Monday, 10 January 2011

Snow White and Santa on the Amur River

I've just read an article in Green Times, and I'm trying to digest the baffling mishmash of cultural influences. (Green Times, by the way, is the official media organ of China's National Afforestation Committee and the National Forestry Bureau, and it has a remit to disseminate (mainly positive) news about progress towards ecological sustainability. It's in for a long, long ride!).

On December 20th last year, to coincide with Winter solstice in the traditional Chinese calendar, the village of Mohe in China's northernmost province of Heilongjiang officially opened its own "Christmas World". 

Mohe, also known as Beijicun (北极村) or North Pole Village, since it's the northernmost inhabited place (of any notable size, at least) in China, is close to my heart as it was my final destination on a grand journey I made in 2001 around the country's four most far-flung compass points. Chinese tourists have for a few years now been travelling all the way to the banks of the Amur River, which forms Heilongjiang's northern border with Russia, to experience the unadulterated cold of the Siberian winter - it once fell below -62°F! - and, apparently, the aurora borealis (though, at a latitude of just 53°N, don't ask me how that works - Manchester and Liverpool are just as far north, and they're not known for the northern lights...).

Back to my point, Heilongjiang apparently invested RMB300m (£30m) in Christmas World, which includes a Santa's grotto, a Christmas shop, a skating rink, a Snow White amusement park, a deer enclosure, and a Christmas tree with fairy lights. All in all, it's "a fusion of China's polar scenery and the Western culture of Christmas," goes the report. It will, I'm sure, attract Chinese tourists by the busload.

I find it fascinating, how the officially atheist provincial authorities have taken a religious festival which in the West has become for most people little more than a few weeks of especially frantic consumerism, and leavened it with its own domestic tourist industry images of snow and pine forests to create something that is uniquely of modern China. As I say, I'm still trying to digest the result: Green Times has a picture of a Chinese man in a Santa suit with a People's Liberation Army greatcoat on top, and another of an illuminated Santa's head grinning atop a banner proclaiming the opening ceremony of Christmas World, at which the Finnish ambassador was a guest (Santa, you see, lives in Finland). To complicate matters, a stone's throw away on the far bank of the Amur the Russians living in Ignashino - the nearest "Western" community to Mohe - didn't celebrate Christmas by the Russian Orthodox calendar until almost three weeks later on January 7th. Then there's Snow White: she's called Baixue Gongzhu in Chinese - Princess of the White Snow - which explains her appearance in China's snowiest village, even though we don't hear a peep out of her at Christmas in the UK. Still, it could have been worse: a friend of mine once saw Santa crucified on a cross in a Tokyo department store....

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