When the family is reunited after two days, I tell Volker of my Tai’er zhuang experience and we make a brainstorming. If Yaowan was Toontown, then what Tai’er zhuang Ancient Town should be? Chinese Disneyland? – Fitting, for the whole “ancient“ town is newly built and it displays some historically dressed statists. But Disneyland makes no pretence that it is for real, plus it offers rides. Potemkin village then? – Even better, for most of the buildings are nothing but impressive facades, with empty concrete interiors. However, this does not capture the air of cheerful consumerism. A ghost town? A historically themed, open-air shopping mall? But what about the exuberant entrance price, almost triple of that to the Forbidden City? At the end we resign. Tai’er zhuang is simply Tai’er zhuang, sad as it is.
The small town of Tai’er zhuang lies on the eastern side of the Grand Canal, at the border between the provinces of Shandong and Jiangsu. Due to its strategic location, it was an important commercial and garrison town during the Ming and Qing dynasties. However, it was almost completely destroyed during the Second Chinese-Japanese war. In 1938 one of the decisive battles took place here. This was the first major victory for the Chinese, which tremendously boosted the morale of the Chinese army, demonstrating that the Japanese are not invincible after all.
I was perplexed to hear about the existence of a Tai’er zhuang ancient town. My Shandong map of 2012 gives as the only local hallmark the Taierzhuang War Memorial Museum, opened in the 90ies. So does my thick, no-nonsense Chinese guidebook on Shandong, also from 2012. Where did an Ancient Town suddenly appear from?
In 2011 Tai’er zhuang underwent “development” – that is to say, the ancient town was rebuilt, or rather, newly built, complete with city walls and bridges, countless traditional houses, numerous Daoist and Buddhist temples, two Christian churches, even a mosque. Most of the things we have already seen in Yaowan – Traditional Apothecary, Spirits-making shop, Old Post, few locals in historical attire, bronze statues on the streets and plaster installations inside shops and workshops, recreating scenes from daily life. But everything is done here on a much grander scale and with greater pomp than in Yaowan. To give the builders credit: it is very photogenic, and the exteriors are done with exquisite craftsmanship and attention to the detail.
And shopping, shopping, shopping – the same tourist knick-knacks seen all over China, and local specialties, most of which turn out to be Taiwanese imports.
The Grand Canal Intangible Culture Expo-park sounds promising, but there is nothing intangible in its arrays of pan-Chinese souvenirs and kitsch. A singer, lost high up on the huge theatre platform is performing Chinese opera right now, but the steps of the marble amphitheatre opposite are empty – everybody is busy shopping, eating or taking photos.
Sarah and Nora, however, have found their dreamland. ” Kuck mal hier!” Kuck mal da!” “Ach! Wie suss!” and I am dragged to the next stand with motley souvenirs and sweets. We manage to buy two traditional tiger-pillows from an old village lady, who is really surprised by our offer – in our naiveté we mistook her props for real merchandise.
And the tiger dance leaves all of us gaping.
A bit further inside the town the souvenir shops and eateries become scarcer, and most of the buildings turn out to be empty shells with nice facades. While I contemplate what could the movie industry do with the ready-to-use historical sets, Sarah exhibits more acute social sense. “Why are they so stupid? They should give these houses to the poor people, who do not have where to live! Is this not a great idea!”
The creation of the Ancient Town has been paralleled by the simultaneous creation of a respective body of literature. In the Catholic Church I go through volume after volume of serious essays, singing praises of the beauties of the Ancient Town and establishing its authenticity. Few days later I buy myself a more recent Shandong guidebook. The Tai’er zhuang War Memorial is no longer in it – it has been replaced by the Tai’er zhuang Ancient Town.