Gaobeidian has undergone significant change over its thousand-year history. Historically the village served as the main port on the Grand Canal when Beijing was the imperial capital, from the Yuan dynasty (1206-1368) to the end of the Qing dynasty (1616-1911). With the decline of imperialism and canal transportation, the village lost its importance as a dock and villagers began to diversify the ways they made a living. Some remained farmers while others worked in Beijing city selling gold fish or learning handicrafts. Before 1949, the village was home to five temples that drew pilgrims from near and far. Locals and visitors alike engaged in worship, the buying and selling of goods, local foods and the appreciation of folk art performances. Between 1949 and 1976, Gaobeidian became a socialist village and key agricultural producer as part of the Happiness People’s Commune. During this period most of the temples were demolished and traditional customs and activities were forbidden. Later in the 1980’s along with the “Reform and Opening” policy, Gaobeidian contributed most of its land and resources for the social, economic and infrastructural changes occurring in Beijing. Described by villagers as “three withouts” (san wu), Gaobeidian faced economic difficulties, referred to by locals as “a village without agriculture, farmers without land, and citizens without jobs.” In 2003, however, under the leadership of the local Communist Party, efforts to address the problems facing the village with the intent to stimulate economic development began to take shape. One strategy that has succeeded in restoring and promoting the economic rebirth and recognition for Gaobeidian, is the industrializing of traditional Chinese culture.
Today Gaobeidian has emerged as a center for international folkloric tourism and “the window of Beijing Old Folk Customs.” However, the folk art, crafts and customs featured in the village today are not all indigenous traditions to Gaobeidian, or even Beijing. In fact, one popular area, the “Chinese Folklore Park” (huaxia minsu yuan), is a street that has been constructed to attract and feature folk artists, invited from all over China to produce, perform and sell arts to tourists. Non-native folk traditions you might be exposed to in Gaobeidian include paper-cutting, kite-making, and the making of mud dolls. That said, the government’s investment in this effort to promote tourism and stimulate Gaobeidian’s economy has led to the rediscovery and preservation of folk traditions and cultural practices of Gaobeidian and Beijing that had nearly, if not entirely, disappeared. For instance, folk performances such as stilt-walking (gaoqiao) and the custom of floating lanterns on the Tonghui River on July 15th (lunar calendar) have been restored.
Gaobeidian attempts to offer a comprehensive cultural emersion experience for tourists. In addition to the exposure to cultural artifacts, handicrafts and performances—tourists may lodge with Chinese host families known as “folkloric reception households” (minusjiedaihu, or minsuhu). This unique opportunity targets tourists from around the globe, offering an “authentic’”experience of the life of suburban Beijing farmers and residents. These home-stays combined with the other folk customs offerings were strategically conceived and implemented to not only increase the economic vitality of the village, but display and celebrate Chinese culture to the world. This is most evident in the significance of Gaobeidian’s visibility and promotion during the 2008 Olympic Games where international visitors were offered the chance to be citizens of Beijing for a day, sharing the happiness and customs of the Chinese people.