Kawaii Dolls & Digital Tools: How The Forbidden City Caters to Modern Audiences

The century-old Forbidden City is finding new ways to cater to younger, tech-savvy audiences. From its online ‘kawaii’ dolls to interactive apps, Beijing’s Palace Museum is using e-commerce and digital tools to keep up with China’s fast-moving trends while preserving its traditional culture.

Over the recent years, the 6 century-old Forbidden City, that houses the Palace Museum, has started to make the traditional trendy again by focusing on e-commerce, creative design, and tech tools.

The Forbidden City, the former Chinese imperial palace in the center of Beijing, was constructed from 1402 to 1420. It was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987 for its grand architecture and embodiment of traditional Chinese culture.

In the modern age of internet and technology, the Forbidden City faces the same challenges as many museums around the world: how to close the gap between the distant history and tradition of the museum, and the modern, tech-savvy people visiting it?

The Forbidden City’s answer to this challenge lies in its use of digital tools and creative products. Especially the Forbidden City museum products, promoted on Chinese e-commerce platform Taobao or Apple’s app store, have become popular amongst a younger audience.

The core idea of these creative products is to “root in traditional culture and bind with popular culture”. By the end of 2015, the Forbidden City had already developed over 8600 different trendy products.

‘Taobao Forbidden City’

In 2010, the Palace museum opened an online shop on China’s biggest e-commerce site Taobao. Called Taobao Forbidden City (故宫淘宝), the e-commerce shop goes beyond the traditional museum souvenir shop and offers a wide variety of innovative products. The online museum shop annually sells thousands of items and is given a good rating by 99.51% of the buyers.

Key to the success of the online museum shop is how it combines popular design and modern functionality in its products.

One of the most popular items of the shop is the Forbidden City Doll (故宫娃娃). The dolls represent Chinese historical figures, with a ‘kawaii’ design. This concept of ‘cuteness’ comes from Japanese pop culture and has also become popular in China.

With big round heads, chubby rosy cheeks and small beady eyes, these dolls are supposed to typify former residents of the Forbidden City during the Qing Dynasty. They are emperors, empresses , guards, officers and soldiers – wearing the traditional clothing of their time.

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Dolls sold at the Taobao Forbidden City e-shop.

Apart from just being decorative, the cute figures also have useful functions. They can, for example, serve as phone holders or picture clippers.

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The items sold on the Palace Museum’s Taobao shop are all daily products with a touch of Chinese traditional culture. Other popular items sold at the online museum shop include stationary tape decorated with emperor Qian Long’s handwriting or historical figure keychains.

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The shop also plays around with the concept of Chinese online memes by photoshopping traditional paintings, such as that of Emperor Yongzheng, making these historical figures smile or adding popular hand gestures (see image below of the Taobao shop of the Forbidden City).

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Besides selling creative products on their online shop, the Forbidden City is also going digital in other ways.

Forbidden City on the App Store

The Forbidden City (aka Palace Museum) has launched a series of apps on the on the Apple App Store since 2013. Some of these apps digitize the museum’s collections.

The Twelve Beauties App, the first app developed by the museum’s app development team, revolves around the screen painting set ‘The Twelve Beauties’ by Emperor Yongzheng, so that users can view them in detail on their mobile devices. The app received recognition as an outstanding app by “App Store 2013”.

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Image: from the Forbidden City app Twelve Beauties by Emperor Yongzheng.

A newer app, the Palace Museum Ceramic App (故宫陶瓷馆), allows users to see the museum’s ceramic vase collection from their iPhone or iPad. The 2016 app ‘Everyday Palace’ (每日故宫) highlights a different item from the museum collection every day and explains its history and details to the app users.

The Palace Museum official apps have generally been well received, with average App Store ratings between 4.5 and 5 stars. Especially the app developed for children receives high ratings. In ‘One Day in the Life of an Emperor’ (皇帝的一天), children learn all about the Forbidden City by playing various games around the digitalized city.

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Users can play games while learning about the Palace Museum in this app.

The Forbidden City also uses technology in another way to enhance visitor experience – also for those who cannot come to the actual museum.

As early as 2003, it published its first virtual reality DVD, titled “Forbidden City: Palace of the Son of Heaven (紫禁城-天子的宫殿)”, that allowed people to virtually explore the Taihe Palace (太和殿), the very first palace at the entrance of Forbidden city, from every perspective.

This September, the Forbidden City and Fenghuang TV signed a strategic contract to use augmented reality (AR) in presenting its collections. AR technology makes it possible for audiences to experience artworks multidimensionally. It can, for example, bring paintings to life via a smartphone camera, or it can show 3D holograms that can answer questions from visitors to make museums more interactive.

One important project incorporated in the contract is a lively presentation of Along the River During the Qingming Festival (清明上河图), a 5-metre long painting that depicts urban life in the capital of North Song Dynasty (960-1127).

600-Year-Old ‘Grandpa’ Catches up with Time

The attempts of the 600-year-old Forbidden City to catch up with time seems to be paying off. According to Xinhuanet, the museum’s creative products earned a staggering 1 billion RMB (±150 M US$) revenue for the Palace Museum in 2015.

Chinese netizens seem to appreciate the efforts of the Palace Museum to become more modern. A much talked-about topic on Chinese social media, the Palace Museum has become a new “internet celebrity” (网红 – an online hit). Under Taobao Forbidden City’s Sina Weibo account, netizens lovingly address the Forbidden City with the cute nickname “gong gong” (from Chinese word “宫”, gong, meaning palace).The official Weibo account of the Palace Museum now has over 2.1 million followers (@故宫博物院).

The Palace Museum is not the only museum or historical tourist site that is exploring new technologies to promote its collection and appeal to modern audiences. The Longquan Temple (龙泉寺) in Beijing, for example, made headlines earlier this year with the launch of its robot monk Xian’er, a chubby boy monk that can answer questions about Buddhism to tourists who visit the temple.

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Through its recent uses of digital tools and trendy design, the Forbidden City is transforming its distant and serious image to one that is more approachable and new-fashioned.

“Now I feel like I really know the Forbidden City”, one netizen writes.

-By Diandian Guo, edited by Manya Koetse

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Author

About the author: Diandian Guo is a China-born Master student of transdisciplinary and global society, politics & culture at the University of Groningen with a special interest for new media in China. She has a BA in International Relations from Beijing Foreign Language University, and is specialised in China's cultural memory.

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