Tourism with Chinese characteristics, my trip to Taierzhuang, a newly constructed ancient town

Taierzhuang first came to my attention a few months ago when I spotted an advertisement, in the train station of my hometown Nanjing, promoting it as a tourist destination. The picture strongly resembles the image of those ancient water towns such as Zhouzhuang in Jiangsu province where calm rivers are sandwiched by charming old buildings with curved roof tops. I’ve been to all of the water towns and rather like them, touristy as they are. And now, an ancient water town in northern China? I was intrigued.

This weekend, I decided to check it out with a friend. Restless with travel bugs, I always like to take little trips away from Beijing.

Taierzhuang is located on the eastern bank of the ancient Grand Canal, the longest artificial water way in the world that connected Beijing and Hangzhou. Sitting roughly half way between the two, the town prospered during Ming and Qing dynasties, thanks to the busy transport route. These days, travelling has become so easy. We took the high speed train to Zaozhuang, Shangdong province, (only over 2 hours) and then a taxi to Taierzhuang.

The town is divided into two parts: one is the typical soulless provincial town with nondescript buildings and the other is this made-made fantasy land, fenced off by the city wall. Apart from tourist groups infesting the place, with their flags and loud speakers, the reality isn’t too far off from the advertisement: there are grand classic Chinese architectures decorated with intricate wooden carvings, arched stone bridges, narrow streets and grand mansions. But they are all new! Precisely constructed in 2008, supposedly according to the original layout. If you follow a tour guide, you’d learn the story how a merchant from Gansu fattened up by trading and built his house here with northern style; or how the Fujian clan built a temple to worship Mazu, the goodness of sea.

There’s no question that the place has a long history. Unfortunately, 95% of the buildings were destroyed in 1938 during the famous and bloody Taierzhuang battle between the invading Japanese troop and the Chinese Communists (it wouldn’t be so famous if the Chinese didn’t win.) On the un-renovated front wall of the protestant church, you can still see the bullet holes. Then, only the walls and the stepping stones of one shop can claim to be the original.

I heard that before this major tourist project had kicked off, the local economy was in a bad shape as the coal mining had been declining steadily.

Luckily, by all accounts, Taierzhuang’s re-inventing its self as an ancient town has been a success story. Last April, it started to receive visitors. By June this year, 3 million people, vast majority in tour groups, have made their way here. No doubt a lot more to come. More and more Chinese with money and leisure at their hands are looking for places to go.

And whoever the person in charge of the show understands how to entertain Chinese tourists who always want spectacle and action. In Taierzhuang, things are happening all day along: drumming, lion dance, magic shows, puppet shows and imperial processions performed by people dressed in mandarin uniforms… If you are still bored, there is a Latin dance competition where scantily clad girls swirling sensually on a stage, against the backdrop of a pavilion under construction – yes, more are being built in this ancient town.

Remarkably, many visitors seem to believe the ‘ancient’ tale. One lady we shared a boat ride with commented that the place was like a Chinese version of Venice. “How could have the building survived thousands of years in the water?”

Over all, I think the emergence of ‘ancient towns’ is a good thing. Tourists, many of them children, can at least learn a bit of their own history and cultural traditions. On the main street lined up with shops, you can buy characters like Monkey King made from syrup or flour, something I used to enjoy as a child but rarely see nowadays.

Indeed, I enjoyed the trip. We stayed at a hotel called Lotus Villa right by the water, behind a lotus pond. I have to say a lot of things are done tastefully. Taierzhuang claims to be a good place to chase a dream. Well, you need to know how to dodge the tourist groups. One evening, we found a quiet bar on the water front. In the gentle breeze, we sipped tea on the balcony, looking out at the water in which the weeping willows trailed their green arms and the reflection of the red lanterns glowed. Slender-waisted girls ferried the tourists up and down the canal, entertaining them with sweet gentle songs. Momentarily, we did loose in a dream of some sort – until the karaoke singing pierced the air.

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4 thoughts on “Tourism with Chinese characteristics, my trip to Taierzhuang, a newly constructed ancient town

  1. I genuinely wonder if it matters to Chinese people/tourists wether a historic or cultural heritage site is authentic old, or newly rebuilt in old style. I wonder this from a Chinese philosophical point of the Chinese attitude towards the past, ‘where it is not the buildings, but what they represent’, or ‘not the material, but the spiritual matter’, that counts. I also wonder from the perspective of the government when they plan tourism sites like Taierzhuang. I completely understand the benefits that such projects can bring to the local population (but it doesn’t always), but what does it say about the distortion of history, the commercialization of traditions, etc? Tourists surely don’t go there to learn about history so much as being entertained in a beautiful location reminiscent of the past. I’m a student researcher in cultural heritage in China, and I truely love China, I just returned from my research trip in one of these little towns that have been rebuilt (not newly built) and is on the brink of tourist development, but have very little hope that it will be developed in a sustainable way and will fall prey to mass tourism and very quickly lose its competitive advantage of a quiet, beautifully located, ecologically fragile, with authentic tradition, rural hideaway… I would love any comments for my own understanding and for my research.

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