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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.

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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

©2016 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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 specialized in China's cultural memory.

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China Arts & Entertainment

Wandering Earth 2 Production Costs: Why Director Frant Gwo is Nicknamed ‘Master in Begging for Alms’

Contributing to the Wandering Earth 2 production without getting paid? It’s “powering up Chinese sci-fi with love.”

Wendy Huang

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Wandering Earth director Frant Gwo (Guo Fan) is also nicknamed the ‘Master in Begging for Alms’ (化缘大师) on social media. His efforts to convince actors and companies to contribute to the movie has kept production costs relatively low.

With the sci-fi blockbuster The Wandering Earth II, directed by Guo Fan (郭帆 aka Frant Gwo) taking center stage during this Spring Festival movie season, there have been many social media discussions about the film and how it has been reviewed (read here), as well as about the production of the film, or more particularly, about the total production costs for this film.

Based on a story written by Liu Cixin, author of the award-winning sci-fi novel The Three-Body Problem, The Wandering Earth II is the prequel to the 2019 blockbuster hit The Wandering Earth, China’s all-time highest-grossing sci-fi film and the fifth highest-grossing non-English film of all time.

It is reported that the production investment costs for The Wandering Earth II reached approximately 600 million yuan ($88.5 million). Compared to the production budget of American sci-fi hit films such as Interstellar ($165 million) or Inception ($160 million), Chinese audiences had expected The Wandering Earth II to have much higher production costs than the reported budget, especially considering the spectacular scenes featured in the film.

The relatively lower production costs sparked discussions on Chinese social media, where the hashtag “Guo Fan – the Master in Begging for Alms” (#郭帆 化缘大师#) went trending, gaining in popularity as multiple insiders shared more stories about the production of the movie.

The hashtag, which suggests that Director Guo is a ‘Fundraising Master’ for keeping production costs low, has received over 70 million views at the time of writing. The Chinese 化缘 huàyuán means to raise funds for something or to ‘beg alms’ (like Buddhist monks or Taoist priests do).

Guo’s strict budget control already became a hot topic after the 2019 release of The Wandering Earth. One of the most famous stories is that of the movie’s main star Wu Jing (吴京), as he allegedly began as a guest celebrity and ended up as the leading actor without getting paid, while investing approximately 60 million yuan ($8.85 million) in the film’s production.

A female presenter recently also shared her story on Weibo about her free participation in the production of The Wandering Earth in 2019, which apparently showed the film’s tight production budget. In her post, she wrote: “They didn’t fool me, instead, they just told me directly that I wouldn’t get paid.” Considering the rare opportunity to act in a Chinese sci-fi production, she went to the set at her own expense and filmed scenes, including outdoor scenes in the snow and freezing cold, only to end up being featured less than a second in the finished film. Nonetheless, she said she was still proud to be a part of the landmark Chinese sci-fi film.

Perhaps the idea of taking part in a groundbreaking Chinese science fiction film has made many individuals, companies, and organizations willing to work with Guo’s team, even if no additional compensation or payment was provided.

XCMG Machinery (Xuzhou Construction Machinery Group Co, Ltd), China’s premier company in industrial design, is also one of these companies. The company set up a team of a total of 319 XCMG staff members to support the project and provided a wide range of operational and transformable machinery equipment for the UEG (United Earth Government) in the film. They called this “powering up Chinese Sci-fi with love.”

Chinese netizens already nicknamed Wandering Earth (流浪地球) “Little Broken Ball” (小破球) back in 2019. The “Ball” refers to the Earth – the second character (球) of Earth in Chinese (地球) literally means ball. It was the director himself who initially referred to his film this way, and this nickname was then popularized among netizens to describe how the Earth is in crisis in the film, but it also refers to how difficult it was for Guo to produce the film.

The fact that Guo managed to produce Wandering Earth II with a relatively limited budget compared to other big international sci-fi movies has instilled some pride among netizens. One popular blogger (@秦祎墨) suggested the actual production value of the movie went far beyond the quoted $88.5 million thanks to the collective spirit of Chinese companies who did all they could to turn this film into a mega hit.

Others praised Guo for being able to get so many people and companies involved, claiming that if it wasn’t for him, the movie would have ended up costing at least twice as much.

Some are already looking forward to a potential Wandering Earth III, saying that the ‘Little Broken Ball’ series has already managed to gather such a strong team of companies, technical support, post-production innovation and experts, that the ‘Wandering Earth universe’ should not stop after two films.

Reflecting on being nicknamed the ‘Master of Begging for Alms,’ director Guo himself reportedly expressed his gratitude toward everyone who worked on the film who was “tricked” by him, saying it is their generosity that eventually made the production of The Wandering Earth II possible.

By Wendy Huang, with contributions by Manya Koetse

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China Arts & Entertainment

Chinese Social Media Reactions to The New York Times Bad Review of ‘Wandering Earth 2’

A New York Times bad review of ‘Wandering Earth II’ has triggered online discussions: “China’s gonna save the world, the US can’t stand it.”

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This Chinese Spring Festival, it’s all about going to the movies. After sluggish years for China’s movie market during the pandemic, Chinese cinemas welcomed millions of visitors back to the theaters during the weeklong Spring Festival holiday.

Much-anticipated new movies attracted Chinese moviegoers this festive season, including Full River Red by Zhang Yimou, the suspenseful Hidden Blade, or the animated Deep Sea by Tian Xiaopeng.

But the undisputed Spring Festival box office champion of 2023 is Frant Gwo’s Wandering Earth II (流浪地球II), the sequel to China’s all-time highest-grossing sci-fi epic Wandering Earth (2019), which also became the fifth highest-grossing non-English film of all time.

The narrative of the follow-up movie Wandering Earth II actually takes place before the events of the first film and focuses on the efforts by the United Earth Government (UEG) to propel the Earth out of the solar system to avoid planetary disaster. This so-called Moving Mountain Project – which later becomes the Wandering Earth Project – is not just met with protest (the majority of Americans don’t believe in it), it also bans the Digital Life Project, which supports the idea that the future of humanity can be saved by preserving human consciousness on computers (backed by an American majority). The film is all about hope and resilience, human destiny, and geopolitics at a time of apocalyptic chaos.

Outside of China, the sequel was also released in, among others, North American, Australian, and UK cinemas.

Although the film, featuring movie stars Wu Jing and Andy Lau, received an 8.2 on the Chinese rating & review platform Douban, a 9.4 on movie ticketing app Maoyan, dozens of positive reviews on Bilibili, and was overall very well-received among Chinese viewers, a bad review by The New York Times triggered discussions on Chinese social media this weekend.

Chinese media outlet The Observer (观察者网) initiated a Weibo hashtag about “The New York Times‘s completely sour review of Wandering Earth II” (#纽约时报酸味拉满差评流浪地球2#, 6.2 million views at time of writing).

The New York Times review of Wandering Earth II, titled “The Wandering Earth II Review: It Wanders Too Far,” was written by Brandon Yu and published in print on January 27, 2023.

Yu does not have a lot of good things to say about China’s latest blockbuster. Although he calls the 2019 The Wandering Earth “entertaining enough,” he writes that the sequel is a movie that is “audaciously messy” and has lost “all of the glee” its predecessor had:

“(..) the movie instead offers nearly three hours of convoluted storylines, undercooked themes and a tangle of confused, glaringly state-approved political subtext.”

The topic was discussed on Chinese social media using various hashtags, including “The New York Times Gave Wandering Earth II a 3″ (#纽约时报给流浪地球打30分#, #纽约时报给流浪地球2打30分#).

Instead of triggering anger, the bad review actually instilled a sense of pride among many Chinese, who argued that the review showed the impact the movie has made. Some commenters pointed out that the movie is a new milestone in Chinese cinema, not just threatening America’s domination of the movie industry but also setting a narrative in which China leads the way.

“We’re gonna save the world, and America just can’t stand it,” one commenter replied.

That same view was also reiterated by other bloggers. The author and history blogger Zhang Yi’an (@张忆安-龙战于野) argued that The New York Times review was not necessarily bad; it actually shows that Americans feel threatened by the idea of China’s important role in a new international world order, and by the fact that China actually will have the capacity to lead the way when it comes to, for example, space technology innovation, robotics, and artificial intelligence.

Zhang argues that if a similar movie had been made by India as a Bollywood blockbuster – including exploding suns and wandering earths – The New York Times would have been more forgiving and might have even called it cute or silly.

But because this is China, the film’s success and its narrative plays into existing fears over China’s rise, and it clashes with American values about what the international community should look like.

Zhang writes: “The China in the movie doesn’t boast itself as the savior of the world, but in reality, China really is capable of saving the world. The United States is no longer able to do so (电影里的中国没有把自己吹嘘成救世主,现实中的中国真的有能力做救世主。而美国却已经不能了).”

One popular Film & TV account (@影视综艺君) also summarized the general online reaction to the bad review in the American newspaper: “Whenever the enemy gets scared, it must mean we’re doing it right. Our cultural export has succeeded.” That post received over 120,000 likes.

On Zhihu.com, some commenters also attached little value to the review and showed how the overseas reviews of Wandering Earth II widely varied in their verdict.

Meanwhile, a state media-initiated hashtag on Weibo claimed on January 28 that Wandering Earth II has actually “captured the hearts of many overseas audiences” (#流浪地球2海外上映获好评#), and that the film’s “imaginative” and “wonderful” visuals combined with its strong storyline were being praised by moviegoers outside of China.

On IMDB, the movie has received 5.9/10; it has gotten a 70% Rotten Tomatoes score. The Guardian gave it 2/5. Meanwhile, on Weibo, one reviewer after the other gives the film 5/5 stars.

Weibo blogger Lang Yanzhi (@郎言志) writes: “Recently, we’ve seen a lot of attacks and slander directed at the China-made science fiction movie Wandering Earth 2, especially coming from Western media and pro-Western forces, because the film’s “Chinese salvation” narrative made them uncomfortable. This was already the case when the first film in the series was released. It is very clear that Wandering Earth is not just a movie: it is a symbol of great influence.”

By Manya Koetse , with contributions by Zilan Qian

 

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