Published: 09:52, September 26, 2023 | Updated: 17:03, September 26, 2023
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Theme parks rise to cultural challenge
By ​Yang Ran and Zhao Ruinan

Venues nationwide strive to attract audiences with Chinese icons 

The Journey to the West Theme Park in Huai'an, Jiangsu province, integrates intellectual properties such as the Monkey King with the theme park industry. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Sui Guoxing, 21, a student in Changchun, the capital of Jilin province, recently spent an evening visiting the city's Zoological and Botanical Garden, where she met staff members dressed as characters from Chinese folklore.

For example, she encountered the Monkey King from the classic work Journey to the West and Hua Mulan, a legendary heroine from the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-581).

"It was like being in the television series Journey to the West. The characters we met were just like those in the show, especially the fairies, who were exceptionally beautiful," said Sui, who is studying civil engineering at Jilin Jianzhu University.

This summer, the garden's managers went beyond their remit of being responsible for the plants, flowers and animals at the venue, and came up with the idea of giving it the feel of a theme park in the evenings.

During her visit, Sui watched a number of parades and performances based on themes from Journey to the West, one of China's most popular literary works.

"When we walked to see one parade, the entire pathway was filled with dry ice, creating a kind of dream world. It was overwhelming," Sui said.

"I really love the Monkey King, who was portrayed exceptionally well. The performances included the Monkey King using his magic staff, which bears the poetic name At-will Golden Banded Staff."

Visitors view a lighting show at the Journey to the West Theme Park in July. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Journey to the West, written during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) by Wu Cheng'en, depicts the pilgrimage of a monk and his three disciples, including the Monkey King.

In 1986, the TV adaptation of Journey to the West, which has had an enduring impact on millions, was a hugely popular series with audiences of all ages.

As a result, it is no surprise that the Changchun Zoological and Botanical Garden's initiative has rekindled childhood memories for many Chinese and is attracting visitors from across the country.

Short videos and posts featuring the park quickly began appearing on the internet, prompting many netizens to ask why, when it comes to theme parks, Chinese traditional culture and iconography seems to be largely absent. One poster on a social media site stated: "We should build a Journey to the West theme park in each of the top 10 cities in China. It would obviously be more fun than Disney."

International theme parks — think Disneyland and Universal Studios — occupy an inordinately large space in China, but no park of national significance has been based on traditional Chinese iconography.

Sui said the Journey to the West show in Changchun bore strong Western overtones, such as Disneyesque parades and character performances.

"After my visit, I now really want to explore Shanghai Disneyland," she said.

A dancer performs at a district in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, themed on the Chinese novel The Longest Day in Chang'an. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

Millions welcomed

Western influence is clearly evident in the theme park world, as Shanghai Disneyland attracts nearly 1 million more visitors annually than China's most popular non-Western theme park, Chimelong Ocean Kingdom, a marine-life venue in Zhuhai, Guangdong province, according to data from 2022-22 collected by a report.

In April, the Shanghai International Tourism Resort, home to Shanghai Disneyland, said it had welcomed more than 113 million visitors and earned revenue of over 61.5 billion yuan ($8.46 billion) since it opened seven years ago.

The only theme park in China to rival Shanghai Disneyland in terms of attendance is Universal Beijing Resort, which opened in 2021 to an overwhelming response despite the COVID-19 pandemic, with nearly 30,000 people flocking to the venue on its opening day.

This raises the question of why such parks in China with local themes appear to find it impossible to match the likes of Disneyland and Universal Studios.

Zhang Zheng, deputy dean of Tsinghua University's School of Journalism and Communication, said one reason is that the cultural intellectual properties, or IPs, which include hit movies, books and characters, these international parks rely on, have long been well-received and loved by China's main consumer groups.

Amanda Wu, 30, who works in Beijing as an analyst, said she visited Universal Beijing Resort twice in the past six months, and is planning a third trip. She said she bought the tickets because of the iconic IPs the venue boasts.

"I was born in the 1990s and grew up with movies such as the Harry Potter and Transformers series. When my family visited me, we thought it would be fun to go to Universal Beijing Resort, where we could experience such world-class IPs without leaving the country," Wu said.

Visitors watch a portrayal of life in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907) at a district in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, themed on the Chinese novel The Longest Day in Chang'an. (PHOTO / XINHUA)

Sui, the Changchun student, said she is drawn to Shanghai Disneyland and Universal Beijing Resort because she enjoys animated Disney movies and is familiar with the characters featured at these venues.

If an iconic cultural IP is the key to success for international theme parks, then China certainly has an abundance of beloved cultural icons. China can draw on classic works such as Journey to the West and Dream of the Red Chamber, an 18th-century novel written by Cao Xueqin, for its theme parks, and the recent Netflix adaptation of Journey to the West and the popular Disney movie Mulan underline the international recognition of Chinese classics.

The fact that China lacks a national theme park based on these traditional icons is not for want of trying. A report in the weekly magazine China Newsweek said the country once boasted more than 400 theme parks based on stories from Journey to the West, but most of them have closed after failing to attract enough visitors.

Zhang said, "One big problem in building traditional Chinese theme parks is that they are based on adaptions of well-known literary works, which may not be able to support the core story needed to establish such a park."

Journey to the West is now a public intellectual property, meaning that anyone can create cultural products based on the story without having to pay royalties. However, Zhang said the fact that the original story was extremely popular does not necessarily mean that any spin-off will be equally as successful.

"Products based on secondary creations usually draw smaller audiences. Attractions such as Shanghai Disneyland and Universal Beijing Resort essentially rely on their original IPs to attract visitors. If a park is based on secondary interpretations of well-known IPs, it lacks a core story to build its theme, and I think this is why it is difficult to develop theme parks based on traditional Chinese iconography represented by Journey to the West," Zhang added.

Performers dressed as characters from Journey to the West pose at Changchun Zoological and Botanical Garden, Jilin province. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Nostalgic audiences

Han Shunfa, a professor at Nanjing Normal University's School of Journalism and Communication, said the popularity of entertainment related to Journey to the West is due to strong feelings of nostalgia among audiences and their familiarity with such stories. However, finding a suitable way to integrate this well-acknowledged IP with the theme park industry is quite a challenge.

Many operators have failed in attempts to make Journey to the West a winning theme park proposition, but this has not deterred others from trying. The Journey to the West Theme Park in Huai'an, Jiangsu province, which opened in 2021, is one of the latest attempts.

The park's owners recruited Zeitgeist Design & Production, a design company based in the United States which had a hand in designing Shanghai Disneyland, to work on conceptualization and storytelling at the Huai'an attraction. The park also engaged China Jingye Engineering Co, which helped build Shanghai Disneyland and Beijing Universal Resort, to be in charge of construction.

The park features parades and evening light shows. One visitor, Ada Zhang, 32, an influencer on the social media platform Xiao Hongshu, said many of its attractions, including rides, are similar to those at Shanghai Disneyland.

Evening events at the Huai'an venue are up to the standards of those at Shanghai Disneyland, Ada Zhang said, describing the latter venue as an "Eastern Disney". Other social media users have referred to it as a "Chinese version of Disneyland".

"Compared with their foreign counterparts, Chinese theme parks were late in starting, and most of them are still mimicking international venues," Zhang Zheng said.

"Local theme parks can learn a lot from well-established companies, which can help give them inspiration and ideas. We can then explore icons and IPs from China's traditional culture. There's no contradiction in this, because I think we're learning how they put projects together, rather than copying their cultural content."

Ge Zhiyan, a tour guide at the Huai'an park, said: "Ultimately, we have to rely on our own culture to create unique characteristics. Journey to the West is a super IP with unlimited potential. We can learn from the advanced experience of international theme parks and draw on them to transform our cultural brands to create parks with distinct Chinese cultural characteristics that resonate with Chinese people."

Despite intermittent closures due to the pandemic, Ge said the Huai'an park has received some 2 million visitors since it opened, most of them in the 19 to 40 age group. Of these visitors, 40 percent were locals.

"The park endeavors to create an immersive visiting experience by integrating Journey to the West stories with every brick and tile at the venue to make each landscape and every corner tell a story," Ge said. "We are also promoting celebrity-endorsed check-in points and videos of interaction between characters and tourists to make the park more attractive."

In addition to adapting traditional icons, China's theme park industry is aiming to build attractions based on current cultural assets.

For example, a district in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, is themed on The Longest Day in Chang'an, a Chinese novel published in 2017 that was adapted into a TV series two years later. Tang Shiliangchen Cultural Tourism Development Co conceived the themed district, which opened last year in Xi'an. The company said the district received more than 2 million visitors in its first year of operations and has attracted more than 11 billion hits on online platforms.

"The Longest Day in Chang'an themed district in Xi'an is just a miniature version of a theme park, so the use of technology is a little thin," Zhang Zheng said.

"But I'm sure China's theme parks will gradually find a way to create unique and immersive experiences for visitors by tapping into the country's rich cultural heritage."

Contact the writers at yangran1@chinadaily.com.cn