Booming Tourism: A Window into Chinese Cultural Confidence

Published May 2, 2024


By Yawen Xu

Growing up in Xi’an, the international tourism hub of Shaanxi Province in northern China, I had the privilege of visiting its historical sites countless times.

From the awe-inspiring Terracotta Warriors to the majestic Giant Wild Goose Pagoda and the Daming Palace, all of which are UNESCO World Cultural Heritage sites, I immersed myself in the rich history of my hometown. Witnessing people from around the global visiting these ancient landmarks became a familiar sight to me over time.

After pursuing my bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the United States, I returned home seven years later and relocated to Beijing. It wasn’t until recent years that I grasped the extent of Xi’an’s popularity.

The realisation struck me when I encountered challenges booking high-speed rail tickets during holidays, found local museum tickets fully reserved, and observed young people and children dressed in traditional Tang Dynasty-style attire from over 1,300 years ago while exploring downtown Xi’an. Moreover, discussions about Xi’an tourism consistently dominate the top trending topics on the Chinese social media platform Weibo.

“What has led to this change?” I wondered. Upon thorough observation, research, and discussions with family and friends, I came to realise that the rapid emergence of Guochao, also known as the “China Chic” trend, has sparked a genuine interest in the country’s cultural tourism sector, with Xi’an standing out for its rich historical and cultural heritage.

China-Chic, from products to cultural tourism

According to data from the Baidu search engine, interest in Guochao has surged five-fold compared to a decade ago.

Initially, “China-Chic” referred to the burgeoning native fashion trends in China, where young consumers strongly preferred domestically produced goods or brands infused with traditional Chinese elements and culture. However, in recent years, Guochao has transcended mere goods or brands, evolving into a broader concept of consumption or lifestyle that caters to people’s spiritual needs.

Against this backdrop, the fusion of Guochao and cultural tourism is gaining momentum nationwide, emerging as the new driving force for growth in the cultural tourism industry.

In the case of Xi’an, the “Grand Tang Dynasty Everbright City” represents the China-chic that empowers the cultural tourism industry.

Yawen Xu (right) was at the Grand Tang Dynasty Everbright City, celebrating the Chinese New Year in Xi’an, China, on February 7, 2019. Picture: Supplied by author.

For friends unfamiliar with the Tang Dynasty (618-906 AD), it’s the most notable and renowned dynasty. The Tang Dynasty represents a golden age in Chinese history, known for its prosperity, cultural achievements, cosmopolitanism, and international influence. During this period, Xi’an, known as Chang’an, served as the political, economic, and cultural centre of Asia.

Grand Tang Dynasty Everbright City is a Tang-style theme park that stretches from the city’s famous Giant Wild Goose Pagoda in the north to the Tang City Wall Ruins in the south over two kilometres away. It vividly reproduces the architecture and culture of the Tang Dynasty with over 20 free interactive activities. It features a pedestrian street where tourists can watch Tang-style dancing and performances with traditional Chinese instruments. Visitors can also immerse themselves by dressing in ancient Tang-style costumes, interacting with actors, and tasting diverse local foods. All of these activities are bringing tourists immense joy as if they travel back to the golden age of the Tang Dynasty.

The “Secret Box of the Prosperous Tang Dynasty” is another renowned immersive cultural activity that combines the rich history of the prosperous Tang Dynasty with the interactive format of a talk show. The plot of the performance is about two Tang Dynasty officials who time-travelled to the present day under the orders of Emperor Taizong, seeking talented individuals.

Screenshots of the official Douyin account of the hosts of the ‘Secret Box of the Prosperous Tang Dynasty’ reveals that they have nearly 2 million followers on the platform. Picture: Supplied by author

They dress in ancient costumes and invite tourists onto the stage, asking questions about traditional Chinese culture, such as: in “Journey to the West” (one of the four classics of Chinese literature), what is the first challenge? Or, what are the four joys in ancient China? (Tips: a wedding night, passing the imperial exams, meeting an old friend in a faraway place, and rain after a long drought.)

Their witty questions and interactions with visitors often elicit bursts of laughter from the audience, making it a popular attraction that prompts visitors nationwide to join the performance. They are so popular that the two actors have nearly two million followers on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok.

During the Spring Festival holiday in early February, tourism bookings in Xi’an increased by 64%, while ticket bookings for attractions surged by over 80%. The Yanta District, home to attractions such as “Grand Tang Dynasty Everbright City” and “Secret Box of the Prosperous Tang Dynasty”, received approximately 650,000 visitors per day, a 62.5% increase compared to the same period last year.

China-chic cultural tourism across the nation

The “China-chic” cultural tourism boom is not only seen in Xi’an but extends across the entire nation.

Located 2,300 kilometres northeast to Xi’an, an 11-hour-trip by high-speed rail, Harbin in Heilongjiang Province has successfully evolved into a cultural tourism hub, drawing visitors from all corners of the country and even from around the globe, thanks to the city’s frosty winters and spectacular ice festivals.

During the 2024 Chinese New Year holiday, the cultural tourism industry in Harbin generated US$2.3 billion, marking a remarkable increase of 235% compared to the same period last year.

Among the over 10 million visitors was US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns. He posted on X (formerly Twitter) his deep admiration for “the combination of artistry, innovation and sheer ambition” showcased at the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival.

US Ambassador to China Nicholas Burns tweeted in February about his admiration for the Harbin Ice and Snow Festival in Harbin, Heilongjiang Province, China.

Meanwhile, in Southeast China’s Fujian province, the city of Quanzhou’s unique tradition of Zanhua, or hairpin flowers, has captured widespread attention.

Zanhua is the art of adorning oneself with flowers, one of China’s distinctive and age-old cultural traditions dating back to the Song Dynasty’s (960-1279 AD) floral adornment culture.

A friend of the author, Zhu Zhu, wore the hairpin flowers when she visited Quanzhou, China, on April 2nd, 2024. Picture: Supplied

Women from Xunpu, a fishing village of the city, select materials like fish bones or plastic to craft their hairpins, skilfully pairing them with various fresh and artificial flowers. This careful curation is not just a material experience but also a pursuit of aesthetic beauty, symbolising family heritage and emotional intertwining. Locals believe that “if you wear flowers in your hair in this life, you will also be pretty in the afterlife”.

Data shows that during the 2024 Spring Festival, Xunpu welcomed over 361,000 visitors, marking a 600% increase compared to the previous year, with tourism revenue exceeding US$10 million. This trend extended from the Spring Festival to today, branching out from travel photography to online "hairpin flower business".

Quanzhou’s hairpin flower trend is another vivid example indicating the rising cultural tourism driven by China-chic.

China-chic in lifestyle

The charm of China-chic has not only influenced the cultural tourism sector but also various aspects of people’s lifestyles.

For instance, traditional garments like Hanfu, the traditional clothes worn by the Han people, and Mamianqun, also known as horse-faced skirt, can be seen everywhere on the streets of China as people engage in leisure activities.

Tourists dressed in traditional costumes and gathered in front of the Bell Tower during Chinese Spring Festival in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, China, on February 14, 2024. Picture: Supplied by author

Baduanjin, also known as the eight-part Qigong exercises, originated in China over 800 years ago during the Song Dynasty. It helps stretch the body, loosen the joints and tone the muscles, while promoting good circulation.

Once considered an exercise exclusively for older people, Baiduanjin has become a popular fitness routine among modern youth in recent years, spreading virally on Chinese social media platforms such as Weibo, Little Red Book, and Bilibili.

Whether it’s the rise of the cultural tourism sector or the evolving lifestyle choices among young people, the “China chic” trend is gaining popularity, reflecting a sense of confidence in the rich tapestry of traditional culture of the Chinese people, especially the younger generation, underscoring the Chinese people's embracing of their national identity and inheritance of their native culture.

* Yawen Xu was born and raised in Xi’an, China. After spending seven years studying and working in the United States, she now pursues a career as a journalist in Beijing, covering Chinese foreign policy, technology, culture, and the economy.

** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of IOL or Independent Media.