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Photo of Marina Svensson

Marina Svensson


Photo of Marina Svensson

Heritage’s place: Heritage and narratives in city promotional films and independent documentary films in Beijing and Shanghai


  • Marina Svensson

Summary, in English

This paper looks at the place of heritage in city branding in China and the different discourses and narratives found in city promotional films and independent documentary films. A city’s character is shaped by its history. All the different cultural, social and historical events that have taken place in the city inform its identity and urban form, as manifested in monuments and buildings from different time periods. The question is what aspects of its history and heritage a city chooses to preserve and celebrate, how it is imagined and narrated, and to what extent and how it then figures in city branding. City branding is often top-down and managed by municipal governments and tourism offices that privilege certain aspects of the history and heritage to project a positive picture of the city while ignoring other more problematic and negative aspects. This is very obvious in the case of China where city branding is a relatively new phenomenon, and, as I will argue, often difficult to separate from either nation branding or political propaganda.

Cultural heritage policies have undergone significant ideological shifts since 1949, which can be observed in the selection of cultural heritage sites and changes in preservation policies. Since the early 1990s, city re-developments have led to much destruction of the built environment and historic neighbourhoods in Beijing and Shanghai. In the name of progress many old buildings and neighbourhoods have been demolished to give way to high rises, shopping centres and office buildings, whereas some historic neighbourhoods have become gentrified. In recent years many local governments have realised that “selective” preservation is good business and important for tourism and city branding. This understanding is reflected in projects such as Xintiandi (Shanghai) and Qianmen (Beijing), although they are also criticised for their inauthentic character and gentrified nature and for the displacement of old residents. It is interesting and ironic to note that historic sites and environments figure prominently in city promotional films, and often are depicted in a nostalgic and aesthetic light, despite the fact that many such sites have now been demolished. A sanitized, selective and aestheticized vision of the past seems to be preferred in order to brand cities for the future, at the same time that new modern architecture also serve to manifest the city’s international outlook. However, the official vision of the city and recent urban changes pictured in city promotional films haven’t gone unchallenged as independent documentary filmmakers and artists provide alternative and more critical stories in their films.

The paper begins with a general discussion on city branding and heritage, and the role of visual representations in promotional films. It then provides a brief background to heritage issues and urban developments in Beijing and Shanghai. The focus is on how and to what extent cultural heritage figured in slogans, city promotional films, and projects before and during the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. I also look at some more recent developments in city branding in the two cities and how it is reflected in new promotional films. The paper then addresses the challenges and alternatives visions of the city voiced by different people in independent documentary films and art.


  • Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies, Lund University

Publishing year






Document type

Conference paper: abstract


  • Social Sciences


  • city branding
  • cultural heritage
  • film
  • China

Conference name

Chinese mega-­cities in the world: Challenges, opportunities and consequences of global positioning strategies

Conference date

2012-08-29 - 2012-08-31

Conference place

Stockholm, Sweden




  • Kulturarv och bevarandefrågor i Kina