On January 21, 1992, then-Chinese President Deng Xiaoping strolled through the stone forests of Yunnan, turned left at the Three Gorges, quickly saw the Xian terra cotta warriors, walked the entire length of the Great Wall and stood at the foot of Tibet’s Potala Palace. All in a single morning and traveling only on foot and by golf cart.
He was visiting one of China's first theme parks, Splendid China/Folk Culture Villages in Shenzhen, the country’s first “Special Economic Zone,” across the border from the capitalist enclave of Hong Kong. It was on that tour that Deng, this time for good, would reintroduce the term “market economy” into the Chinese political lexicon. At the park he spoke of how the economic opening and reforms in Shenzhen and future SEZs would radiate to the rest of China, including ethnic minorities, one day achieving “common prosperity” for all citizens. Since that trip, China has had double digit economic growth every single year. Whether “common prosperity” has yet been achieved, however, is another question.
The park, of course, is still there and its two sections offer visitors the chance to see and experience an entire ersatz Middle Kingdom in an afternoon. Splendid China, which covers the east half of the park, is made up of 82 1:15 scale models of famous Chinese sites with thousands of Lilliputian figures, yurts, temples and pagodas as well as familiar tourist destinations like the Great Wall and Forbidden City.
To the west of teeny-tiny China lie the Folk Culture Villages, where “authentic” Chinese minorities live in replica Disneyland style homes, singing and dancing and selling expensive souvenirs. There’s also an arena where a horse-mounted cast of more than 100 “Manchus” invade China once daily in a giant reenactment of the conquest that established the Qing Dynasty, complete with cannons, explosions and fake bodies thrown off a facade of the Great Wall.
While Splendid China's miniatures were reportedly inspired by a Chinese architect's visit to the Madurodam minature city in the Hague in the 1980s, Shenzhen’s Folk Culture Villages seems to have drawn their inspiration more from the Mormon Church's Polynesian Cultural Center in Hawaii, in which ethnic Polynesian Mormons depict a culture that missionaries of many stripes have tried to eliminate and Christianize. Shenzhen’s version is a fine example of the intersection of government, commerce, history and ethnic heritage in China today.
During his visit, Deng sat for a traditional Uyghur performance. The Uyghurs are the largest indigenous minority in China's northwest province of Xinjiang and easily the odd ones out in any portrait of China ethnic make-up. Central Asian Muslims who speak a language most closely related to ancient Turkish, Uyghurs are not easily mistaken for any other minority in China, except perhaps the country’s handful of other Central Asians. Their music and dances are heavily influenced by the Sufi mystics who first brought Islam to the region, and their cultural history reads like a Silk Road check list: Nestorian Christianity, Manichaeism and Buddhism were all at one time or another practiced by Xinjiang’s inhabitants, though not only by Uyghurs.
During the Cultural Revolution, however, traditional ethnic minority cultures were suppressed, reputedly because Mao Zedong’s wife, Jiang Qing, hated non-Han cultures. Religion, folk arts and music all were deemed “feudal superstitions” to be obliterated.
Deng's policy of “Opening Up and Reform” reversed many of these policies, and watching the performance in 1992 he noted that the female Uyghur dancers’ traditional pigtails would have been sliced off in the Cultural Revolution as they were considered bourgeois. “Now this is very good, very beautiful. It's a beautiful world, and people will become more and more beautiful,” he was quoted as saying as he watched the performers
Part of Deng's reforms, besides creating capitalist Petri dishes in cities such as Shenzhen, was to change policies regarding tourism and cultural heritage. In the wake of the Cultural Revolution, Deng had to perform a balancing act: restoring national unity and the economy without completely overturning the ideological foundations of the Communist Party. Heritage tourism provided a solution that killed two birds with one stone: repairing some of the societal fractures brought on by the Red Guards and spurring economic growth, all in the name of proud Chinese socialism.
The social sciences, such as anthropology, which had been expunged by Mao as “Western imperialism” came back to China's universities but still under a rigid Marxist approach to history. A relic of an ideology whose time has passed, official history still describes cultures as passing through evolutionary stages of development from hunter gatherers to the pinnacle of civilization, communism. Ethnic minorities are classified at being at varying stages of development, while the majority Han are supposedly the most advanced and therefore deserving of their status as a paternalistic “older brother.”
It is still rare to see minorities ever depicted in China as doctors, lawyers or scientists, for example. In many ways, they remain artifacts. This cultural hierarchy not only managed to salvage some role for Marxism, but also provided a template for cultural tourism.
The theme parks are also big business, a joint venture of Hong Kong's OCT Holdings, which owns Overseas Chinese Town, the neighborhood containing the parks, and China Travel Service (CTS), the state-owned travel agency created to serve overseas Chinese tourists. Every day, busloads of overseas Chinese arrive at the park to see China, the abridged version.
In 2005, the park welcomed its 50 millionth visitor, a Chinese Indonesian. In 1993, a sister park was built in Kissimmee, Florida, near Disney World. It was met with protests by American activists, but that wasn't necessary because the concept did not travel well. Low attendance crumbled the park over the next 10 years. The closed remains, a Splendid China ghost park, are still there.
But in China minority heritage commerce is still booming. Handicrafts, for example, resurged in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, as souvenir shops spread across ethnic minority regions selling musical instruments, clothing, knives, jewelry and art. These products, however, are often garish neon-colored plastic distortions, a Chinese version of the kind of roadside Native American Indian kitsch common in the American west a generation ago.
At the Folk Culture Villages, for instance, a full scale replica mosque stands next to a traditional Uyghur home, but walk inside and you will find it is simply an overblown gift shop, full of glass cases displaying a variety of souvenirs, most of which have nothing to do with Uyghurs or Islam.
The Villages, however, are not simply depictions of minorities as passive objects. They do employ ethnic minorities to portray and, to some degree, interpret their own cultures. The Uyghur song and dance performance is hosted by a young Uyghur man, who playfully teases the audience about their own ignorance.
“Do you remember my name?” he asks. “It's Ali Baba!” he exclaims, but he doesn't mention the forty thieves, perhaps because a common prejudice against Uyghurs is that they are all thieves.
At the Park’s Tibetan monastery, performers similarly joke about their Tibetan names, and then explain the meanings behind them. Mysterious music and deep blue lighting fill the stage as they explain Buddhist meditation with reverence and respect. Tibet and Buddhism have recently experienced renewed popularity in China as an antidote to modern commercialism, much like the similar phenomenon in the West. After the performance, the audience is directed to a gift shop complete with healing crystals and new age CDs.
“It's a job,” says one of the Uyghur performers, Azmet. In fact, he's not Uyghur he's one of some 45,000 Tajiks who live in Xinjiang. He's not bothered that the audience may hold prejudices. “They don't know anything. We are giving them an introduction,” he says. Like many of the other performers, he is a dancer and singer by trade, and has been working at the park for three years. He says employees live outside the park and he enjoys cosmopolitan Shenzhen. Further down a Folk Villages road, two women tend a garden outside a Yi compound. They too live outside the park; the gardening is another performance, this designed to show the lifestyle of the Yi, a minority from Yunnan.
On my second visit to the park, I went again to the Uyghur house, only to find it surrounded by police as the performers rehearsed. An “important foreign leader,” explained another employee who sold donkey-cart rides, was coming to the park, but no one knew who the VIP would be.
After watching the Manchus overthrow the Ming Dynasty again, I passed a golf cart with the names of the mysterious foreign delegates. Lesotho Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili was touring Shenzhen following last month’s China-Africa Summit in Beijing, as had many other African leaders. During the summit, Beijing had been plastered with billboards depicting African savannahs, elephants, and tribespeople dressed in traditional loincloths.
I wondered if, like Deng Xiaoping, he appreciated the beauty of pigtails.
Photos by James Baquet