China's Ancient Palace Goes High Tech to Woo Millennials

  • Shift to consumption fuels wave of change in China’s museums
  • Rising middle class spending more on cutural, unique items

For 600 years China’s emperors brought the finest porcelain vases and cups from the imperial kilns to Beijing’s Forbidden City, stamped with the royal seal. Now you can order one with your own name baked into it for less than $20.

It’s part of an upgrade transforming China’s galleries, museums and attractions as a rising tide of middle-class millennials seek to differentiate themselves from the mass-produced economy by spending more on culture, experiences and individual tastes. The tens of thousands of visitors who stream through the palace gates daily are being wooed with personalized gifts, virtual reality exhibitions and stories of a time when artisans took days to make something, not minutes.

Visitors in the Palace Museum at the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

Standing in the Hall for Abstinence, where emperors once fasted before sacrificial rites, Fan Xianli swivels around wearing a bulky black VR headset and then bows, as if checking the ground. “Oh, rocks,” she exclaims, igniting chuckles among a crowd waiting to take a turn.

Fan, 35, from the nearby city of Baoding, is getting a 21st Century view of ancient pottery and imperial kilns. An interactive display in the souvenir shop lets visitors order personalized replicas of some of the porcelain, made in Jingdezhen, where furnaces supplied the former rulers.

While most of the world’s major museums boost revenue with online shops selling plastic Venus de Milos or Anubis plush toys, China’s museums are harnessing the nation’s tech giants to integrate with the booming e-commerce market. Payment and delivery for your mock Ming is processed by Tencent Holdings Ltd.’s Wechat Pay, one of China’s most popular e-payment platforms, and entrance tickets can be bought online at Tmall.com, part of Jack Ma’s Alibaba Group Holding Inc.

Tencent has also teamed up with the museum to offer a Forbidden City edition of its mobile game "Tian Tian Ai Xiao Chu" -- China’s "Candy Crush" -- and delved into the stock of cultural treasures to design emojis and stickers for its instant messaging tools.

They are taking advantage of the nation’s shift from smokestacks to services as the government tries to encourage its newly minted ranks of middle-class consumers to spend money at home and offset the lingering reliance on investment and exports.

New Era

“Chinese consumers are now entering into an era of spending to meet higher-level demand such as culture, education, and sports,” said Jacqueline Rong, an analyst at BNP Paribas SA in Beijing. “The Palace Museum has a long way to go compared with its peers in Japan and Taiwan, but the gap also means that there is huge potential for growth.”

Consumption last year contributed about two thirds of the economy’s growth and services made up more than half of GDP for a second year.

As it becomes wealthier, China’s middle class spending is becoming as diverse and eclectic as many developed consumer markets. This is no longer the keeping-up-with-the-Hans desire to own a Louis Vuitton-branded handbag or celebrate with a bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label whisky.

‘Huge Potential’

"Chinese residents have moved from waves of emulative spending to more individualized, diverse and high-quality consumption," Cong Liang, director of the National Development and Reform Commission’s economy department, said at a press briefing in November. "There’s a huge potential to unleash."

Cong was introducing a circular from the State Council to boost consumption in tourism, culture, sports, health, elderly care and educational training. It encouraged municipal museums, galleries and libraries across the country to use innovation to draw the crowds.

Virtual reality at the Palace Museum.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

That followed a pilot project launched by the State Administration of Cultural Heritage at the end of 2014 that tasked six museums around the country to integrate technology for everything from conservation to audience engagement. One of the projects, at the Jinsha Site Museum in Chengdu, used augmented reality on an app to show on visitors’ mobile screens what the capital of the ancient Shu kingdom may have looked like 3,000 years ago.

The commercial potential is huge. China’s retail sales are expected to rise by 10 percent a year to 48 trillion yuan in 2020, the Ministry of Commerce projects. Tourism-related spending last year was 4.69 trillion yuan -- more than the Swiss economy.

Beijing’s Palace Museum alone receives more than 15 million visitors a year -- more than double last year’s attendance at the Louvre -- and has to restrict numbers to 80,000 a day in peak periods. Its revenue from cultural products reached 1 billion yuan in 2015, up from 600 million yuan in 2013.

By the end of 2015, the museum had churned out 8,683 different souvenir products -- everything from earphones that look like a Qing Emperor’s necklace to a mini Ming Dynasty royal guard to hold your smartphone. It partnered with a Shanghai cosmetic company to present a limited edition anti-aging essence showing concubines of Emperor Yongzheng, who probably died of an overdose of a medication he thought would prolong his life.

Not everything is a hit. A 19,999 yuan limited-edition Forbidden City mobile phone imprinted with an 18K-gold dragon drew scorn from netizens. In the era of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive, bling is out.

Changing Tastes

Part of the museum’s success reflects the changing tastes of a younger generation. The documentary “Masters in the Forbidden City” about the work and life of the Palace Museum’s restorers opened in cinemas on Dec. 16, the same day as the big-budget historical fantasy “The Great Wall” starring Matt Damon and local A-listers. Viewers gave the documentary a 9.4 rating on movie site Douban.com, compared with a 5 for Great Wall.

A viral internet meme of the documentary contrasts the artisans’ meticulous devotion to their craft against China’s fast-paced, mass-produced modern world.

Shan Jixiang, curator of the Palace Museum, said it works with companies to try to make "really functional" souvenirs. “We are paying special attention to increase the technology element for some of the products,” he said. “We’d like to roll out a series of technology-laden products that can meet the needs of daily life."

Visitors browse at the souvenir shop inside the Palace Museum.

Photographer: Qilai Shen/Bloomberg

For Daisy Sun, it’s the quirkiness of some of the keepsakes that makes them special. The 28-year-old civil servant from Fujian province and her husband follow the museum on social media Weibo, regularly buying gifts via Taobao.com. But popular items go quickly online and Sun’s husband begged her to get a sellout fan inscribed with the characters: “The emperor’s heart is deeply chilled.”

“We millennials like things that are idiosyncratic,” she said. “We want to be different.”

As an endless stream of visitors poured into the shop, Sun left with her 199-yuan haul of trinkets, among them a mug for herself with the apposite motto: “Why should I have descended to this secular world?”

— With assistance by Miao Han

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