‘Hometowns’ battle to claim their celebrities


By Hu Yongqi and Hu Yinan
2011-06-07 | China Daily

Cashing in by claiming a star as one of their own can boost tourism revenue and give regions bragging rights, report Hu Yongqi and Hu Yinan in Beijing.

As Li Na ended her campaign in France to become Asia’s first Grand Slam singles winner, another battle commenced at home.

Li Yanping, the new champion’s mother, was on a trip to her uncle’s native county of Xinhua in Hunan province on Saturday when the final began in Paris.

When she arrived, reporters, tennis fans and local officials were waiting.

National television repeatedly showed scenes of cheering crowds around Li Yanping with red banners proclaiming, “Come on, sister Na, a good daughter of Xinhua”.

A daughter of Xinhua? There’s certainly a family connection, but Li Na was born and raised in Wuhan, capital of Hubei province. People there felt that their thunder had been stolen.

Wuhan’s mayor, Tang Liangzhi, did make the first official call to congratulate Li Na, saying her success “brought honor to the people at home”.

But that gesture, residents of Wuhan said online, is no match for what Xinhua did to “make it look like sister Na’s hometown”.

Disputes over bragging rights to celebrities are nothing new in China. They usually involve well-known historic figures, not 29-year-old athletes, and some have festered for centuries. Now, however, big money is at stake – tourism money – not just pride.

Hometown battle

A case in point is that of Zhuge Liang, a famous statesman during the Three Kingdoms period (AD 220-280).

He likely would be surprised to be an incentive for economic growth in places where he was born, lived or worked. But here he is, at the center of a battle among one county and two cities that claim to be his hometown.

Yinan county in Shandong province has invested 1.5 billion yuan ($231 million) since July in a project that includes Zhuge Park, covering more than 50,000 square meters, plus statues, Han-style buildings and five kilometers of roads. The county, which says that Zhuge (AD 181-234) spent his childhood in Yinan, held a ceremony on May 16 to celebrate the completion of the park.

Nanyang, in Henan province, and Xiangyang, in Hubei province, also have spent huge sums to build or rebuild structures to prove their claims as Zhuge’s hometown.

There’s more:

Just two days before the Yinan ceremony, city authorities in Lianyungang, Jiangsu province, decided to spend 4 billion yuan to build a theme park, Journey to the West, because they believe that Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, was born there. The construction is scheduled to begin in July and operation in 2013.

Qianshan, Lujiang and Nanling counties in Anhui province are wrestling to be hometowns of the Qiao sisters, two beauties in the Three Kingdoms period.

At least five regions have claimed to be the hometown of Li Bai (AD 701-762), China’s greatest poet of romanticism, since he died. The fight still isn’t over and the central government jumped into the fray last year.

Experts said such projects aim to develop tourism and enhance local economies, which makes sense. Proceeding with projects without thorough research does not.

“Very often, local governments add modern elements into the construction of so-called cultural heritage sites,” said Cui Yong, a researcher with the China Academy of Cultural Heritage in Beijing. “However, cultural buildings should not be copied until the area has a rooted cultural heritage. People don’t want to see replicated ‘antiques’ during sightseeing.”

Banking on it

The idea of rebuilding Zhuge’s birthplace occurred to the local government in 2005, said Zheng Bin, director of Yinan’s tourism bureau. Yinan sponsored an exhibition to promote its products and tourism in Seoul, and South Korean officials were impressed when they learned Yinan was Zhuge Liang’s birthplace, Zheng said.

According to The History of the Three Kingdoms, written by Chen Shou in the Western Jin Dynasty (AD 265-316), Zhuge was born in Zhuanbu township of Yinan county. He left at the age of 14 with his uncle for what is now Jiangxi province.

“Historical celebrities are an essential element for cultural landscape tourism,” said Deng Hui, director of the Tourism Management Department at South-Central University for Nationalities in Wuhan. He said they are particularly important to remote or underdeveloped areas that are new to tourism.

Yinan’s GDP increased 18 percent last year to 14 billion yuan, but still ranked eighth among the 12 districts and counties in Linyi city. That makes tourism, and the yuan it will bring, particularly important.

Xue Jie, deputy director of the Yinan publicity department, said tourism contributed about 2 billion yuan to the county’s GDP last year, up 230 percent from 2009. “Though the industry still has to be perfected, the effect has already been shown to us,” he said.

‘Don’t fight!’

The continuing turf war over Li Bai started in the late 8th century, and became so intense by the 1500s that philosopher Li Zhi had this to write:

“I’d say there’s no year when and no place where Li Bai wasn’t born. . . . (Li was) as much from Baxi (in western Sichuan province) as he was from Longxi (in Gansu province), Shandong, Kuaiji (in southern Jiangsu and northern Zhejiang provinces), Xunyang (in Jiangxi province) and Yelang (in Hunan province).

“(Li’s) glories are found in where he died, lived, was exiled and imprisoned. And in places where he neither traveled to, was being held at, lived in exile in nor went to, those glories are found in the people who read his work and thereby carry his spirit. Don’t fight!” Li Zhi wrote.

Five centuries on, economic incentives lead the concerns as local officials mobilize historians, alleged descendants and media outlets; name museums, parks and schools; and map out plans for luxury hotels and holiday resorts.

Tension escalated in August 2009, when China Central Television 4 began to air a promotional ad that read, “Welcome to Anlu, the hometown of Li Bai,” three times a day.

That enraged officials and residents of Jiangyou, a county in Sichuan province where the poet was widely believed to have been born and raised. For decades, it has been selling what it calls “Li Bai culture” to promote its image.

In a rare move, tourism officials in Jiangyou wrote to the Anlu government and CCTV, asking the channel to pull the ad because it infringed on their rights as people from the poet’s “true hometown”.

Anlu, in response, said it hoped to share the title – “hometown of Li Bai” – with Jiangyou. And when CCTV suspended the ad broadcasts, Anlu’s officials consulted the State Administration for Industry and Commerce on whether the ad amounted to a rights infringement.

The administration replied that “as a place where Li Bai had lived for a long time”, it was “reasonable” for Anlu to claim itself “the hometown of Li Bai”.

Officials in Jiangyou responded furiously with threats to file lawsuits. Things cooled off only after the central government stepped in last year to halt all disputes concerning claims over hometowns of historic figures anywhere in the country.

At the time, national headlines were filled with three provinces’ fight to claim Cao Cao, a warlord in Zhuge’s day whose tomb was allegedly found in a Henan village. County officials started to sell tickets to the site – a freshly built exhibition hall with very few artifacts – while archaeologists were still disputing the evidence.

This is why the central government took action. The Ministry of Culture and the State Administration of Cultural Heritage last July jointly issued a notice, saying that any publicity on controversial and unidentified historical figures’ hometowns would not be allowed. Local authorities are prohibited to name hometowns of any historical figures.

The ministries also said that monitoring should increase to prevent excessive commercial development and any deliberate distortions and abuses of cultural heritage connotation.

The top leadership’s direct intervention brought a temporary end to smear campaigns and hate mail between counties and towns. But within their jurisdictions, most of the promotional campaigns have continued.

Finding leverage

Jiangyou is nowhere as desperate as Anlu in looking for a way out of poverty.

A county in Hubei province, Anlu had 462 million yuan in revenue last year, less than half of what Wujiashan, an industrial district in Hubei’s capital Wuhan, pulled in this January alone.

Anlu was not Li Bai’s hometown, but that of his first wife; the couple lived there for about a decade. That experience, though, was enough leverage for local leaders.

Among other things, officials named the county’s central square Taibai Square (Taibai was Li’s courtesy name), built him a statue, a memorial and a temple, and held a massive choir festival in his honor. A campaign to promote its own version of “Li Bai culture” has also been launched.

In Jiangyou, too, Li Bai the poet is often seen more as a strategic asset. The county’s oldest complex commemorating Li was built during the Qianlong period (1736-95) of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), a millennium after Li’s time. Most early relics of his time were ravaged by centuries of wars and chaos. Existing replicas are by and large highly homogenous sites (many built with State funds after the 2008 Sichuan earthquake) aimed at drawing profit.

As with most ancient cultural icons, Li’s early life is still an academic question. Historian Guo Moruo’s 1971 assertion that Li was born near Tokmok, Kyrgyzstan, has been widely accepted and is still found in some textbooks.

However, this claim has been contested, most famously by Zhao Yahui, a veteran reporter with the People’s Daily, who wrote in 2009, “There’s a more than 99 percent chance that Li Bai was born in Jiangyou, Sichuan.”

Qin’an county of Gansu province, where Li Bai’s ancestors were from, and Tokmok have also joined the drama.

It doesn’t always work

Little attention has been paid to those who lose out in the game. An example is Xinzhou, one of the earliest localities to take the initiative in Shanxi province.

The alleged hometown of Diao Chan, from the early Three Kingdoms Period and one of China’s four most legendary ancient beauties, built her a theme park in 1994, amid the nationwide tide to build manmade “attractions” to boost tourism.

But in the years that followed, very few bothered to go to a remote village to visit the statue of a long-gone beauty and read from stones engraved with stories about her.

At the turn of the century, farmer Wang Wangxi took control of the park and was determined to give it one last shot. Restaurants and motels were built around the park, but still no one came. Nobody wanted to handle the mess, either.

Wang gave up in 2005. Since then, he has been using the theme park as a rural yard to raise sheep and chicken.

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