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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

Chinese Movie “Sister” Stirs Discussions on Traditional Family Values in China

The movie ‘Sister’ has sparked online discussions on whether or not personal values should be prioritized over traditional family values.

Manya Koetse

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Mainlaind Chinese drama My Sister (我的姐姐, also known as ‘Sister‘) was just released in theatres and is sparking online discussions on family relations and the role of women in China.

After the hit movie Hi, Mom (你好,李焕英) received praise earlier this year for focusing on the role of mothers within Chinese families, this film zooms in on the role of older sisters.

My Sister, directed by Yin Ruoxin (殷若昕), revolves around the story of An Ran, an 18-year-old daughter who is unexpectedly facing the major responsibility for her 6-year-old brother after the tragic loss of their parents. While trying to find her own path in life, she suddenly has to step into the role of caregiver for her younger sibling. But does she want to take on this role?

Actress Zhang Zifeng (张子枫) is playing the main lead in this movie, which touches upon the issue of dealing with traditional family values and personal dreams and ambitions. Sister reveals the difficulties women face within the traditional Chinese-style family structure and the sacrifices they make for their parents, their children, siblings, and their husbands; and how the roles and tasks that are expected of them also clash with their own ideas about happiness and fulfillment.

For An Ran, the relationship with her little brother is troublesome. As a young girl, she had to pretend to be disabled in order to allow her parents to have a second child, preferably a son (under the One Child Policy, families with children with disabilities were allowed to have more children). Now, as a young adult, she once again has to sacrifice her own individual freedom in order to let her brother thrive.

The renowned Chinese sociologist Li Yinhe (李银河) dedicated a lengthy post to the movie on her Weibo account, where she called the film “fascinating” and “thought-provoking.”

Li suggests that multiple social issues play a role in this film. First, there is the conflict between individual-oriented values and traditional family-oriented ethics. While traditional Chinese ideas about family require An Ran to put her brother first and move personal self-fulfillment to the backseat, An Ran is a young woman who grew up in a rapidly modernizing China where women are more empowered and independent. Why should she sacrifice her personal education and career in order to devote herself to raising her brother?

Another social topic that plays a major role in this film is the deep-seated cultural preference for sons over daughters. An Ran literally had to make herself weaker in order for her brother to be brought into this world – and in doing so limiting the possibilities for her future career, – with these patriarchal practices prioritizing the thriving of sons over the happiness of daughters. An Ran’s anger and resistance show that traditional ideas about male superiority clash with modern-day Chinese society, where profound changes within gender relations are already taking place.

“Sisters do not dislike their little brothers,” one Weibo commenter wrote: “What they dislike is the hidden meaning behind their brother.”

Another female blogger responded: “Within my family, from my grandpa’s generation up to myself, it is actually the women who discriminate against women. I think these are deeply rooted ideas that can’t be changed. Look at my second elder aunt; she had seven children, all girls, and only four were left. The others were given away. However, my grandfather has always been good to me, and has never made me feel any less than the boys. Yet my grandma and my mother sometimes make me doubt about my life.”

Under the hashtag “How to Evaluate the Movie My Sister” (#如何评价电影我的姐姐#), which attracted 150 million views on Weibo, many ask the question of what they would do if they were An Ran. Would you take care of your little brother? Or would you leave his care up to other family members and choose your own path in life?

“If it were me, I’d raise my brother. Although it’s actually the parents’ problem, the little brother is innocent.”

“If it were me, I wouldn’t raise him,” another commenter writes: “Although the little brother is innocent, I wouldn’t want to sacrifice my life for him. And it might be a better choice to leave him with other family members than with me.”

These discussions also triggered the hashtag “Should Personal Values Be More Important Than Family Values?” (#个人价值必须高于家庭价值吗#). One top commenter raised the issue of ‘what if this was about a little sister instead of about a little brother,’ again provoking the idea that existing gender roles and the preference over sons play a major part in these discussions.

“These traditions no longer suit this era of a developing society. Let me ask you this question: would the little brother also take care of his sister once she grows old?”

“Personal values should always have priority. If you are not happy yourself, how could you ever take care of your family?”

“I have the perception that the family-oriented concept is deep-rooted. Although there consistently are new values and personal-oriented viewpoints, when it comes to real problems, most people will still be family-oriented.”

One commenter wrote: “What are ‘values’? What is the family in modern-day society? What does it mean to prioritize something? If we don’t first clarify this, the discussion becomes meaningless.”

Meanwhile, all the online discussions on Sister have boosted the film. By now, the movie has already become a box office hit and defeated the American Godzilla vs. Kong.

By Manya Koetse

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

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China Celebs

Female Comedian Yang Li and the Intel Controversy

A decision that backfired: Intel’s act of supposed ‘inclusion’ caused the exclusion of female comedian Yang Li.

Manya Koetse

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“How to look at the boycott of Yang Li?” (#如何看待抵制杨笠#) became a top trending topic on social media site Weibo on Monday after female comedian Yang Li was dismissed as the spokesperson for American tech company Intel over a controversial ad campaign.

On March 18, Intel released an ad on its Weibo account in which Yang says “Intel has a taste [for laptops] that is higher than my taste for men” (“英特尔的眼光太高了,比我挑对象的眼光都高.”)

The ad drew complaints for allegedly insulting men, with some social media users vowing to boycott the tech brand. On Sunday, Intel deleted the ad in question from its social media page and reportedly also removed Yang from her position as their brand ambassador.

The commotion over the ad had more to do with Chinese comedian Yang Li (杨笠) than with the specific lines that were featured in it.

Yang Li is controversial for her jokes mocking men (“men are adorable, but mysterious. After all, they can look so average and yet be so full of confidence“), with some blaming her for being “sexist” and “promoting hatred against all men.”

Since she appeared on the stand-up comedy TV competition Rock and Roast (脱口秀大会) last year, she was nicknamed the the “punchline queen” and became one of the more influential comedians in present-day China. Yang now has nearly 1,5 million fans on Weibo (@-杨笠-).

Yang Li’s bold jokes and sharp way of talking about gender roles and differences between men and women in Chinese society is one of the main reasons she became so famous. Intel surely knew this when asking Yang to be their brand ambassador.

In light of the controversy, the fact that Intel was so quick to remove Yang also triggered criticism. Some (male) netizens felt that Intel, a company that sells laptops, could not be represented by a woman who makes fun of men, while these men are a supposed target audience for Intel products.

But after Yang was removed, many (female) netizens also felt offended, suggesting that in the 21st century, Intel couldn’t possibly believe that their products were mainly intended for men (“以男性用户为主”)? Wasn’t their female customer base just as important?

According to online reports, Intel responded by saying: “We noted that the content [we] spread relating to Yang Li caused controversy, and this is not what we had anticipated. We place great importance on diversity and inclusion. We fully recognize and value the diverse world we live in, and are committed to working with partners from all walks of life to create an inclusive workplace and social environment.”

However, Intel’s decision backfired, as many wondered why having Yang as their brand ambassador would not go hand in hand with ‘promoting an inclusive social environment.’

“Who are you being ‘inclusive’ too? Common ‘confident’ men?”, one person wrote, with others saying: “Why can so many beauty and cosmetic brands be represented by male idols and celebrities? I loathe these double standards.”

“As a Chinese guy, I really think Yang Li is funny. I didn’t realize Chinese men had such a lack of humor!” another Weibo user writes.

There are also people raising the issue of Yang’s position and how people are confusing her performative work with her actual character. One popular law blogger wrote: “Really, boycotting Yang Li is meaningless. Stand-up comedy is a performance, just as the roles people play in a TV drama.”

Just a month ago, another Chinese comedian also came under fire for his work as a brand ambassador for female underwear brand Ubras.

It is extremely common in China for celebrities to be brand ambassadors; virtually every big celebrity is tied to one or more brands. Signing male celebrities to promote female-targeted products is also a popular trend (Li 2020). Apparently, there is still a long way to go when the tables are turned – especially when it is about female celebrities with a sharp tongue.

By Manya Koetse

Li, Xiaomeng. 2020. “How powerful is the female gaze? The implication of using male celebrities for promoting female cosmetics in China.” Global Media and China, Vol.5 (1), p.55-68.

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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