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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

“Not Just a Style, But a Mission” – China’s Online Hanfu Movement

What started with a 2003 internet sensation grew into a massive movement – Hanfu is booming on Weibo and beyond.

Things That Talk

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It’s been nearly two decades since the Chinese traditional clothing trend named Hanfu 汉服 first became noticeable as a popular social phenomenon in mainland China. Throughout the years, Hanfu has gone from a fashion style to a full-fledged movement that is flourishing on Chinese social media. Koen van der Lijn reports.

 
When objects meet social media, two websites meet as well. This is a collaboration between What’s on Weibo and Things That Talk (follow on Insta @thingsthattalk).
 

This last Christmas, Hanfu was once again a trending topic on Weibo. Enthusiasts of the traditional Chinese clothing trend posed online in their Christmas inspired Chinese clothing.

It was yet another development in the Hanfu Movement, which has been a hot topic with hundreds of hashtags and thousands of pictures, videos, and stories on Weibo, with the official Weibo Hanfu @微博汉服 account boasting a whopping 1.8 million followers and a Weibo ‘supertopic’ on Hanfu being joined by nearly half a million fans.

“You can also wear Hanfu during Christmas,” post and images by @弥秋君 on Weibo.

One example of the manifold of Hanfu content on Weibo is a video recently posted by Chinese actress Xu Jiao (徐娇). In the short video, which is an advertisement by the e-commerce platform RED (小红书), the actress wears Hanfu in various settings while talking about the meaning behind the fashion. Xu Jiao, being 23 years of age, is part of Generation Z (mid-1990s – early 2010s), who are adept users of social media and make up the mass of Hanfu enthusiasts.

Screenshot of video posted by Xu Jiao 徐娇

Though Hanfu enthusiasts seldomly go out on the streets whilst wearing the clothing style,1 Hanfu sales have been increasing a lot over the past few years.2 Possibly linked to the popularity of Chinese costume dramas, many Chinese youth have started to wear Hanfu in the past two decades. However, it is not just a form of cosplay or a new clothing style. As Xu Jiao says herself in the video: “It’s not just a style, it’s a mission.”

 

Background of the Hanfu Movement


 

It was November 2003 when Wang Letian walked the streets of Zhengzhou in Hanfu. News of his action rapidly spread over the internet through websites such as hanminzu.net.3

Besides online discussions, an article was also written about Wang Letian’s bold move in the Singaporean newspaper Lianhe Zaobao 联合早报, helping spread word about the young man’s actions. This moment was seen as the start of the Hanfu Movement.

Wang Letian in the Lianhe Zaobao of November 29, 2003.

Now, roughly twenty years later, the wearing of Hanfu has developed into a true movement, with many young Chinese participating in the wearing of the traditional Chinese dress. Especially on college campuses, the trend is very much alive.

In its most basic idea, the Hanfu Movement can be described as a social movement that supports the wearing of Han Chinese ethnic clothing. The emphasis on the Han ethnicity is of importance here. Han Chinese make up the vast majority of the population in China, accounting for more than 90% of China’s total population. However, aspects famous outside China for being typically Chinese, such as the queue, are actually of Manchu origin.

The Manchus are an ethnic group from Northeastern China, showing cultural similarities to the Mongols, who ruled China’s last dynasty, the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Their clothing style has influenced foreign perceptions of China, due to the fact that the Manchus were the ruling class in the last Chinese imperial dynasty.

Image via https://shop60421556.taobao.com/.

Hence the emphasis on the Han ethnicity. Central to the Hanfu Movement is the idea that ethnic Han clothing, as worn during Han Chinese ruled dynasties, such as the Han dynasty (202BC-220AD), the Tang dynasty (618-907), and the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), has much value in its own and should be worn and appreciated by contemporary Han Chinese, just as the ethnic clothing of China’s minorities is appreciated in contemporary China.4

 

The Mission


 

On 4 December 2020, blogger Mi Qiujun posted a video with the hashtag #How to make the world understand Hanfu?#, (#如何让世界了解汉服#), gaining many likes and comments. Showing clips of herself wearing Hanfu in Egypt, the United States, France, and Japan, she tells how she became determined to make people around the globe understand China’s traditional culture after her clothing being wrongly identified as a Japanese kimono at her first stop in Nepal.

Mi Qiujun discusses an important aspect of the Hanfu movement. Hanfu enthusiasts feel that their ethnic clothing is not understood well enough by others, and showing the rest of the world their clothing is a true mission.

Hanfu enthusiasts have found themselves in online quarrellings about what can be defined as Hanfu, and what cannot be defined as Hanfu. It is worth noting that some scholars have disputed the existence of a uniform Hanfu throughout Chinese history.5 Instead, Hanfu is seen to have been popularised by students through the internet, without strong knowledge of Han Chinese clothing traditions.6 This makes it difficult to assess what does and what does not count as Hanfu.

Online quarrelings have therefore become part of the Hanfu Movement. In November 2020, for instance, Chinese netizens found themselves in an online discussion with their Korean neighbours. That month, Chinese actor Xu Kai (许凯) posted a photo of himself in traditional costume from the set of the Chinese drama titled Royal Feast (尚食), which is set in the Ming Dynasty.

A controversial selfie.

After South Korean web users pointed out that the traditional costume worn by Xu resembled Korean traditional clothing named Hanbok, the drama’s producer Yu Zheng (于正) posted a response on social media in which he firmly stated that this clothing was not Hanbok but Hanfu, adding that Korea was a vassal state of China at the time and that only “uncivilized people” would call it ‘Hanbok.’

 

A Nationalist Movement?


 

These kinds of discussions also show another side of the Hanfu Movement. For some Hanfu enthusiasts, Hanfu is more than a mission to let others understand Han ethnic culture; instead, it is a way to construct a purified Han Chinese identity, free from foreign influence.7

Girl dressed in Hanfu while visiting the Forbidden City. Photo by Manya Koetse.

This foreign influence is often linked back to the Manchus once again. ‘Uncivilised practices’ in contemporary Chinese society are attributed to the Manchus. This rhetoric reinforces the belief of Han supremacy, which has existed long before the invention of the internet, where the ‘civilized’ Han Chinese believe themselves to be superior to the ‘uncivilized’ barbarians, such as the Manchus.

This rise in Han Chinese nationalism started in the past few decades.8 The Hanfu Movement thus has followers who are a part of this new turn, where Han Chinese want to restore the glory of their past and turn away from Western and Manchu influences.9

These hardcore Han nationalists are but a small part of the movement. The Hanfu Movement encompasses a large and diverse group of people, who all share a certain belief that Hanfu should gain more appreciation in China and abroad. These are, for instance, some of the comments under Xu Jiao’s video:

– “(…) Xu Jiao speaks for Hanfu!!” (@怪物与约翰)

– “Do not be afraid to doubt, never forget the original intention, Hanfu is a style, it’s a mission, it’s culture, and it’s an attitude.” (@打翻废纸篓)

– “I am so thankful we have you! I really like your work and your attitude towards Hanfu!” (@小瓦肯Shail)

What connects most Hanfu enthusiasts then? Hanfu enthusiasts take pride in wearing Hanfu, and they wear Hanfu simply because they like wearing it. Moreover, they believe it to be important to make others, both in and outside China, gain a deeper understanding of Han Chinese ethnic culture. Hanfu is more than a fad. It is a subculture, it is a style, and for Xu Jiao and many others, it is their mission.

 
By Koen van der Lijn

Koen van der Lijn (China Studies, BA) is a ResMa student Asian Studies at Leiden University focused on Chinese history and its international relations. He is a student ambassador at Things That Talk.

This story was made in collaboration with ThingsThatTalk.net – exploring humanities through the life of objects. Things That Talk is an educational digital project where staff and students produce narratives and metadata about objects in Leiden collections and beyond. A story focused on the background of the Hanfu Movement and objects associated with this movement has previously been published on Things that Talk, go check it out!
 

Notes (other sources hyperlinked within the article)

1 Buckley, Chris, and Katrina Northrop. 2018. “A Retro Fashion Statement in 1,000-Year-Old Gowns, With Nationalist Fringe.” New York Times, Nov 22 https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/22/world/asia/china-hanfu-gowns-clothing.html [Jan 16 2021].
2 Zhou Xing 周兴. 2020. “Report: Hanfu turnover on Taobao platform exceeded 2 billion yuan in 2019 [报告:2019年淘宝平台上汉服成交金额突破20亿元].” Dianshangbao, August 2 2020 https://www.dsb.cn/124836.html [Jan 16 2021].
3 Cui Chentao 崔晨涛. 2016. “Han Costume Movement and National Culture Rejuvenation [汉服运动“与民族文化复兴的诉求].” Journal of Yunyang Teachers College 36(5): 19-24.
4 Cui Chentao 崔晨涛. 2016. “Han Costume Movement and National Culture Rejuvenation [汉服运动“与民族文化复兴的诉求].” Journal of Yunyang Teachers College 36(5): 19-24.
5 Carrico, Kevin. 2017. The Great Han: Race, Nationalism, and Tradition in China Today. Oakland, California: University of California Press.
6 Zhang Xian 张跣. 2009. “‘Hanfu Movement’: Ethnic Nationalism in the Internet Age [“汉服运动”:互联网时代的种族性民族主义].” Journal of China Youth University for Political Sciences (4): 65-71.
7 Carrico, Kevin. 2017. “Imaginary Communities: Fantasy and Failure in Nationalist Identification,” in The Great Han: Race, Nationalism, and Tradition in China Today, chapter 1. Oakland, California: University of California Press.
8 Dikötter, Frank. 2001. “Nationalist Myth-making: The Construction of the Chinese Race.” Human Rights in China, 27 April https://www.hrichina.org/en/content/4573 [16 Jan 2021].
9 Carrico, Kevin. 2017. “Imaginary Communities: Fantasy and Failure in Nationalist Identification,” in The Great Han: Race, Nationalism, and Tradition in China Today, chapter 1. Oakland, California: University of California Press.

Featured image: Photo by zhang kaiyv on Unsplash

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China Celebs

Angelababy, Huang Xiaoming, Li Fei’er: Love Triangle Rumors From Decade Ago Revisited

Weibo explodes after Angelababy addresses rumors that have been going on for over ten years.

Manya Koetse

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On Wednesday afternoon, Beijing time, Weibo exploded when Chinese celebrity couple Huang Xiaoming and Angelababy addressed some strong rumors about the start of their relationship.

Their posts resulted in various hashtags and search terms going viral, including the phrases “When Angelababy Met Huang Xiaoming, He Said He Was Single” and “Angelababy Was Not My Mistress.” At least three out of today’s top trending Weibo topics are related to Angelababy and Huang Xiaoming.

Angelababy (nickname for Yang Ying 杨颖) is practically a household name in China. The famous actress and model married actor Huang Xiaoming (黄晓明) in 2015, and ever since, their marriage and relationship status is a popular gossip topic on social media. The two have a son together.

With Angelababy having over 100 million fans on her Weibo page (@angelababy) and Huang Xiaoming having over 61 million followers on his (@黄晓明), the two are practically Weibo’s most followed couple. Their $31 million wedding is probably the most-discussed Chinese weddings of the past decade.

Chinese actress Li Fei’er (李菲儿) previously dated Huang Xiaoming after working with him in the 2008 television series Royal Tramp (鹿鼎记). The two are said to have started a relationship in 2007, and to have broken up in 2010 – the same year when Huang got together with Angelababy. The ending of the relationship with Li and the start of the new love affair with Angelababy has been a source of gossip for over a decade.

In a 2011 interview with a Hong Kong magazine, Li had hinted that Angelababy was previously ‘the other woman’ during her relationship with Huang.

The rumors surrounding that alleged love triangle between Angelababy, Li, and Huang reached a new peak this week when Huang Xiaoming and Li Fei’er shared a stage on the super popular reality series Sisters Who Make Waves 2, which features 30 female celebrities over the age of 30. Huang hosts the show.

Apparently, Angelababy felt that the waves of rumors became too strong for her not to speak out. In the late afternoon of January 6, she posted a Weibo post in which she stated that Huang Xiaoming told her he was single when they first met. When Li made ‘groundless’ comments about Angelababy in a magazine interview, she asked Huang about it, and “he told me they had broken up.”

“A decade has passed by. Today, I’ve chosen to stand up for myself and to explain the entire thing clearly. I don’t want to take the blame anymore,” Angelababy writes.

She also added that she felt this is “a matter between Mister Huang and Li Fei’er,” suggesting that Huang is the person who needs to clarify the matter to the public.

Angelababy’s post was followed up by a post by Huang just an hour later, in which he stated the success of the Sister Who Make Waves tv show lies in the values it conveys to respect women, suggesting that the recent flood of rumors is harmful to the show’s central theme, the women participating in it, as well as to his own family.

He further clarifies that Angelababy “was not a mistress,” refuting ongoing rumors about the start of their relationship.

The huge attention for this matter seemed to temporarily put a strain on Weibo’s servers, with the site momentarily showing a notification that its servers were too busy. In 2017, Weibo servers could no longer handle the peak in traffic after Chinese singer ad actor Lu Han announced his new relationship.

Weibo servers were busy after Angelababy posted about the decade-old ‘love triangle’ rumors.

For now, the statements by Angelababy and Huang have only brought about more speculation. The fact that Angelababy refers to her husband as “Mr. Huang” in her post intensifies ongoing rumors that Huang and Angelababy might already be separated.

Meanwhile, Li Fei’er, who has over 11 million followers on her Weibo page (@李菲儿love) has not posted anything about the recent developments. In her last post on January 1st, she wished her followers a happy new year.

By Wednesday night, Beijing time, Angelababy’s post had received over 1,3 million likes and 100,000 comments; Huang’s post got over 850,000 likes, already making this celebrity news one of the most talked-about topics this week.

By Manya Koetse, with contributions from Miranda Barnes

Spotted a mistake or want to add something? Please let us know in comments below or email us. First-time commenters, please be patient – we will have to manually approve your comment before it appears.

©2021 Whatsonweibo. All rights reserved. Do not reproduce our content without permission – you can contact us at info@whatsonweibo.com.

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