Chinese Burners6 min read

China goes to Burning Man, and reinvents it at home – Ian Rowen

Science-fiction author Chen Qiufan recently published an account in Logic magazine of his virgin trip to Burning Man in 2018 as a “Chinese burner.” Chinese tech entrepreneurs, he writes, “act as the first generation of pioneers journeying into the virtual New World. They imagine themselves as packs of wolves in the Mongolian plains who can only survive and emerge victorious through bloody combat, incessantly stalking new territory and prey.” Reflecting on their pursuit of success and power amidst all the surreal art and spectacle, Chen concluded that his tech-networking campmates’ “combination of worshipping totems while pursuing practical benefits is quintessentially Chinese.” Alas, it’s also quintessentially American – as in the myth of the Western frontier – and Burning Man may be the world’s most weirdly scenic place to watch this collision of financial and imperial fantasy.

I was at Burning Man last summer too, for the fourteenth time, and for more than a decade served as the organization’s representative in China. Having wandered into the camp that Chen describes, ‘China Village,’ I found his account particularly piquant. There, I sampled a scanty Sichuanese lunch, and listened to one of the camp leads – a Shenzhen-based tech conference organizer and first-time camper, who outbid competing offers to handle what amounted to an extravagantly expensive package tour – tell me how he found himself overwhelmed by the difficulty of securing the basics of civilization for these new masters of the universe.

Basic items that more experienced burners had spent years figuring out how to acquire and manage on their own – such as food, water, and fun – weren’t arriving on time as promised by paid vendors, producing a sense of permanent crisis for camp managers. That most of the guests arrived late, intending simply to take in the spectacle for the weekend, put the problem in even starker relief. Few had any inkling of the extraordinary amount of collective labor, partly paid but mostly volunteer, that went into constructing the living spaces and art of their 75,000 revelling neighbors. Given such a shambling entree to a participatory event committed to having “no spectators,” it’s little wonder that more inquisitive souls found meaning far from camp.

Chen’s depiction of Chinese tech entrepreneurs as rapacious wolves on the Mongolian plains is even more felicitous than he intended. In years past some Chinese burners, including those well-acquainted with the Left Coast social firmament, had created delightful theme camps and art installations. Chen’s campmates, however, instead followed a path created by previous waves of entrepreneurs grasping for the sociocultural keys to the Silicon Valley kingdom. In 2014, a group of Chinese venture capitalists landed unprepared after posting videos on Weibo about how they hoped to find not only themselves in the desert, but Facebook and Google bros, too.

Gobi Heaven is not the first attempt to profitably copycat Burning Man in China, nor the first with Mongolian fever dreams.”

‘Desert Guard,’ by artist Lu Ming, photographed in Beijing before it was shipped to Nevada by the Gobi Heaven crew (Ian Rowen)

A bevy of Chinese companies, meanwhile, have attempted to conjure their own commercial knock-off version of Burning Man in Inner Mongolia (a northern province of China that abuts the country of Mongolia itself). Camping a few dusty blocks away from China Village was a crew from ‘Gobi Heaven,’ a new Beijing-based company backed by the Chinese Ministry of Culture, which had just erected a gigantic metal sculpture of a Mongolian warrior. Months earlier, Gobi Heaven’s founder and CEO, an adman named Joshua Chen, had registered a company, Beijing Burning Man Brand Management Company. Unbeknownst to Burning Man staff in San Francisco, Chen had signed contracts and MOUs with a number of Chinese artists and brands, claiming to represent Burning Man. He promised to bring their work to the famed US festival and to spotlight it at Gobi Heaven, his own version of the event in Inner Mongolia, which he called “China’s Burning Man.” Permit problems aside, he may yet pull it off.

Gobi Heaven is not the first attempt to profitably copycat Burning Man in China, nor the first with Mongolian fever dreams. In 2016, a foot massage parlor tycoon incorporated a new company and held a press launch for an event called ‘Black Rock City’ to be held in the Gobi Desert (Black Rock City is the name of Burning Man’s ephemeral urban agglomeration in Nevada). After objections from Burning Man staff and representatives, the event was eventually renamed Phoenix Burn, and was ultimately cancelled when the local government denied them a permit. A few years earlier, in 2013, a township in Ordos, Inner Mongolia, had also reached out through an investment bank to the Burning Man Project, in the hope that it would shower celebrities and turn their township into “the new Dubai.” Talks didn’t get very far.

Meanwhile, a less commercially-minded collective sparked by longtime Burning Man participants has somehow succeeded in building an authorized, non-profit regional event, Dragon Burn, held annually near Shanghai since 2014. (Disclosure: I was in the first wave of organizers, and served as liaison with the Burning Man Project.) The venue has changed four times, and is currently in a forest next to a much-mythologized reservoir, whose waters the legendary concubine Yang Guifei is supposed to have drunk, turning her radiantly beautiful. That Dragon Burn continues to thrive testifies to its privileging of survival over fame, the organizers’ willingness to grow as weeds instead of prowl as wolves. While the core team is still mostly composed of foreign residents, they are being happily outpaced by growing local participation, with roughly 800 attendees now coming each year, while nearby villagers gatecrash.

Dragon Burn 2018, in a forest near Shanghai (Ian Rowen)

Unlike the original Burning Man event in Nevada, Dragon Burn is still uninteresting enough to Chinese state and market forces that it may stay under the radar for a while yet. It boasts few famous people, last year’s visit from Michael Levitt – a Nobel laureate in chemistry – notwithstanding. Like the original, it does not allow images from the event to be used for commercial purposes. Still, such injunctions didn’t stop the head of the company that manages its gorgeously forested venue, peppered with American pines and other non-native species, from claiming on WeChat that “international elites” held their “world-famous” Burning Man festival on its grounds (they later took these posts down on request). Fortunately, Chinese press attention has been surprisingly supportive and low-key.

Dragon Burn is set to recur this year from May 1 to 5, and tickets have just sold out. Given the event’s disregard for press or profit, Alibaba’s Jack Ma may be even less likely to attend than burner stalwart Elon Musk. But if Chen wants to, as he says, “become a better Chinese burner,” he and his readers may consider dropping by. For now, far from dust storms and the specter of social media influencers, they’ll find motley bands making art and hotpot from young bamboo that sprouts across the landscape – a humbler but fresher vision of the future. ∎

Header: Revellers, both Chinese and foreign, at Dragon Burn 2018 (Ian Rowen).