otherwise. Most photos taken by me in China (except for the photo in the restaurant, and the photo of the Austrian village) —

[1] This article is based on my field research for my MPhil dissertation at the University of Oxford. In 2011 I spent several weeks in Wuxi (outside of Shanghai) interviewing farmers and local party officials.


[3] Borge Bakken, 2000; The Exemplary Society.

[4] Anne-Mary Brady, 2009; Marketing Dictatorship: Propaganda and Thought Work.








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