People in China generally agree that it is important to celebrate the country's rich history, but its culture police think there is too much of the wrong kind of celebrating going on.
Two agencies, the Ministry of Culture and the State Administration of Cultural Heritage, have banned the promotion of 'negative historical figures or literary works' for tourism purposes, theoretically ending a longstanding practice by Chinese cities of playing up their ties to racy cultural icons like the lustful Ximen Qing through festivals, theme parks and merchandise.
A few lucky destinations in China, like Mao's hometown of Shaoshan in Hunan province, are blessed with the notoriety of a state-approved celebrity, allowing them to rake in tourism dollars. But for most Chinese towns, bringing in tourists is hard work, which is made easier if they can stake a claim to someone famous, whether real, mythical or literary.
Disputes can flare up among towns claiming to be the original homes of the same popular character. Just before the Ministry of Culture announced the new rules, Loufan county in Shanxi declared itself hometown of the Monkey King, challenging the same claim made first by Lianyugang City in Jiangsu, according to a recent article on Xinhua's English-language website.
Critics say that this kind of cultural infighting is embarrassing to China, especially when attracting foreign dollars is the motive. 'It is better if these cities manage and protect their own cultural heritage and intangible cultural resources, rather than compete with each other and humiliate themselves,' Tongji University Professor Ruan Yisan was quoted by Xinhua as saying.
In the past, tourist stunts by Chinese towns have been heavily frowned upon by the public. A sex theme park called Love Land in southwestern China was demolished before it even opened, after inciting widespread condemnation. Earlier this year, public outcry forced government officials in Zhangjiajie to back away from plans to rename a local mountain 'Avatar Hallelujah Mountain' after the popular Hollywood movie.
The latest crackdown, however, goes further than any one campaign and promises to lay out strict guidelines for what is appropriate cultural celebration in the coming weeks. The Ministry of Culture notice put out on Monday prohibits giving a 'hometown' to a fictional character, building fake historical buildings and using 'sensational' tactics to draw media attention.
No word yet on whether the restrictions will apply to some Chinese cultural venues seen as tasteless by foreign tourists themselves. Chief among these are China's 'minority theme parks,' which offer mostly Han visitors a chance to gawk at real-life ethnic minorities engaged in traditional rituals like the Dai water-splashing festival. Last year, Kunming's 'dwarf theme park' drew fire from across the globe when videos of the dwarfs performing in tutus for ordinary-sized Chinese people turned up online.