The Forbidden City’s treasures for the masses, at their finger tips

The Palace Museum wants not only to sell cultural heritage, but also merchandise inspired by the imperial past that Chinese consumers have a thirst for

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 May, 2017, 9:03pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 May, 2017, 10:56pm

At China’s five century old Forbidden City in the heart of Beijing, 16 million visitors a year navigate through its numerous halls and pavilions with red walls and yellow-glazed roof tiles perched on white marble terraces.

Museum officials are hopeful that the visitors take away with them a grasp of the aesthetics of Chinese ancient architecture and the brilliance of the artisans, as well as be persuaded by the “soft power” of a country with 5,000 years of civilization.

China’s breakneck economic growth pace over the past 30 years has opened up a vast new opportunity to commercialise its heritage, allowing the museum to make a bucket out of the country’s most hallowed cultural heritage. A vast array of merchandising is on display, from notebooks featuring the 12 gorgeous concubines of the Qing Emperor Yongzheng to earphones resembling Empress Dowager Cixi’s Buddhist prayer beads.

The largest palace on the planet has raised its retail game and turned it into a proliferating commercial hub, raking in more than 1 billion yuan(US$145 million) a year from merchandising and retailing alone.

The Palace Museum last week took a step further. It put the imperial court’s secret recipe choices up for sale on Alibaba Group Holdings’ online marketplace Tmall.

They included Cixi’s favourite black sugar ginger tea concoction and sticky date pancakes, handmade by a few select Beijing bakeries that were rumoured to have fed the gourmet-obsessed Chinese monarchs centuries ago.

“There are loads of thrilling royal recipes at the Forbidden City,”said Yuan Hongqi, a researcher at the Palace Museum.

“We want to find good platforms to make them only a few clicks away from consumers, and turn them into revenues.”

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There are loads of thrilling royal recipes at the Forbidden City. We want to find good platforms to make them only a few clicks away from consumers, and turn them into revenues
Yuan Hongqi, the Palace Museum

Until recently, the Palace Museum had peddled mainly wearisome books and overpriced postcards at its poorly illuminated gift shops, making it and other Chinese peers latecomers to the thriving merchandising business that global museums have enjoyed for decades.

The Metropolitan Museum of New York is among the first to expand globally in the late 1990s, with boutiques in Australia, Mexico and Thailand. Shoppers can purchase silk scarves fluttering with the image of Monet’s Bridge over a Pond of Water Lilies for US$65. Visitors at London’s British Museum can pay 19 pounds for an umbrella inspired by its celebrated ancient Egyptian sculpture.

The best role model in Chinese cultural merchandising would come from the Palace Museum’s Taiwanese counterpart – the National Palace Museum, with which it shares its roots. The Taipei museum’s holdings were spirited out of mainland China in 1949 with Chiang Kai-shek’s retreating Nationalist forces.

Shan Jixiang, director of the Beijing institution, said last year they had “borrowed a lot of ideas from” the National Palace Museum in Taipei.

As early as the 2000s, mouse pads featuring masterpieces of Chinese paintings were among the best-sellers at the Taipei landmark. Postage stamps and replicas of the museum’s most prized collections have been on sale since the 1980s.

“We have rolled out Forbidden City themed power banks, soap containers, sticky notes, and chopsticks,” Shan said. “Revenue growth has been robust.”

All profits will be pumped back to the Palace Museum, which is in the midst of a costly renovation scheduled to last through 2020 to reinstate its imperial-era appearance.

What has given the sales of the Forbidden City inspired gifts a boost is the Chinese consumers’ thirst for royal affairs in the distant past, as evident in the successes of soap operas portraying the lives of Chinese emperors, princesses and concubines.

The Empress of China (武媚娘傳奇), starring China’s best-paid actress Fan Bingbing as Wu Zetian-- the only female emperor in Chinese history -- smashed viewership records in 2014 upon airing. Earlier, the Legend of Zhen Huan, whose plot is built on intense power struggles among Emperor Yongzheng’s one dozen concubines, topped ratings share charts with over 1 billion views on online streaming sites.

The Palace Museum also has its own movie studio, Beijing Forbidden City Film Co., although its productions have largely skipped the palace intrigue genre.

In fact, three of China’s TV favourites, Fan, Zhao Wei and Ruby Lin from Taiwan, all owed their careers to a single hit – My Fair Princess (還珠格格) – set in the 18-century during the reign of Emperor Qianlong.

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It is all these that have sparked a craze among millennial Chinese for products tied to where the imperial tales constantly took place – the Forbidden City.

The enormous palace complex was home to 24 Ming and Qing dynasty emperors and their households before the country’s dynastic system was overthrown by the Republic in 1911.

Much of the Palace Museum’s merchandise revolves around Yongzheng and Qianlong, the two enthralling Qing emperors whose romances with their concubines of various ranks have inspired myriads of novels, dramas and films.

At the Forbidden City, shoppers can purchase teapots shaped as Qianlong, or iPhone cases featuring patterns of the imperial court dress supposedly worn by Yongzheng.

Today, it is also elbowing its way into the Hong Kong retail scene as its first overseas market. Last month, Shan revealed plans to sell Forbidden City inspired gifts in the planned Hong Kong Palace Museum designed to exhibit artefacts from the Beijing institution in West Kowloon.

Alibaba owns the South China Morning Post.