This is a guest post by Joy Danjing Zhang
Zhang Yimou is China’s most internationally renowned film director; he is best known for the epic wuxia films Hero and House of Flying Daggers. Zhang’s cinematic output includes the acclaimed art house productions Raise the Red Lantern, Red Sorghum, Judou, and To Live as well as social documentary genres like The Story of Qiu Ju and Not One Less. Zhang Yimou is also credited with mounting operatic performances in Beijing’s Forbidden City and more recently choreographing the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Another less acknowledged string to Zhang’s bow is his directorial work in staging outdoor theatrical spectacles. This was the topic of my Master’s thesis, Impressions of China: Zhang Yimou’s outdoor theme productions, completed in 2011 (supervised by Professor Michael Keane at QUT).
In recent years outdoor theatrical spectacles have become modular formats in which local cultural resources are mixed. Zhang Yimou is among a number of successful film directors sought after by local governments who wish to ‘add creativity’ to existing traditional cultural resources. Others to follow Zhang’s lead include Chen Kaige and Feng Xiaogang. Indeed, such cultural displays highlight the new branding of Chinese national identity, reflected in the slogan ‘soft power’ (ruan shili).
Impression West Lake is an ambitious production under Zhang Yimou’s branding. An outdoor performance, it combines traditional music, dance, pop culture and visual displays. Some would say that it symbolizes a renewal of Chinese culture in regional tourism. It is one of the Impression Series, a series of similar but different cultural formats. Impression West Lake is performed at West Lake in Hangzhou, China.
Entertainment performances in tourism locations are not new in China. What is newer is the introduction of film directors and celebrities. The first production, Impression, Liu Sanjie was first performed in 2003 in an outdoor scenic setting on the Li River with a background of mountains in Yangshuo County of Guilin City in South China. In 2006, Zhang Yimou mounted Impression Lijiang set at the bottom of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Lijiang, Yunnan province. It is still in production performing twice a day, most days of the year. The first performance created the format—a blend of local culture, folk stories and spectacular scenery. The transferring of the series in different tourism places within China illustrates the formatting of the Impression model into local tourism development strategies.
Impression West Lake is a unique metropolitan out-door performance on a natural stage setting located in one of the most famous tourism destinations in China. Impression West Lake was the third instalment. Emphasising Han folk stories, innovative and technical stage effects and the beauty of the Hangzhou urban landscape, the atmosphere is further enhanced by special effects and A list celebrities. The musical score, available as a CD, was created by the Japanese new age artist Kitaro while the theme song was performed by Jane Zhang (Zhang Liangying), a finalist in the massively popular TV talent show, Super Girls.
The narrative is itself fairly minimalist, echoing Zhang Yimou’s film style. It portrays the legend of the White Lady Snake and Xu Xian, a love story well known in Chinese history. This story is associated with Hangzhou local culture. The tragic Chinese story of the so-called Butterfly Lovers is recounted in five episodes: Making Acquaintance, Falling in Love, Parting, Memory and Impression.
The term ‘impression’ aptly captures the characteristics of these productions. The Oxford English Dictionary (2007) provides four definitions of ‘impression’. Firstly, it is ‘the image or feeling a person or thing gives to someone’s mind, as regards its strength or quality’ (OED p. 1341). The live theme performance is an ‘experience’ that draws emotion from audiences. Secondly, impression means ‘a mark left by pressure.’ This corresponds to an experience which leaves a memory such that a person might seek to buy a souvenir or memento. Thirdly, impression is interpreted as a model or a mould that can be replicated. Moreover, Zhang Yimou is an ‘impresario’, a person who arranges performances in theatres. The Impression Series reflect Zhang’s cinematic legacy. Zhang Yimou and his production teams have built a reputation for quality outdoor spectacles. And that reputation has continued; it has attracted international collaboration in content, financial investments from the private sectors and favoured policies from regional governments.
In my Master’s thesis I argued that personal celebrity endorsement is replacing political propaganda heroes in promoting an alternative image of China. Zhang Yimou and Impression West Lake function as a dual branding mechanism that combines ‘people marketing’ and ‘place marketing’ for the development of a ‘created in China’ cultural commodity as well as for the generation of positive economic outcomes.
My study identified how natural resources linked with a local tourism industry are articulated into cultural products and how this is differentially experienced by local and international visitors. ‘Cultural experience’ strategies such as Impression combine global marketing and local cultural forces. In the case of the Impression series we see how a creative entrepreneur like Zhang Yimou offers a better model to promote ‘soft power’ than governmental propaganda strategies.
Impression West Lake encapsulates the rise of the model creative entrepreneur, assisted by local government authorities. Even though government policy-makers facilitate cultural infrastructure and provide incentives, they ultimately rely on the entrepreneur’s creative vision and understanding of the market.
Of course there are downsides. My thesis considered critical issues; not only questions of Chinese cultural identity and issues of authenticity, but also intellectual property and copyright, the working conditions of cultural workers, fundamental tensions between high art and commercial exploitation, the tension between ‘public’ culture and ‘private’ profit, and ultimately the sustainability of cultural and creative products in the context of formatting.
The study provides insights into the future direction of China’s cultural exports – represented by the slogan ‘Created in China’. Impression West Lake has achieved global reach. Furthermore there are new additions to the series: Impression Hainan, and Impression Da Hong Pao. By exploiting the format business model, the idea has become central to local tourism development plans with support from regional government and private investors. Feng Xiaogang is set to launch a new extravaganza Dreamy Beibuwan (Menghuan Beibuwan) in October 2011. Feng’s outdoor mega show embraces rich history in a stunningly picturesque backdrop. Menghua Beibuwan will be set among the outdoor landscape of Beibuwan, recreating the ancient Maritime Silk Road and the voyage. Menghuan Beibuwan is a collaborative effort between Feng and the Fangchenggang local government. Another celebrated director, Chen Kaige, is preparing to open Xi Yi in Dali next year to commemorate the voyages of navigator Zheng He to the Western Ocean (now called the Indian Ocean).
Zhang Yimou’s creative production model illustrates how traditional Chinese cultural values are being constantly re-converted, reformatted and adapted. The question that remains to consider is: Is such cultural formatting the best model for success? What is an appropriate balance between replication and adaption? Is there a point where creativity disappears in the rush for market success or is creativity in essence just adaptation?
Joy Danjing Zhang is from Shanghai and will be starting her PhD at QUT in 2012.