Design a site like this with
Get started

Disneyland with Chinese Characteristics – Culture, Capital and Splash Mountain

“Shanghai Disneyland is authentically Disney and distinctly Chinese.” – Bob Iger

There’s many restaurant chains in China that offer Sichuan-style spicy hotpot, and in the middle of dinner at one of them it’s possible you might get a surprise. As you’re choking on a piece of especially peppery beef, reassuring your Chinese friends -who are of course all fine with the spice – that you’re okay, no problem, halfway through your third bottle of Harbin beer, loud music might suddenly begin to play, a mixture of 2000s-esque techno and traditional Sichuanese instrumentation, and a man might emerge from the backroom and storm out into the restaurant. This man will be clad in traditional Sichuanese opera garb, cape and crown and mask all splendid, and he will dance in time to the unholy techno-opera beat, and then he’ll raise his cape and with a flourish his mask will change, shifting from blue to yellow or red to green or brown. Then – again! As he moves his hand in front of his face the mask changes once more, and again and again, as he dances about the restaurant, greeting customers and showing off his mask-changing magic tricks. This is the traditional Sichuanese art of bianlian, or face-changing, a skill supposedly only passed down in secret from male to male over the centuries, which it’s said only two hundred or so people in China have really mastered. Now you can see it performed in a restaurant – and that restaurant doesn’t even have to be anywhere near Sichuan.

Another restaurant I used to eat at was a Tibetan place in the centre of Guangzhou – yak meat, Tibet-brewed beer, prayer wheels and flags all over the shop. They had a dance performance too, a group of authentic real actual Tibetans who would show off their traditional dancing skills in a barnstorming daily ritual, inviting guests to join in and handing them khata, the ceremonial scarves often given as gifts in real actual Tibet. Recently I ate at a Guangzhou restaurant with all the décor done in traditional Cantonese Qing-era style, with door gods upon a great pair of wooden doors that opened to nowhere against one wall, and on the other an arched window showing a view of the old Guangzhou Pearl River waterfront circa the 19th century, or a decent painting of it at least. I’ve eaten at tea houses based on the old Hong Kong cafes, decorated with images of the iconic Hong Kong neon signs and playing Beyond on the radio, with Hong Kong movie posters on the walls and all kinds of cheap retro HK dishes on the menu. ‘Red’ restaurants with Maoist posters and slogans and old-school communal dishes, Yunnan restaurants with the walls lined with buddha images, Beijing-style restaurants with Peking duck with the interior design in imitation of old hutong streets, fancy Shanghai places playing up the images of the 1930s/40s, qipao and decadence and traditional characters all over the walls…it’s the best time in the world to be in China, to be moderately prosperous, and to want to try out other places’ food and aesthetics. Sure, in a place like Xi’an, say, you might be a little limited to only a hundred different styles of local noodles, but if you wander about to any of the more famous Tier-1 cities or coastal areas, with their masses of migrants, clashing cultures and flush-with-cash middle classes, you’re guaranteed the ability to explore all of China merely by drifting from eatery to eatery. Or rather to explore a fantasy of China.

This kind of thing is visible everywhere in the world these days. You can go to Tokyo and eat at restaurants decked out in a plastic version of the old teahouse vibe, or in London you can find ‘gentlemen’s’ cafes that try to ape the imagined pleasantry of old Victoriana. American has its imitation diners and faux-cowboy steak restaurants; Germany has Bavarian beer and sausages in every city for tourists and guests. What I think exemplifies it is the falsity of America’s own real cultural capital, at Disneyland in Florida: Main Street USA, the famous hub area of Walt Disney’s dystopian vision, where everything looks like (to quote Wikipedia, because I haven’t been to Main Street since uh 2008) “small American towns during the early 20th Century” or at least a fantastic, perfect imagining of them, is an early and leading example of this trend. But at Disney it’s a totalitarian kind of vibe, from the bizarre stereotypes of foreign countries in EPCOT to Adventure Land’s sort of racist mysterious jungle adventure mood to Frontierland’s cosy pseudo-western atmosphere to Tomorrowland’s scifi utopia to Critter Country, once home to the ‘Indian Village’, where native Americans ahem showed off their culture for crowds. This bland, superficial and spotless interpretation of not just history but human existence, the shallow joy of the creature known as the ‘Disney adult’, is what Disney really means – it’s why Gibson called Singapore ‘Disneyland with the death penalty’, for Singapore with its absence of drugs or vice or dirt in its own way captured, for him, the Disney essence.

But let’s get back to Critter Country. Critter Country, of course, is the home of the infamous Splash Mountain attraction, which might be the only point in Disney’s harmonious world where a wrong note is struck; Splash Mountain is a pretty fun log flume ride that happens to be based around a long-forgotten Disney picture called Song of the South, a movie based on the old Uncle Remus folk stories about a kindly old ex-slave telling tales to his ex-master’s son, that even at its release in 1946 was accused of racism, offensive stereotypes and whitewashing the reality of race relations in Reconstruction America. Song of the South is in America’s ever-spicier racial climate an unmovie (not 1990s England, though, where I saw it on VHS as a kid), occupying a nowhere space in Disney’s canon of much-trumpeted classics, a spot where something is supposed to be but isn’t (and they don’t like to talk about why). Splash Mountain, based on this unmovie, has been due a rebrand for years now and yet hasn’t gotten one, and so now it exists as a weird anomaly in Disney’s hyper-commercial brand-based otherworld where there’s this cool ride with quirky animated characters from a feature that isn’t even on Disney Plus. Splash Mountain is where Disney’s America meets the real America for a single jarring moment (that or the reprehensible EPCOT propaganda display I saw about how fellow evil megacorporation Nestle is helping protect the earth, but I want to stay focused on one horror at a time here).

A similar moment to this – a Critter Country moment, if you will – occurred to me watching the bianlian routine in that hotpot restaurant. I don’t mean to suggest by this that there is somehow an evil akin to American slavery in the long history of Cantonese-Sichuanese relations lurking behind this silly musical show – but rather that watching it I felt a nagging awareness of something false going on. It was perhaps the way the aggressively loud, unfitting music kept on awkwardly looping, fading out then in, or the way that many patrons weren’t even paying attention as this local, amateur face-changer went about his show, and the bizarre unreality these two things dovetailing created, but I was aware that what I was watching was not the fully authentic thing. And yet as with Critter Country, as with Main Street, USA and the kayfabe of the staff dressed as various cartoon animals and/or princesses always pretending, the artifice of the bianlian was in fact its point.

We know that Disney’s paradise is a falsity, America with the genocide and slaughter and racial hatred wiped away, just as we know that the dressings of the Sichuan hotpot restaurant in far-off Guangzhou are not quite the reality of Sichuanese culture but only a commercial imitation. I’m a curmudgeon who has always found Disneyland kind of not just twee but a little disturbing if at once enrapturing (maybe because it’s so enrapturing), and because of that before I’ve perhaps missed this truth – it is the very falseness of these things that makes them so appealing. Disney, not only in its theme parks but in its very fairy-tale, can-do, entrepreneurial, good-guy-bad-guy worldview, serves as the culmination of the American Dream, and also in its evil, cruelty and disregard for the human spirit: today we live in a world where everyone over the age of maybe ten knows at least a little of the latter, with the company’s grotesque history and practices basically on par with ‘Santa Claus isn’t real’ as a rite of passage. And yet, we admit, ‘those old movies still have those Disney magic’. The Disney magic is in fact built on our understanding of how false it is, much like the romantic vision of communism appeals most to those old cynics like me who wade through the rotting guts of actually existing socialism in an attempt to understand it.

Disney’s strength in the Anglo-American cultural sphere is such that we want to believe it could be good, and so in a way us average slightly cynical people are much more affected by the odd moments where that magic seems to exist than the children who really do believe in it. This is in and of itself a miniature version of America’s own totalising power, where even people fully aware of how awful the United States has been in its stint as world hegemon will still cling to the idea that it could be better. This dream – the counter-dream to the very obvious failure of the American dream itself – is what sustains the US today, and what keeps Disney afloat in an age when its 1950s-frozen vision of American prosperity is as far away as it has ever been before. But once Disney’s magic was real, not forced. Capitalism drives cultural change, sparking in its drudgery the drive for fantasy, for escape from itself that creates both terrible art and great art at once, at least in the earlier phases of its total commodification. That’s what Disneyland represents, or once represented.

Now how about China?

Much of modern China is shaped in response to the United States. Marxism-Leninism grew up in America’s shadow, with Soviet society always seeking to catch up and surpass the US and American culture a constant fascination to Soviet people and leaders (Khrushchev, in history’s funniest temper tantrum, was very upset when he wasn’t allowed to visit Disneyland on his tour of the US); socialism always sought to prove it was better at modernity than the liberal-capitalist US, and Chinese socialism too was infected with this. And in the long years when Chinese socialism took a nap and China reformed and opened up the vision of America, at its peak while the Soviet Union rotted away, became an object of fascination not just for the cadres and suits but for the entrepreneurial and intellectual classes, who saw not the rival of official Marxist discourse but an example to be followed and even – especially in the ideologically barren Jiang-Hu years – emulated.

Even today under Xi there is a lot of common affection for the US, to many middle-class Chinese a friend gone astray rather than an arch-enemy, and while politically and economically socialism with Chinese characteristics owes much more to a cocktail of Japan-style state capitalism and old-fashioned Marxism-Leninism, socially there are more than a few parallels with the American Dream of yore. I’m thinking primarily of the intensity of the capitalist drudge going on, 996 and can-do spirit and all that, but also to the desire for and ability to produce spectacle this creates. To be sure all capitalisms involve spectacle, a Frenchman named Debord once said; but in today’s world nobody quite pulls off the spectacle better than the Americans. Hollywood, hip-hop and rock, Call of Duty, Michael Bay and, of course, Disney – there’s a reason despite capitalism’s gradual globalisation that the superficial language it speaks is still based in America.

Except that might not always be the case. That’s the neurotic fear of the US today, not that capitalism will be replaced (with what? by who?) but that it will be replaced within capitalism. In terms of raw numbers this has already half-happened – in terms of its ownership of the most visible form of the spectacle, the illusion often called ‘soft power’, not even the Japanese with their anime and pornography could dislodge Americana from the place many of us reluctantly acknowledge it occupies in our hearts. But the Chinese love the spectacle. The busy middle classes of China adore thrills, gimmicks, novelties and surprises. When you ask people from families that a decade or so ago were poor as dirt what they want to do next, the answers are always the same: travel, sightsee, play games and watch movies, relax, enjoy life. And to escape it, as well; capitalism has brought prosperity to China but also all those same illnesses of loneliness, desperation and nihilism. The Party fights against these on its own terms, but so do the people, like Disney himself setting out to create a thousand illusionary worlds with which to flee from horrible, horrible freedom. And what’s shocking about these newly-affluent, newly-atomised Chinese is the Disneyland they want to go to is not America’s but their own.

For decades the deal the world had with the US was this: you might be building the infrastructure and staffing the rides, and we might put up some stuff that looks a little like you, and you might enjoy all of this for yourself, but it’s our park, and don’t you forget it. From Europe to Africa to Asia, all of the rest of humanity, no matter the role individual countries or people played in preserving liberal capitalism’s order, was living in America’s world, even those like the communists or reactionaries who set themselves against it. What is occurring, however, with China’s economic and political rise, is not a power set against the United States but one that loves it dearly, that with its Chinese Marxist hyper-capitalism appreciates and understands American capitalism so much that it could perhaps do it even better than the original. The Chinese consumer, surrounded by noise and motion and always every day trapped in the hell of what the internet wags call ‘involution’, endless intense competition, wants to get Sichuan and Yunnan and Tibet all at home, in perfect-imperfect facsimile, and so embraces the commodification of everything with a fervour not seen since, well, America. Foreign observers like to only see the parallels with America in the worst ways, and see this commodification primarily in terms of the country’s ethnic minorities like the Uighurs, Tibetans, Miao and Hui etc. – and it is true that sometimes this drive for novelty and distraction does take on a form resembling the worst parts of western colonial-capitalism, as in autonomous areas ethnic groups perform their traditional dances for visiting tourists in a display not wholly unlike Disney’s own ugly Indian Village shows. But this unpleasantness is not the whole picture, and in fact the Han majority are not only commodifying minority culture but their own culture, other provinces’ cultures, and of course foreign cultures too, all of it being converted into usable, enjoyable, harmless stuff.

Such is capitalism. And yet the sheer scale of the Chinese awakening, and the size of the markets involved, is different to the last time this happened, the phenomenon of ‘cool Japan’, which occurred with a much smaller country, one unable to threaten America’s dominance in any real areas and easily brought to heel politically and economically when the US flexed its muscles. The Chinese market is vast and yet today is a sort of self-sustaining environment, a world of commodified China sold to other parts of commodified China, which no longer wholly relies on foreign cultural products in order to satisfy its middle-class consumers’ demands for spectacle as before, and which is guarded by a Party that learned well from Japan’s humiliation and the Soviet Union’s collapse and has no intention of allowing any foreign imports to occur not on its own terms. When foreign ideas, technology and brands come to China today they aren’t dazzling baubles coming to awaken a drab world of poor farmers awed by their exotic charm; they have instead to appeal to the Chinese government and people, instead of overwhelming them with their very nature.

Of course capitalism has always done this too, and yet never quite so intensely and desperately – take arch-union buster Wal-Mart having to allow its Chinese staff to join the All-China Trade Union Federation, which might be a feeble talking shop but is still a pretty big deal for a company so anti-union in its own turf, or Mark Zuckerberg hopelessly trying to impress Xi Jinping with his Mandarin skills in order to get Facebook unblocked (lol), or more obviously Hollywood movies bending over backwards to clumsily insert Chinese themes or short scenes in Mandarin (witness last year’s Venom: Let There Be Carnage featuring the anti-hero alien cannibal Venom saying ‘Zaoshang hao’) or omitting, say, the Taiwanese flag or any other objectionable political ideas from their runtime. Hell, let’s look at Disney itself: Shanghai Disney cuts a fair few attractions and themes from its layout, for example Frontierland or Adventure Land, or the Jungle Cruise or even the famous It’s A Small World ride, all left out in order to make the park appeal more to Chinese customers.

Even when they make it through the hoops to land in the Chinese market these foreign imports now face competition, since China’s own movie industry can produce mindless bombast as loud as anything Hollywood makes and its theme parks are just as busy and ambitious, and it doesn’t need your steak and hamburgers and Starbucks because it has Haidilao hotpot and Kung Fu fast food noodles and a billion and one different brands of bubble tea. Being foreign – being tied into that vast thing many Chinese still think of as The West – is no longer quite enough by itself to succeed. Many observers paint this as China ‘closing off’, or in their most extreme words returning to Maoist isolationism, blaming Xi Jinping for slamming the door shut, but in fact Xi, career bureaucrat that he is, is only the administrator of this unfolding process, not its origin – its origin lies in the very idea of reform and opening at its inception, the idea that while China of course needed foreign help to advance that this would be for the cause of advancing on China’s own terms, not simply becoming a big ole’ market for American capital to slurp up. “If you open the window for fresh air, you have to expect some flies to blow in.” Deng Xiaoping said, and the subtext of this is while you have to tolerate some flies if you open a window, they’re still flies: and nobody likes to have flies hanging around their house forever. While the America-obsessed intellectuals of the reform generation and the Americans themselves believed that capital could dominate China and reform it, the Chinese leadership have indeed allowed capital to dominate China – but Chinese capital, so intertwined with the notions of party and people that there’s little chance now of a capitulation as overcame the Japanese. They’ve built their own Disneyland, and while they’re still interested in ours, they don’t really need it in the way our empire of money and movies and guns requires everyone to. In fact it might even be true – at some point in the future – that we will need them more than they need us, and we in the Anglosphere will be inelegantly pushed into the position of subservience we’ve forced upon so many others in history. Hence the current anti-China vibe. It really rankles when someone beats you at your own game, I guess.

But wait, you say. Shanghai Disneyland is still Disney. It still relies upon Mickey Mouse and Frozen and Zootopia and all those properties created in the west. And this is true, but it also means very little right now. ‘Soft power’ is not really what it sounds like. America didn’t create Mickey Mouse in a lab to appeal to foreigners but a guy just made some cool cartoons and then through its own economic, political, military and cultural power the US ended up spreading him overseas anyway, an organic process quite unrelated to this or that administration, and has long since in real world terms lost ownership of him. If Mickey is American in origin, but Disney sells him to China aiming for a much larger, more vibrant market than back home, then what does it mean to say he’s American? The companies which nominally own these cultural icons and brands are multinational, loyal only to profit. Without the economic power behind them being deployed as a tool of political policy images are only images – when America wants to make someone’s economy scream it relies on finance and sanctions and military pressure, not Mickey Mouse. As I said China is not combating liberal capitalism but supplanting it, turning capital against the capitalists. For the short term it makes no difference if Mickey is American or Chinese, because Disney is quite happy to serve both – or even one more than the other – if there’s money in it.

And in the long term? As well as the double whammy of the Battle at Lake Changjin movies this/last year, which have cemented the ‘patriotic action flick’ genre pioneered by the Wolf Warrior movies and made so much money that foreigners have started to take bewildered notice, we’ve also seen the success of miHoYo’s Genshin Impact, a Chinese-made video game that has proven a massive overseas hit, perhaps the PRC’s first ever ‘soft power’ victory in that sense. This game was not some dark project cooked up in a Party lab – despite miHoYo, a team within Tencent, having its own Party committee as of September 2021 – but merely a thing made in China to make money in China that then caught on outside of it, and as the cultural market within the country churns further together it’s inevitable that it won’t be the last example of this.

The Chinese are no longer just interested in aping what The West™ does but in experimenting with their own playthings just as Disney and other cultural adventurers in America’s rotten golden age did all those decades ago, building Disneylands to find relief in this frenzied time of their capitalism at its most energized and brutal, and while we can’t say anything about whether this will result in a future of Chinese ‘soft power’, it seems a dead cert that the effects of this will not just be limited to a weeaboo free-to-play game and some flashy war movies. The Chinese have begun in earnest in these past few decades to commodify themselves, instead of letting others do it for them, and they’ve learned from the best just how to do so, beginning to lay out the blueprint of a spectacle so hypnotic, beautiful and compelling – that feels so much like the future when you’re first struck with it – that it might prove just as easy a sell, one day, as the ‘real’ thing. The Chinese dream could perhaps replace the American one.

But like I say, long term. Very long term. For now? For now it is imperative that the world still believes America is number one and that, as Joe Biden said, that nothing will fundamentally change. Both for money’s sake and for power’s sake, and for the sake of its own internal cohesion and sense of self, the American spectacle must seem to dominate, although it is nibbled at by new cultures blooming in Asia, Africa and elsewhere. And the main threat to it – the dynamism of Chinese capitalism – is still in motion. Some people speculate or hope that Xi’s new era, with its crackdowns and enforced ideological orthodoxies, might cripple the madcap energy that so far has powered China’s rise, but to me this is to misunderstand the source of that energy, which is neither Party-state official or some bogus ‘authentic’ revolution that the Party has clumsily tried to harness. Rather, it’s both. The development of a real capitalist market in a country the size of China was always going to upset the world’s apple cart, Napoleon, sleeping giant etc., and yet without the Party’s protectionism, its insistence on using but not being used by foreign capital, and its nurturing of a Chinese nationalism and historical identity much less cohesive back in distant 1949, it seems very unlikely that the country would be in this position today. Xi’s most blundering policy errors could slow the processes unfolding in the murky depths of China’s internal economy and within its still rapidly-evolving society – the authorities continue their self-defeating fight against popular danmei boy’s love novels and shows, another Chinese creation catching on overseas – but they can’t stop it any more than America can. This is beyond which guy is in charge or what policies are being introduced. History moves at its own pace.

China will keep on making these Disneylands, these pretty but shallow commodified cultural products in the future, just like the hotpot from Sichuan that isn’t from Sichuan – and just as America’s golden age was marked not only by Disney but by The Beats, many people will find their own Splash Mountain, the crack in the fantasy, and from there create art better and more interesting than this, censorship or no censorship – as Liu Cixin shows us, you don’t need to be doing dissident art to say compelling things in China today. This is something I truly believe: it’s just the beginning, as far as China’s cultural future is concerned. Anything is possible. Disneyland was made in America, by the most American man who ever lived, and now there’s one in Shanghai, which Xi Jinping himself said “demonstrates our commitment to cross-cultural co-operation”. We don’t know where will Mickey be in the decades to come exactly. Walt Disney once said about the park: “Disneyland will never be completed. It will continue to grow as long as there is imagination left in the world.” And he might have been right. Of course there’s still imagination left in the world. But who said it had to come from America?


One thought on “Disneyland with Chinese Characteristics – Culture, Capital and Splash Mountain

Add yours

  1. “But like I say, long term. Very long term.” That’s the big question, on what time scale, although there is always the potential “nuclear” decoupling option, ie the increasing US tendency to smother TikTok, Huawei, or given the Eileen Gu discourse. Would love to read a piece on your thoughts on Olympics/Gu!


Leave a Reply

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

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s

Create a free website or blog at

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: