Pandora’s Morphological Marvels

The new China guide is out on shelves this week! I’ve written before about how much of the research Lonely Planet authors do never makes it into the book. Here’s one of the parts, a box for one section of the Wǔlíngyuán National Park in northern Hunan, that got cut.

First, a little background: It all started with the (ill-informed) director of Avatar’s offhand remark. Wǔlíngyuán park officials had been trying to ride the wave of the film’s publicity by tying it to sights in the park, but on a promotional trip to China, James Cameron was quoted as saying that the scenery in Pandora had nothing to do with the park at all. This immediately spurred international criticism that the Chinese government had been opportunistically stretching the truth. Unfortunately, the previous Lonely Planet China guide rehashed the criticism without much scrutiny. (The resemblance between Pandora and Wǔlíngyuán is rather undeniable.) In between that edition and mine, Cameron eventually acknowledged the obvious connection and the fact that his location scouts had spent a week shooting in the park in 2008, but by then park officials had already lost face. The marketing campaign was a bust–a fascinating example of the power of good (and bad) PR.

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The pinnacle in real life above. Starring in Avatar below. Credit: China Daily.

When you take in the sights at Yuánjiājiè, it might be hard to ignore the blue-skinned humanoids. That’s because in 2010, tourism officials named a spindly tower of limestone “Hallelujah Mountain,” after the floating mountains of Pandora, the imaginary world of the Na’vi in the blockbuster film Avatar. Pandora-related posters, t-shirts, and a fiberglass banshee for photo ops soon appeared in the park.

To be fair, the film raked in more than US$2.8 billion in large part because of the beauty of its imagery–not its plot. In many scenes the resemblance (save for the gravity defying part) is uncanny. Scouts spent four days shooting in the park in 2008, and in March 2010, director James Cameron told reporters that Wǔlíngyuán (as well as Anhui Province’s Huáng Shān and Venezuela’s mesas) inspired the Na’vi world. Yuánjiājiè may get another cameo in the sequel in 2015.

Nevertheless, the commercially motivated renaming stoked controversy, and officials now insist they merely added a name–not changed it. Of the 100 or so pillars and peaks in the park with designated names, this one, 150m high and towering more than a kilometre above sea level, now has more than a few. Its official name remains “Pillar of the Universe” (乾坤一柱`), though it is most commonly referred to as the “Southern Sky Column” (南天一柱), and to fantasy buffs it is the Hallelujah Mountain, which, in case you’re wondering, is ayRam aLusìng in Na’vi.

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