Qujiang 曲江: Loved Up on History and Culture
Over the years China Heritage Quarterly has carried a number of articles about China as a theme-park nation (zhuti gongyuan guojia 主体公园国家). Some would observe that the thematisation of landscape through poetic and artistic cliché is something with a venerable tradition. Indeed, today neo-patriotic cultural mavens seem intent on anachronistically reducing the complex variety of the many pasts of China and its eras, dynasties and kingdoms, to the dull palette of the contemporary party-state and its commercial imperatives.
Shaanxi province has provided cultural capital for China for many decades. The location of the imperial capital of Chang'an as well as Yan'an, the birthplace of the socialist culture of the People's Republic, the province has been a site of tourism and veneration since 1949. Its harsh, barren landscape has provided inspiration for some of the earliest and most important works of China's post-1976 new wave cinema, literature and popular music. More recently provincial leaders and businesspeople have calculated on cashing in on the province's imperial past as imperial capital, of the Qin, Han and especially the more recent Tang (particularly popular because of its mix of high court culture with 'foreign' exotica). The advent of the intangible heritage culture industry in recent years has also given towns like Huang Ling 黄陵, home to the tomb of the legendary Yellow Emperor—and an annual national commemoration—a new lease on life (see New Scholarship in this issue).
In 2010, our journal has focussed variously on Tianjin (see Issue 21, March 2010) and Shanghai (Issue 22, June 2010). Taking opportunistic advantage of a recent work-related trip by the novelist Linda Jaivin to Xi'an, Shaanxi province, we have invited her to contribute a piece on the Qujiang New District in Xi'an, the site of one of the country's most ambitious hyper-heritage developments in recent years.[Fig.1]—The Editor
Xi'an has a project: to transform itself into an 'international' city and the cultural hub of China's northwest. As Duan Xiannian 段先念, the deputy mayor of the city, put it, '不靠边，不靠海，那就靠文化' (bu kao bian, bu kao hai, na jiu kao wenhua, 'since we're not on the border and not on the sea, we'll rely on culture'). The suburban Qujiang New District 西安曲江新区 is the hub of the hub: a 'National Cultural Display Zone' (Guojiaji wenhua chanye shifanqu 国家级文化产业示范区) that, when completed over the next decade, will occupy some forty-seven square kilometres and combine residential zones with a diverse range of cultural, tourism and leisure facilities. The goal is to make Qujiang western China's 'Number One Cultural Brand'. The governments of Xi'an, Shaanxi Province and the nearby cities of Yan'an 延安 and Yulin 榆林 are investing some twenty billion yuan to make it happen.
Fig.1 Advertisements for the Great Tang Dynasty Sleepless City (Datang Buyecheng 大唐不夜城) and Daming Palace National Heritage Park (Da Minggong Guojia Yizhi Gongyuan 大明宫国家遗址公园) at Xianyang Aiport 咸阳机场, outside Xi'an. Photograph: GRB
When Xi'an was the imperial capital Chang'an 长安, Qujiang, approximately ten kilometres southeast of the city centre and now just beyond the Second Ring Road, had been the location of imperial lakes and gardens. The most famous of its historical sites is the seven-story Great Wild Goose Pagoda (Da Yan Ta 大雁塔), that in its original five-story form dates back to 652CE and the Tang Dynasty monk Xuanzang's 玄奘 return from India with Buddhist scriptures.[Fig.2] Hazy impressions from my first trip to Xi'an in the early 1980s include a vision of the Great Wild Goose Pagoda rising out from rural land far from the city. Today, the Great Wild Goose Pagoda overlooks wide, landscaped streets and bustling construction as the New District around it confidently wills itself to completion.
The Great Tang Da Ci'en Temple Ruins Park (Tang Da Ci'en Si Yizhi Gongyuan 唐大慈恩寺遗址公园) by the pagoda is archetypal Qujiang in the way it blends attention to history, culture, leisure, environment and consumption with a fair dose of public sculpture and a faint whiff of theme park. The attractively wooded and landscaped park, to which entry is free, is divided into sections, each with its own theme: Buddhism, Shaanxi folk customs and so on. It features a tiered fountain that claims to be the largest in Asia and which springs into life every noon and night (more often on weekends and holidays), multiple jets spurting and falling in time with a recorded musical program of nationalistic, folkloristic and foreign tunes.[Fig.3] A small crafts mart sells mainly mass-produced souvenirs; more inspired, for my money, and he got a bit of that, was the jolly storyteller who was operating an old-fashioned mobile peep show on the day I visited.
The Qujiang concept of culture is a fairly broad one. It embraces such ventures as Tang Paradise (Da Tang Furong Yuan 大唐芙蓉园), in which a retro-engineered Tang-era Chang'an is recycled into an all-singing, all-dancing, all-poetry-reciting entertainment theme park, in which the walkways are scented by giant incense burners and newly-constructed pavilions loosely reference various Tang architectural styles. Its evening show involving fountains, lasers and film projected onto a screen of water attract thousands of visitors nightly. With its cheerful embrace of anachronism and stylisation, Tang Paradise is culture as jazzed-up spectacle.
Fig.2 The Great Goose Pagoda in the embrace of faux-Tang architecture, Xi'an. Photograph: GRB
The Zhenguan Cultural Plaza or, to give it its full title: Qujiang New District Great Wild Goose Pagoda South Street Central Great Tang Dynasty Sleepless City Zhenguan Cultural Plaza (Qujiang xinqu Yan Ta nanlu zhongduan Datang Buyecheng Zhenguan Wenhua Guangchang 曲江新区雁塔南路中段大唐不夜城贞观文化广场), which is opening in stages, and will feature a variety of museums, galleries, cinemas, theatres and even a 'Shaanxi Literary Hall' (Shaanxi Wenxueguan 陕西文学馆), focuses on a different, more contemporary definition of urban culture. When I visited, the Xi'an Concert Hall, which seats 1300, had just opened; its state-of-the-art design and acoustics is similar to the Beijing's National Centre for the Performing Arts, albeit on a slightly smaller scale.
Qujiang also aims to become a centre for the production of culture. There is a Qujiang Film and Television Investment (Group) Ltd, performing arts organisations and other ventures including a Daoist study and prayer centre (Xi'an Louguan Chinese Daoism Cultural Exhibition Zone, or 西安楼观中国道文化展示区).
But if new hotels and convention centres highlight the importance of tourism to Qujiang, it is also intended to be a residential centre. Driving into Qujiang from the airport, one passes kilometre after kilometre of nearly completed high-rise apartments.
Deputy-mayor Duan directs the administrative committee that runs Qujiang. He is ubiquitous in the media, shaking hands with visiting dignitaries here, opening another facility there, being interviewed by newspapers and magazines including the slick flagship Qujiang magazine that featured the quote cited above in its June 2010 issue.
Fig.3 Synchronized water works at Tang Paradise (Da Tang Furong Yuan 大唐芙蓉园), Xi'an. Photograph: Linda Jaivin
One afternoon I visited the Qujiang-administered Daming Palace National Heritage Park (Da Minggong Guojia Yizhi Gongyuan 大明宫国家遗址公园) in the city's northeast. The heritage park, which will be approximately the size of Central Park in New York when it is completed, is being constructed on the site of a magnificent Tang palace complex that burned down in the ninth century; it is an active archaeological site as well as a place where people can avowedly come to learn about Tang imperial history and culture. The park's first-stage opening had only been days before. And there just before us in the queue for the complex's IMAX theatre was the unmistakeable stocky and dynamic figure in white shirtsleeves, deputy-mayor Duan himself, leading a delegation of VIPs.
Their group was given exclusive access to the upstairs seating area of the IMAX theatre; the polite and somewhat apologetic attendants asked us peasants to either wait for the next session or stand or sit on the floor of the half-opened viewing area below. We sat: everything there was so new that even the carpet was clean enough to sit on.
Some actual peasants have fared less well—in China, nothing's built on nothing: large-scale construction inevitably entails large-scale destruction, or at least land acquisition on a massive scale. Fifteen villages have been obliterated in order for the Qujiang New District to come into being. That has meant the displacement of tens of thousands of people; it's not over yet, for more blocks will come under the bulldozer when the Daming Heritage Park moves into its next stage of construction and expansion. Unsurprisingly, there are reports of resulting disputes over compensation, emotional distress and financial stress of the sort that has occurred everywhere in China where the inexorable wheels of development have rolled over or just rolled the poor and disadvantaged.
Fig.4 Site of Mao Zedong's 1942 Yan'an Talks, Yan'an, Shaanxi. Photograph: GRB
Some seven decades ago and approximately 360 kilometres north of Qujiang in what was then the Red Army redoubt of Yan'an, Mao delivered his famous, and devastatingly influential, 1942 Yan'an Talks on Art and Literature (Zai Yan'an wenyi zuotanhuishangde jianghua 在延安文艺座谈会上的讲话 ).[Fig.4] He declared all cultural production under socialism would henceforth serve the purposes of revolution and the workers, peasants and soldiers who were part of its progressive vanguard. China's cultural compass may have spun away from Yan'an's magnetic north some time ago. But there is still ideological purpose in the Qujiang cultural project.
The buzzword in Qujiang is GCP: Gross Cultural Product, or Guonei wenhua zongzhi 国内文化总值. That same June issue of Qujiang magazine ran an editorial essay titled 'City—一座城市的GCP解构'. People come to the city with their 'urban dreams', the writers explained. Yet while availing themselves of a 'contemporary lifestyle' and chasing the economic opportunities offered by the city, they may also experience frustration and anxiety. Such problems, the essay argued, render GDP or GNP inadequate measures by which to evaluate 'the standard of urbanisation'. The benefits of stressing and developing a city's GCP, they say, are myriad ('N 种'). They include 'spiritual satisfaction', balanced urban development, new paths by which to develop the economy and, crucially, 'the possibility of eliminating the psychological barriers and antagonism between people of different economic strata (jieceng 阶层) and even social conflict.' The importance of promoting social harmony (hexie 和谐) alongside economic development is the main message here, as elsewhere in China today. If Mao wanted everyone to drink his brand of Koolaid, now the drug du jour tends to have the effect of Prozac.
Or perhaps, as Chen Guanzhong (Chan Koon-chung) suggests in In an Age of Prosperity: China 2013, Ecstasy. After all, Qujiang's attractions include the most literally loved-up park in China. Love Park (Aiqing gongyuan 爱情公园) is inspired by the legend of Wang Baochuan 王宝钏, the daughter of a good family who defied her family to marry a beggar and then is said to have waited in a 'wretched cave dwelling' (han yao 寒窑) eighteen faithful years for his return. The story has inspired a plethora of traditional operas as well as Hsiung Shih-I's 1935 West End hit Lady Precious Stream. And now it has its own theme park celebrating famous love stories, wedding rituals, 'love tourism, love consumption, love memory, love education, and so on'. Or as the China Daily put it, 'The capital of Northwest China's Shaanxi Province is creating an amorous environment with country's first theme park of love.' The fact that historians may be less convinced than tourist operators that the cave next to which Love Park was established is the exact cave of legend doesn't seem to matter an awful lot.
Fig.5 Lake at Tang Paradise. Photograph: Linda Jaivin
Much of Qujiang is a bit like that—a kind of cleaned-up, booster-ish, she'll-be-right, approximate/'差不多' version of Chinese history and culture. You may be able to piece together shattered virtual artefacts using your finger and a laser beam in the small but well-formed and highly interactive archaeology centre at the Daming Palace National Heritage Park. You'd be harder-pressed to put together a shards-and-all picture of the Tang's fascinating, complex, and occasionally blood-soaked history from any of Qujiang's many historical sites, reconstructions and theme parks.[Fig.5]
Take for example the riveting story of Empress Wu Zetian 武则天 (624-705), the only woman ever to rule China in her own right and a highly controversial figure to this day. Or consider the dramatic and violent tale of the Ganlu Incident (Ganlu shibian 甘露事变) of 835, when the Tang Wenzong Emperor plotted against the powerful eunuch cliques who were running his court and they plotted back, resulting in outright battle and slaughter in the palace itself. These are but two of the many gripping historical episodes that unfolded on the site of the Daming Heritage Park. I wondered what would be the subject of the films shown in the park's well-equipped theatres.
The IMAX film turned out to be a snoozy if vertiginous survey of famous sites of Shaanxi shot from the air. In another cinema, we saw the dramatisation of an ersatz legend about a romance between a dashing, dancing Central Asian emissary to the Tang court and a bosomy Tang princess. Reflecting that royal cleavage was far more effectively served than imperial history by this 3-D production, I pondered the paradox that is the ambient eagerness to simultaneously exploit and evade the richness that is the historical heritage of Chang'an, Xi'an—and Qujiang.
Related material from China Heritage Quarterly:
 Qujiang 曲江, 2010:6, p.18.
 Zhenguan 贞观 was the reign title of Li Shimin 李世民 (r.627-49), the second emperor of the Tang Dynasty and one credited with ushering in a golden age of prosperity and cultural efflorescence.
 See, for example: http://www.chinarealestatenews.com/news/2010-09-04/14812/
 'The GCP structure of a City' (City—yizuo chengshide GCP jiegou), Qujiang, 2010:6, pp.16-17.
 See the author's review, 'Yawning Heights: Chan Koon-chung's Harmonious China', in China Heritage Quarterly, No.22 (June 2010), at: http://www.chinaheritagequarterly.org/articles.php?searchterm=022_golden.inc&issue=022