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Selling desolation to the world
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Twenty years ago Zhenbeibu near Yinchuan, capital of Ningxia province, was a dusty, parched spot where a couple of neglected forts, one Ming dynasty, one Qing dynasty, were slowly crumbling away. Li Lijuan, then a middle school student in nearby Yinchuan remembers visiting the forts with her classmates and recalled that in those days they were home to a few herding families and their livestock.

Dressed up as a red guard, a young Chinese tourist pretends to threaten an enemy of the people on a Cultural Revolution film set at West China Film Studios, Zhenbeibu, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. The placard says "Overthrow the counter-revolutionaries"

Moongate Tourists pose beside the famous moon gate at West China Film Studios, Zhenbeibu, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. The gate has featured in many famous films and TV series.

But after 1987, when Zhang Yimou's first blockbuster feature, Red Sorghum, put Zhenbeibu and its iconic moon gate on the big screen in front of a worldwide audience of millions, things would never be the same again. Red Sorghum was the first big hit for China's new wave of directors. It launched the careers of three of Chinese cinema's brightest stars, not only director Zhang Yimou, but also China's most famous actress, Gong Li, and actor-director Jiang Wen. Soon dozens of other film makers were beating a path to Ningxia trying to repeat the magic.

Once upon a time in the West of China. A cowboy in the saddle at West China Film Studios Zhenbeibu, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.

In 1992, Zhang Xianliang, the most famous Chinese writer of his generation, took advantage of Deng Xiaoping's pro-market reforms to set up the West China Film Studio on the Zhenbeibu site. Since then Zhenbeibu's barren landscapes have provided the backdrop for more than 60 feature films including Ashes of Time (director Kar Wai Wong), A Chinese Odyssey Part One: Pandora's Box (starring Stephen Chow) and A Chinese Odyssey Part Two – Cinderella (starring Stephen Chow). The Ming and Qing forts have seen more battles in the last twenty years than they ever did on active service.

West China Film Studios is still a working studio, but several years ago it opened its doors to the public and is now a major tourist attraction. Among the most popular sections are a mock up of a late Qing dynasty street complete with singers and magic lantern shows, and the Cultural Revolution courtyard where visitors can dress up as Red Guards and act out the chaotic scenes of 40 years ago. Ironically Zhang Xianliang was himself persecuted and imprisoned during the Cultural Revolution. His books Half of Man is Woman, Grass Soup and My Bodhi Tree draw on his experiences of those times. Officially rehabilitated in 1979, he became a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference in 1983.


Off for a day's struggle. A tourist looks very smart dressed up as a red guard at West China Film Studios, Zhenbeibu, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.

Several years ago, speaking to a group of officials visiting his studios, Zhang Xianliang declared "I sold desolation to the world". Even if the desert cannot be made to bloom, a creative mind can turn it into good business.

An elderly lady poses reverentially in front of a portrait of Mao Zedong on a Cultural Revolution film set at West China Film Studios, Zhenbeibu, Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.

(China.org.cn by John Sexton and Pang Li, July 21, 2008)

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