The Forbidden City: imposing, majestic, and most of all forbidden—unless you have the RMB for the entry fee. The extent to which the Palace Museum should make a profit or simply be a national monument has always been a matter for debate. When a Starbucks was opened there in the year 2000, it was seven years before Rui Chenggang, a news anchor for China Central Television, would build his nationalist credentials by leading a campaign to remove this capitalist blight from China’s cherished monument. He successfully got it removed in 2007 after thousands of Chinese citizens backed his campaign. In truth, the Starbucks had been copping criticism for its location ever since it had opened and had already removed all signage.
Rui again put the Forbidden City in his crosshairs in 2011, alleging that a cabal of wealthy elites was conspiring to create a club with clandestine events inside the Forbidden City that charged a 150,000 USD membership fee. The Forbidden City hit back, saying there was no such club but later backpedalled and said that a commercial subsidiary had erred in making those offerings without consultation. Rui, himself, has since fallen from grace and is serving time for corruption.
The cost of capitalism in China’s cultural hubs is a constant source of conflict. So, where should these institutions draw the line and how successful should they be before they’re more of a business than a cultural mainstay? As for the state of the Forbidden City, its reach goes well beyond its walls.
Decades ago, if you wanted souvenirs relating to the Palace Museum in Beijing, you didn’t have many choices. You went there. Today, when you’re searching for some merchandise on Taobao, China’s largest online shopping portal, it’s easy to click into a royal-style shop by accident and find that it’s run by the Palace Museum itself. Hawking palace-inspired goods ranging from ten RMB to 1,000 RMB, you can find imperial robe T-shirts, folded fans with calligraphy etched upon them, and cartoon-style emperor figurines for kids.
At a press conference in Beijing in May, Palace Museum curator Shan Jixiang told media that the museum sold more than 8,700 “cultural and creative products” and that sales revenue had reached nearly one billion RMB in 2015.
The Palace Museum opened its Taobao shop in 2008, but its sales weren’t impressive and it wasn’t hard to see why. The products sold online were just as traditional and common as their offline counterparts. In 2014, designers realized that their “cultural products” required a certain panache. Nowadays, you can easily find imperial earphones in the shape of Qing Dynasty bead necklaces worn by high ranking officials in bygone eras, one of the best sellers in the Palace Museum’s Taobao shop.“I like it because I always need earphones and they are funny and fashionable,” says Ma Dan, a satisfied customer. “You can say it’s a little weird, but that’s exactly why I like them. They are really eye-catching. I can tell those designers worked really hard.” A little slice of slang has popped up to describe this niche style of combining culture and fashion, “selling cuteness on imperial order” (奉旨卖萌).
The ill-fated Starbucks in the Forbidden City closed in 2007
“They succeeded because of their originality and creativity. We always say, ‘Creativity is king,’” says Ding Peiwei, a postdoctoral scholar in Cultural Industry Management from Shandong University, “They broke the stereotype about the Palace Museum, integrated many trendy and modern elements into it, and thus shortened the distance between the museum and the public. To some extent, we can say such creative products have attracted new audiences.”
It isn’t just Starbucks under fire; there is a great deal of unease about the commercialization of the Forbidden City. “Culture is borderless, but as a business brand, Starbucks represents Western commercial culture. Even in the field of coffee, Starbucks is regarded as ‘fast-food culture’. The Forbidden City is an important symbol of Chinese traditional culture, so many people thought it was inappropriate to have a Starbucks outlet there,” says Ding. “But these cultural products use elements of the palace itself; it is not something from the outside. That’s the difference. Maybe that’s why it is easier for people to accept.”
“Forbidden Money, Part 1” is a story from our newest issue, “Gender Equality”. To read the whole piece, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.
Click here for Part 2.