By Xinhua writers Yao Yuan and Liu Jinhui
ZHENGZHOU, Aug. 24 (Xinhua) -- Visitors to Runan County, branded the hometown of the "butterfly lovers," China's answer to Romeo and Juliet, find a scene of desolation.
A lone archway stands in front of a run-down village. Dying trees flank an empty promenade leading to two ramshackle gravestones, whose fading epitaphs suggest they belong to Liang Shanbo and Zhu Yingtai, figures portrayed in a classic Chinese folklore as having turned into butterflies after society rejected their union.
Most structures are new, hinting at the place's great ambitions not so long ago, but now the scene tells a story of how a Chinese town eager to dig up its cultural gold in the rush toward prosperity has ground to an embarrassing standstill.
The story started years ago, when many Chinese localities zealously contended to be recognized as the hometowns or resting places of historical celebrities or mythological figures, hoping such fame could bring in tourists and investment.
In 2005, Runan County in central China's Henan Province was recognized as the hometown of Liang and Zhu by the Chinese Folk Literature and Art Society. At that time, six Chinese cities argued that the couple belonged to them.
Knowing the impoverished farming town could not fund the tourism project, officials in Runan reached out for investors. One entrepreneur did come, promising 200 million yuan (31.5 mln U.S. dollars) in investment.
The government then leased land from villagers to plant trees befitting scenic spots. They built a promenade and in 2011 unveiled an archway bearing the inscription "Hometown of Liang and Zhu."
But tourists did not come.
Officials said the businessman suddenly withdrew due to "economic problems in his company." Yet an unspoken reason may be that people are unlikely to pay for a trip on a bumpy country road to see nothing but two shabby tombs.
In neighboring Shanxi Province, a similar dead end faces Loufan County, which in 2010 vowed to build a scenic spot out of a mountain believed to be the home of the Monkey King, the mythical hero in Chinese classic Journey to the West.
But after erecting a four-story tourist center as well as adding greenery to a rock mountain, the project was halted because officials could not source investment.
"The mountain is not outstanding among scenic spots; neither can Loufan rely on famous sites in the proximity as there are none. It doesn't have the environment needed for developing tourism," Liang Junjie, head of the county's tourist bureau, admitted.
CULTURE BUILDS STAGE BUT ECONOMY FAILS TO SING
Explanations for the failures of Runan and Loufan could also be found on the Internet, where Chinese public opinions have grown averse to what many allege is a gold rush behind cultural shows.
"They think after building some fake relics and paying some experts to support their claims, tourists will swarm there and open their purses?" said a post on Sina Weibo, a popular microblogging site.
Zhang Jinbo, professor at Henan University of Economics and Law, also believes the competition for celebrity-hometown status is essentially driven by local governments' profit-seeking campaigns.
"It can be characterized as 'culture building a stage for the economy to sing,' which has become a business model," Zhang said. "But such campaigns often disregarded local conditions and market demands, which eventually lead to their failures."
In 2010, China's cultural authorities issued a circular criticizing the celebrity hometown fervor. "Many places have avidly built fake relics and developed heritages in over-commercialized and damaging ways," it warned.
But officials in Runan feel wronged by such accusations.
"The county is poor and has no other resources, so we hope the tourist project can bring in visitors and eventually businessmen," said Wang Heli, office director of Runan's Liangzhu Township. "We just hope the town can prosper."