of theme parks and the contemporary state

I have been showing my 12-year old niece the sites in Beijing, including the Great Wall. As we wander, I have free associated between these experiences and previous theme park experiences, most recently in Ocean Park, Hong Kong, but before that the original Disneyland in Southern California, the iconic Knott’s Berry Farm, the Jersey shore, its boardwalks and miniature golf courses, as well as several Six Flags and Disneys elsewhere. (Years ago I even visited the uncomfortably super-mini Disney in Hong Kong.)

There are, of course, perhaps more explicit connections to be made with Williamsburg, Jockey Hollow, and other historic sites that I have visited (and actually in Shenzhen I have been involved in promoting historical preservation of local sites), but.  In terms of pageantry and intent to re-present the world, my mind keeps returning to Disney.

I suspect that although our parents and grandparents were trained to imagine communities via capitalist enterprises such as newspapers and popular novels (see Benedict Anderson’s classic Imagined Communities for the argument), my generation and later were in-formed through theme parks. That said, my niece has known both theme parks and apps her entire life and there are emerging differences, however today I’m thinking about how the Chinese State is both imagined (through individual experience) and imagineered (through decisions about how to structure individual experiences in order to achieve particular results).

Two days ago, we walked through Tiananmen to the Forbidden City — a classic to do in Beijing. Of note: the Square has been cordoned off and visitors must go through safety checks and pat downs for weapons. These measures have discouraged many from visiting the square. This infrastructure also criminalizes anyone who enters the Square, and while we walked, my husband reminisced about his college years when Tiananmen was open to all, and I talked about the surging crowds that used to visit, pressing in different directions to line up for the Mao Mausoleum or take pictures of the Hall of the People. Overall, the State imagineered at Tiananmen is vast, massed, and frighteningly pro-active in its suppression of present and future demonstrations.

The large painting of Mao hangs on the outer wall of the entrance into the Forbidden City and observes the directed flow of visitors through an underground walkway into a series of courtyards and named gates. We paid for our tickets (seniors and students received discounts) and began the trek up and over marble stairs, through red walls and past  green and yellow decorative tiles. There are some treasures to be seen, but because Chiang Kai Shek took the truly valuable with him to Taiwan ( on display at the Palace Museum in Taipei), in Beijing we are left with the architecture of Ming and Qing imperial ambitions. It is stunning. It encloses thousands of visitors at any one time. And like Tiananmen it achieves these results through scale and management of exclusions. In fact, the tour focused on who could traverse which hallways, who lived in which set of rooms, and where ranked officials could stand. At that moment, I viscerally understood friends’ complaints that China was too “feudal” to mean that imperial scale and practices still shape ongoing construction of the State.

The next day, we took the train to Badaling, the section of the Great Wall closest to Downtown Beijing. The  journey resembled a children’s game: we took the subway to the train, the train to the bus, the bus to the wall, and then a gondola up to a scenic spot where we began climbing. Although it was a weekday, thousands climbed and took snapshots that commemorated their visit. Thus, the experience again joined imperial scale to modern technologies to create a sense of China as massive, ancient, and persistent. It also embodied the “masses” through lines, rushes to get a seat (because seats aren’t assigned on the train), and pushing to get a view from the wall.

Obviously, the goal of a theme park is to produce moments of excitement or interest, usually through rides and exhibits. My niece is particularly fond of roller coasters, not so intrigued by exhibits. She liked the pandas at Ocean Park but was unimpressed by the roller coasters. On her account, US roller coasters are bigger and scarier (“more thrilling). She found our trip to Tiananmen and the Forbidden City to be exhausting (although she took photos). And she enjoyed climbing the Great Wall despite the crowds.

How does this connect to national monuments and site seeing?

The experience of crowd behavior at theme parks and national sites become lived metonyms for how we understand each other. This is also the connection to Anderson’s analysis of how we come to imagine States and our place there in. “People” standing in line suddenly stands for the capacity for citizenship. “Exhaustion” from visiting a site becomes a measure of the State’s dimensions. “Thrilling” rides become the emotional justification for buying a ticket.

Both theme parks and national monuments organize experience. Access to those experiences is through the purchase of a ticket, which would seem at some level to democratize experience– one person, one ticket. The purchase of a ticket implies a particular experience of fun and views. However, at both theme parks and national monuments the central feature of the experience is crowd control. If there are few people, the one’s experience may approximate that of the hype. However, in most mass environments the primary experiences are of crowd behavior — waiting in line, standing on tip toes to see over someone else’s head, and shuffling forward to the next station. In this sence, the ticket is also just part of crowd control, excluding those who can’t afford the price of admission.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s