Published: 14:15, June 11, 2024
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Tour guide captivates visitors with Shaanxi charm
By Yang Feiyue

Explaining the nuances of history captures more attention by using a unique approach, Yang Feiyue reports.

Tourists appreciate a Terracotta Warrior at the Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum in Xi'an, Shaanxi province. (ZHANG TIANZHU / FOR CHINA DAILY)

Zhang Bin, a tour guide in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, recently changed his working approach. Widely known as Bingdan ("ice egg"), an influencer in his 30s with more than 8 million followers on short-video platform Douyin, he released a tour guide video with English subtitles late last month.

"Riding a bike on the ancient city wall is certainly a nice tourist experience, but why not see the Terracotta Warriors now that you are here," Zhang comments in the video about a video posted by an international tourist who recently visited the city.

In the video, Zhang also recommends local specialties travelers shouldn't miss out on and demonstrates how to make digital payments using their mobile phones.

READ MORE: Experts restore Terracotta Warriors in Xi'an

It's his latest endeavor to convey the city's charm to inbound travelers, as he has witnessed the country's commitment to welcoming international tourists.

Last month, about 400 representatives of governments, institutions and tourism-related enterprises of two of the world's biggest economies attended the 14th China-US Tourism Leadership Summit held in the ancient Chinese city of Xi'an. Zhang accompanied them to several well-known tourist attractions during their stay, including the Grand Tang Dynasty Ever Bright City, a 2.1-kilometer street where Tang-style architecture, featuring flying eaves and layered pavilions, abound and the glorious culture of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) is presented in modern style.

Carrying a distinctive local accent, Zhang rose to fame with his humorous delivery on the Terracotta Warriors at Emperor Qinshihuang's Mausoleum Site Museum. "I tend to use humor to pique more curiosity about the history and culture of Xi'an, maintaining tourists' enthusiasm," Zhang explains.

He often interlaces the Shaanxi dialect and anecdotes about the museum with technical explanations to liven up the trip, which usually lasts more than two hours.

Zhang has a bag of tricks to enhance his delivery of those cultural relics. He jokingly shows the resemblances between certain Terracotta Warriors figurines and entertainment celebrities.

This is always widely appreciated.

However, his delivery has never come at the cost of accuracy, regarding the culture and history behind the museum. The man has been exposed to the Terracotta Warriors since childhood, as his grandfather was among the first to construct the museum, and his uncle was on the museum's archaeological team. "I felt a personal urge to tell their stories," Zhang says.

Zhang Bin, a popular tour guide in Xi'an, Shaanxi province, boasts more than 8 million followers on short-video platform Douyin. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

In 2012, he passed the national tour guide qualification exam. With family members working at the museum, Zhang has kept up with archaeological studies at the site.

"Whenever I come across any problems, I will send them text messages," he says, adding that his uncle has greatly influenced him. "He insists that I speak with precision and he often picks holes in my work."

Under this influence, Zhang meticulously examines every word and verifies all data and statements, and each time, he revises his script.

The role of a tour guide has given full play to his passion for sharing his hometown treasures with the outside world. He holds himself to a high standard and strives to become a tour guide who can answer any tourist's question, no matter how difficult. This requires daily studying, learning about the history and culture of Shaanxi, understanding the diverse psychology and needs of thousands of tourists, and enriching his cultural knowledge and guiding techniques, according to Zhang.

No detail is too obscure. For example, some tourists even ask about the flowers and plants in the museum, so he "studied all of them".

Last month, a guest asked him how come a horse bone dug up from the mausoleum site could survive hundreds of years. He wasted no time consulting with a museum staff member, who revealed the mystery that it was thanks to the low water content of the soil.

In addition to being serious about the historical part, Zhang has also tapped into his talents of singing and performing, which have endeared him to his guests.

It's a result of observing his interactions with his guests. For example, he notes that the explanations in the Terracotta Warriors exhibition hall have been based on research by archaeologists, which can sometimes be too technical for visitors. "Since not all tourists are interested in every historical detail or related info, sometimes a bored tourist may interrupt the tour guides' introduction," he explains.

He then began to re-edit and reintegrate anecdotes about historical figures and popular sayings, transforming rigid professional knowledge into flexible and engaging stories, delivered through memorable and witty remarks.

It didn't take long for Zhang to work his way up to become a head guide in the tour company.

With summer approaching, many of his guests will be children, so he needs to make the explanations more interesting, Zhang says. For example, he has interspersed four or five children's songs into his script.

"I have converted some of the technical explanations into folk songs that are easy to remember for kids. After the tour, they can still sing the folk songs to engage with history," Zhang says, adding that he has also applied discussions and Q&A sessions to spice things up for young tourists.

Zhang with a group of young visitors to the museum in Xi'an. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

For those who want technical explanations, Zhang digs into the latest archaeological reports and ensures their questions and any previous misinterpretations about the museum are addressed.

The turning point for him came in 2019 when he started making short videos to introduce the history and culture of Xi'an. More people began to appreciate his charm.

Cen Yanhua, a tourist from Wenzhou, Zhejiang province, still remembers Zhang's distinctive Shaanxi accent during his trip in 2020. "We toured the city with him as a guide and experienced the charm of the Shaanxi dialect," Cen says, adding that Zhang even taught him to recite Tang poems in the dialect. "I read about how Tang poetry should be recited in the dialect to be more rhythmic and authentic."

The popular tour guide now takes three groups a day, each group consisting of 60 tourists. He owes it to the rising popularity of Xi'an and says that the profound history and culture of the city, as well as the presentation of Tang Dynasty elements in art performances and exhibitions, have made the city a hot spot among travelers.

During the May Day holiday, the city received 14 million tourists, an increase of 5.38 percent year-on-year, up 23.74 percent compared to the same period in 2019, before the pandemic. The total tourist expenditure reached 11.5 billion yuan ($1.59 billion), an increase of 6.72 percent year-on-year, up 38.3 percent from 2019.

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Without expecting to become something of a celebrity but somehow becoming one, he wanted to do more meaningful things for his home. In his spare time, Zhang has obtained certificates as an all-media operator and a network host, promoting the sales of local specialties, such as dates, pomegranates and noodles. He has taken various opportunities to promote Xi'an, including attending entertainment shows by China Central Television. He was also named an ambassador of poverty alleviation by the Shaanxi provincial committee of the Communist Youth League in 2020.

More tourists are willing to pay higher fees for better services, which has paved the way for the rise of celebrity tour guides like Zhang, according to some experts. "These tour guides are adept at capturing the trends from internet channels and incorporating them into their services. Many of them have rich experiences and are good at delivering professional knowledge," says Yu Jun, a tourism management lecturer with Jiangsu-based Global Institute of Software Technology.

Zhang says having different tourists every day brings him a sense of freshness. "My dream is simple — to tell the stories of my hometown, spread the history and culture of Shaanxi, and make more people fall in love with the Terracotta Warriors and the province," he says.

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