Bizarre Buildings & Ambitious Architecture of Rural China: Here’s Chinese Vlogger ‘Schlieffen’

“Making Hebei great again” is one of his slogans. Schlieffen is China’s first self-proclaimed ‘agritourism’ vlogger, showing Chinese netizens the unexpected sides of Hebei, an “almost invisible” province in Northern China. Anna Wang explains.

It all started in May of 2018 when Schlieffen (@史里芬Shǐlǐfēn) launched his first video titled “World’s Biggest Tortoise” (“世界上最大的王八“), introducing a 1680-square-meter turtle-shaped sports venue at Hebei’s Lake Baiyangdian.

An example of wondrous Hebei architecture (image via https://xw.qq.com).

Ever since that time, Schlieffen has grown out to become a popular Chinese vlogger and blogger who is active on various social media platforms. Focusing on unexpected architecture in lesser-known parts of China, he has a fanbase of thousands of followers, from Weibo to Bilibili.

His fourth video, “A Trip to Hogwarts Hebei” (“霍格沃茨河北分校之旅”) launched him to stardom in his channel’s first month.

The video documents the bizarre architecture of the Hebei Academy of Fine Arts, which has been compared to the ‘Hogwarts’ School of Witchcraft and Wizardry from Harry Potter due to its bizarre castle campus.

The Hebei Academy of Fine Arts is one of the wondrous places Schlieffen introduces in his vlogs. (Image via Twoeggs.com).

Schlieffen’s 4-minute video shows the vlogger’s exploration of the ‘Hogwarts’-like area. After a long drive down a country road, he arrives at the so-called ‘Empire Square’, which is surrounded by three magnificent rococo, Renaissance and Gothic-style buildings.

The center building, adorned with dramatic towers and turrets, is the school’s administration building. Imagine grading student work in a medieval castle in the middle of a cornfield!

Guiding the viewer through the premises, Schlieffen shows the hotel and conference center on the left; the interior is crammed with densely arranged pillars and painted ceilings  – which might be a homage to the Sistine Chapel, without the high ceilings.

The pseudo-European buildings are somewhat laughable on their own, but there’s a lot more. The campus is divided in two halves: one is European-themed, and the other one focuses on ancient China. The two are separated by a manmade “Mediterranean” lake complete with manmade islands covered in artificial palm trees.

Schlieffen’s videos always follow a similar pattern. He often uses a wide-angle lens and speeds up the video to four or even eight times its normal speed, with quick edits – no shot lasts longer than 3 seconds. Each video begins with the vlogger getting off from a train or getting out of a car from where he starts his tour. “Please hold on and sit tight,” is one of his signature phrases.

 

They suddenly seemed to realize that there were parts of China they had no clue about.

 

“A Trip to Hogwarts Hebei” soon started making its rounds on Chinese social media, and was especially shared among well-educated netizens and white-collar workers, who suddenly seemed to realize that there were parts of China they had no clue about.

The Chinese term “shanzhai” (山寨) is a derogatory term for “knock-off goods,” but it literally means “mountain village.” The assumption is that people from rural mountain villages cannot afford real luxury goods, so they buy cheap counterfeits made in poorly run factories. The metropolitan middle class already knew about shanzhai Louis Vuitton bags, but they weren’t aware that hillbillies were capable of building a 288-acre shanzhai Hogwarts.

Schlieffen’s video on the noteworthy Hebei Academy of Fine Arts has currently been viewed over nine million times on Miaopai alone.

After the success of his initial videos, Schlieffen continued filming knock-off world wonders in Hebei. By now, he has made fifty vlogs, including those on wondrous places such as Hebei Jerusalem or Hebei Venice.

‘Hebei Venice’ is one of the spots highlighted in one of Schlieffen’s vlogs. Image via http://blog.sina.com.cn.

Through the course of his vlogging career, Schlieffen expanded his field of interest to include any attraction teetering on the thin line between ambitious and ridiculous.

Whether sharing images and videos on the world’s largest cement elephant or the biggest turtle sculpture, Schlieffen’s posts always attract hundreds of likes. One of his other popular videos explores the somewhat bizarre site of the Baoding Zoo.

 

Hebei is an almost invisible province, as transparent as the air – I used that invisibility to make myself visible.

 

There are not many online influencers focusing on Hebei, a place that is not exactly known for its glamor and charm. At a December 2018 event hosted by Chinese tech news site Huxiu.com, Schlieffen said that “Hebei is an almost invisible province, as transparent as the air – I used that invisibility to make myself visible.”

Hebei, a coastal province in Northern China, contains two municipalities under the direct control of the central government: Beijing and Tianjin. People often say that Beijing and Tianjin are the flavorful ‘fillings of a dumpling’ while Hebei is ‘the plain wrapper.’

Under the current household registration system, being a resident of Beijing or Tianjin means better social welfare than the rest of Hebei. Thus, the ‘brain drain’ from Hebei to the cities has been ongoing for decades.

When people talk about Hebei, they usually describe it as an uneventful place, but Schlieffen’s representation of Hebei completely changes their idea of the region, turning it into a place where people can be wildly ambitious.

Their ambitions can take on two forms: first, they are obsessed with huge, grand buildings. Second, they want to include every aesthetic they can think of, Chinese or European, ancient or contemporary. These ambitions come together in a brazenly unsophisticated form of architecture.

Hotel in Hebei in one of Schlieffen’s videos (天子大酒店).

Schlieffen (1992) was born and raised in Hebei. After college, he went to England for graduate school until 2018.

While he was studying abroad, a new wave of Chinese vloggers launched their careers in mainland China. Many of them, such as the female vlogger Zhuzi (@你好_竹子), were studying abroad in Western countries. They shot and shared short videos of their daily lives, satisfying their audience’s curiosity about life in a strange land.

Schlieffen began to seriously consider vlogging as a career after finishing his studies and returning to his hometown. He found that his prospective audience seemed to have grown tired of watching Chinese exchange students living happy, fashionable lives overseas. As a lover of traveling, he decided to start his own travel vlog.

Schlieffen, image via Sina News.

In an interview with Li Dangxin for Huxiu.com, Schlieffen explains: “You have to ask yourself time and time again why the audience wants to watch your videos.” Careful consideration led him to shoot the bizarre buildings in Hebei.

There are tens of thousands of Hebei natives working in big cities, Schlieffen thought; they care about what’s going on in their hometowns, but they haven’t necessarily seen these incredible buildings in person. They would be his first audience and if they shared his posts, his videos would surely go viral.

Things happened just as Schlieffen expected. Well-educated white-collar workers who had left their hometowns behind were stunned by Schlieffen’s discoveries and collectively reposted his videos with their friends.

 

“Making Hebei great again.”

 

Even after having produced dozens of vlogs and posts, Schlieffen is not worried about running out of stories. After his initial success, he also began covering stories in other provinces.

Schlieffen found that if a village’s richest man happens to be the local party secretary and is also a Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) member, you’re sure to find ridiculous architecture in that village.

These locally powerful people often want to put up monuments and realize impressive structures to build on their legacy. Their power often goes largely unchecked in the various corners of Chinese -more rural- provinces, and their subordinates will not question them – those with the ability to challenge them aesthetically have probably already fled to bigger cities.

One example features in Schlieffen’s video on the Long Wish Hotel International. Boasting an elevation of 328 meters, the hotel is ranked No. 8 in China and No. 15 worldwide in terms of height. It isn’t in densely populated Beijing or Shanghai, but in Huaxi village in Jiangsu province. When asked why one would build such a gigantic hotel in a rural area, the village party secretary answered: “Because we can.”

The gigantic hotel in Jiangxi, image via http://blog.sina.com.cn.

The hotel in Huaxi has nouveau riche written all over it. Every corner is decorated with glittering sculptures made with gold, silver or crystal. There are miniatures of Tiananmen, the White House and Arc De Triomphe in the village. On top of the White House stands a miniature Statue of Liberty.

In reporting on all these wondrous places and buildings, Schlieffen avoids making strong statements about them. Instead, he often makes playful or edgy comments. His slogan “Make Hebei great again” also means different things to different people. Some instantly understand his application of the phrase, while others simply take it literally.

What is noteworthy is that Schlieffen rarely offends locals. He’s welcomed wherever he visits. After he made a video about Wan Jia Li, a hotel/shopping mall in Hunan, the owner supposedly even invited Schlieffen to visit his home, saying: “My home is more fun than my business.”

Being featured in one of Schlieffen’s video can be lucrative for places in Hebei and elsewhere, as these places in rural areas will suddenly see a flux of visitors. Hebei Academy of Fine Arts has even become a popular destination for wedding photos.

Schlieffen is convinced he has found the right perspective from which to observe China’s rapidly changing areas. Meanwhile, his next video is on its way. “Please hold on and sit tight,” Schlieffen says again. Enjoy the ride. 

By Anna Wang

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