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    The Former Journalist Trying to Reinvent Traditional Chinese Culture

    Chen Jia rose to fame producing holiday specials for Henan TV. Now she’s setting her sights on a global audience.

    Every year, cities across China mark the Lunar New Year with elaborate light shows. The northwestern city of Xi’an festoons its city walls — one of the best preserved examples in the country — with animal lanterns and holiday decorations. The small salt-producing center of Zigong, in the country’s southwest, builds such a lavish display of lights each winter that it has drawn visits from national leaders like Deng Xiaoping.

    These light shows are a holiday staple. They’re also rarely innovative. For the most part, they follow a set template: some lanterns patterned after the upcoming zodiac animal, a handful of dioramas based on Chinese mythology, and a sprinkling of classic symbols like pandas. So visitors to last year’s Yuyuan Lantern Festival in Shanghai were taken aback when, in place of the expected rabbit-shaped paper lights, they found themselves in a psychedelic wonderland patterned off the more than 2,000-year-old mythological bestiary, “The Classic of the Mountains and Seas.”

    The show was an instant hit on social media, and event organizers quickly asked its designer, Chen Jia, to pull double duty the following year. In addition to the 2024 Yuyuan Lantern Festival, Chen would be responsible for a monthslong lantern show thousands of miles away, in Paris.

    For Chen, a 45-year-old former journalist and television producer with no prior experience in lantern shows, it was a chance to bring her idiosyncratic take on Chinese traditional culture — which has won tens of millions of fans in China — to an international audience.

    “When I took the job in Shanghai, in addition to wanting to try something new, there was also another reason: I’ve always wanted to share the depth and diversity of Chinese culture with the world,” Chen told me in an interview last month. “I hope that when foreigners think of China, it’s not just dragons, lion dances, and pandas.”


    Prior to becoming the most prominent of a new generation of creatives putting a modern spin on traditional Chinese culture, Chen was an entry-level reporter and editor at a local radio and television group in the central province of Henan. A Henan native, she was born and raised in the ancient Chinese capital of Kaifeng. After graduating from Tianjin Normal University, she returned to her home province to take a job with the Henan Radio and Television Group in the provincial capital of Zhengzhou.

    Chen soon rose through the ranks, jumping out of journalism and into production before eventually establishing a reputation as a talented director during the variety show boom of the 2010s. In 2021, her bosses tapped her to direct the network’s annual Dragon Boat Festival special.

    Although Henan was one of the earliest centers of Chinese culture and the seat of multiple ancient dynasties, it’s faced mounting competition from the neighboring Shaanxi province — home to the Tang dynasty (618–907) and the Terra-cotta Warriors — for cultural and historical preeminence.

    The holiday special represented an opportunity to re-link Henan to China’s heritage in the public imagination. Chen’s bosses set a wildly ambitious goal for the program: at least 300 million impressions across all major social media platforms.

    While attempting to keep expectations low — “I told them I’d do my best,” she says — Chen set about trying to create a paean to traditional culture that could capture the imagination of the digital generation. She took inspiration from the cave paintings of Dunhuang along the Silk Road and the latest trending web dramas. And she decided on an audacious opening gambit: starting the show with a massive underwater dance number based on the Henan-set poem “Nymph of the Luo River.”

    Chen spent the entire month of May and the first half of June overseeing every aspect of the production process, from the costume design and choreography to the post-production color grading. By the time the show — “The Fantastic Journey of Duanwu” — premiered on the first night of the three-day Dragon Boat holiday, she was exhausted. As soon as it was over, she returned home and collapsed into her bed. “After the show ended, I stood on stage for a moment,” she recalls. “I looked online, and at least it seemed like no one was criticizing us, so I went home and passed out.”

    Several hours later, she awoke to thousands of congratulatory messages from friends, colleagues, and family.

    Chen’s show had become a literal overnight sensation. Within the first 48 hours, 19 hashtags related to “Fantastic Journey” trended on social media site Weibo, collecting over 3 billion views between them — well beyond her bosses’ wildest expectations. The underwater dance sequence alone was watched more than 500 million times that day. And Chen, used to the anonymity of production work, realized she had become a minor celebrity.


    Local and provincial media groups have been tasked with promoting traditional culture for years. But in an era of declining audiences for traditional media, their reach was limited. The viral success of “Fantastic Journey” was unheard of, and it instantly made Chen one of the biggest names in the cultural (re-)production business.

    The following year, Chen returned with another “Fantastic Journey” holiday special for Henan TV, this time in honor of Tomb-Sweeping Day. Although it did not quite reach the heights of the first, it easily beat the network’s other holiday programming and was hailed within the industry as another success.

    Ten days later, Chen received a phone call from a Shanghai-area number. On the other end of the line were representatives of the Yuyuan Tourism Shopping Mall Company. They wanted to know if she would be willing to relocate to Shanghai and take over the city’s Yuyuan Lantern Festival. A month later, in spite of objections from her friends and family, she packed her bags and set off for the coast, ready to start a new phase in her career.

    “You have to understand, I was changing fields, crossing boundaries, and moving across regions,” Chen recalls. “My friends and colleagues thought I was crazy for making this decision when I was over 40 years old. But at the time, I just didn’t see any way to achieve a new breakthrough in television, and what I fear the most is repeating myself.”

    Her new job offered her a chance to reinvent a long tradition, at least by Shanghai standards. The Yuyuan Lantern Festival — held to celebrate the Lunar New Year — has been around since at least 1849, according to historical records. It fell into decline and was eventually canceled in the second half of the 20th century, only to be revived in 1979. In 1992, its organizer, the Yuyuan Tourism Shopping Mall Company, went public, becoming one of China’s earliest listed companies, and in 2011, the festival was added to China’s national registry of intangible cultural heritage.

    The revived Lantern Festival was in many respects a success, but Chen saw a missed opportunity: the light show was both over the top and largely indistinguishable from displays found in other big Chinese cities, which she likens to the occasionally gauche sacrificial items found in many of the country’s temples.

    “I think of my work here as not just organizing a lantern festival; it’s about reimagining what a cultural celebration can be in a city like Shanghai, balancing both tradition and change,” Chen says.

    Six months after relocating, the Chen-designed 2023 Yuyuan Lantern Festival opened to the public. Ditching the traditional zodiac theme, she drew heavily from “The Classic of the Mountains and Seas,” turning the site into an eye-catching bestiary of light.

    Last December, with a full 12 months to prepare for the Year of the Dragon, she went further, blending elements of “The Classic of the Mountains and Seas” with nods to ancient local handicrafts like fish and dragon lanterns.

    Drawing from a Song dynasty (960–1279) poem that described the Lantern Festival as “the night fish and dragons dance,” Chen designed a set piece in which individual fish lanterns would be grouped into schools, which in turn would form the contours of a dragon. “I wanted to convey the idea that each of us may start as a small, unknown fish; we may experience hardships, pressures, growth, and the passage of time,” Chen says. “But eventually, we become dragons."

    To get the look right, Chen and her team looked to movies like the Chinese animated film “Deep Sea” and James Cameron’s “Avatar: The Way of Water.” Perhaps due to her background in TV, Chen emphasized the importance of conveying movement; she wanted visitors to feel as though they were looking up at a school of swimming fish in the sea.

    Achieving the intended effect required the design and construction of all-new support structures. The design team built a winding steel wire capable of supporting over 400 differently sized fish lamps with 16 meters between its highest and lowest points.

    Finally, on Dec. 15, 2023, the festival opened its doors. It was an instant hit on social media, but once again, Chen wasn’t around to take credit. She had already flown to Paris to help guide work on its sister exhibition.


    Just eight hours after the Yuyuan Lantern Festival opened its gates, Chen oversaw the launch of the “Festival des Dragons et des Lanternes" in Paris’ Jardin d’Acclimatation amusement park.

    The show marked the first ever overseas edition of the Yuyuan Lantern Festival. Chen had begun looking for sites almost as soon as the 2023 show closed, narrowing the list to 18 potential locations, most of them in Europe, before selecting LV Group-owned Jardin d’Acclimatation.

    Most of the next four months were spent navigating a complex set of logistical and cultural hurdles. Staff at the Jardin d’Acclimatation, having never hosted a large lantern festival before, expected little more than some Chinese-style lights hung from the park’s trees. The adhesives Chen’s team brought from China were disallowed because they did not meet local construction standards, while the park’s internet wasn’t fast enough to support the show’s 3D effects. Even getting permission to fix the poles needed to support the lights into the ground was a challenge.

    “I was in a state of total disarray, busy solving problems, one after another,” Chen says.

    By the time opening day came, over 2,000 lanterns had been brought over from Shanghai and installed in 60 large groupings, including highlights from the Yuyuan Lantern Festivals of the past two years as well as new designs customized for French audiences.

    It was a major achievement, but Chen had already started thinking about next year’s show. “The opening time for this event was a bit late, actually,” she says. “If we hold similar events in Western countries in the future, it’s better to start in November.”

    “There are also far fewer people in Western countries than in China. Our concern when organizing lantern festivals here is the risk of crowds gathering in one place. In the West, we can create more installations that involve participation, experience, and interaction.”

    Indeed, the challenges of the past two years don’t seem to have dimmed Chen’s enthusiasm for the project. Despite her rising fame, she seems most comfortable when she’s working behind the scenes, solving problems.

    That endless reserve of energy and willingness to iterate might be her biggest strength. “You have to stop seeing traditional culture as a static relic,” she says. “Once you start looking at it as a source of inspiration that can be reinterpreted and reinvigorated through modern technology, it opens so many fun doors.”

    (Header image: Lantern installations during the Yuyuan Lantern Festival, Shanghai, Jan. 22, 2024. Wu Huiyuan/Sixth Tone)