Under the Sea
The Surprising Reasons the Chinese Love the Little Mermaid
Chantel Tattoli on the long history of a famous statue that’s been decapitated twice.
It isn’t easy being the Little Mermaid, who on Friday turned 100 years old. In fact, since the early 1960s, she’s had an exhausting life as the target of countless, often violent, vandalisms and other “happenings.” Thanks in no small part to her authority as a symbol of Denmark, the mermaid has over the years become the go-to spokeswoman for the agendas of different groups who use the statue as an ironic mouthpiece to talk about affairs both domestic and global, lighthearted and grave.
It started in 1961, when students painted a white bikini on the statue. Shockingly, in 1964, the statue was beheaded in what should be interpreted as a political assassination. “She had to die,” Cecelia Zwick Nash, daughter of the late Situationist artist Jørgen Nash, who confessed to “killing” the mermaid, says. “She was too naïve.” The statue’s demise made headlines on the front-page of newspapers as far as Tokyo and Moscow; a Madrid editorial called the headless mermaid “a symbol of a world that has lost its head.” In the next decades, the statue has sported everything from Islamic chador to KKK robes, masks of the faces of Danish politicians, to Pussy Riot-style balaclava. Dozens of times she has been sloshed with paint, was beheaded a second time in 1998, and was dynamited off her rocky roost on the 2003 anniversary of 9/11. Every injury is necessarily repaired by her “doctors” at the Royal Bronzery. “But she has strong muscles,” Jesper Vind Jensen, a critic for the Danish paper Weekendadvisen, says, adding that he and many of his fellow citizens “are grateful for the statue.”
The bronze statue by sculptor Edvard Eriksen was originally, and quietly, erected on a pile of boulders at the lip of Copenhagen Harbor in 1913, in honor of a prima ballerina named Ellen Price de Plane who had danced the title role in an adaptation of native son Hans Christian Andersen’s fairytale “The Little Mermaid,” about the sea princess who traded her voice for legs because she loved an earthling prince, but mostly, and most importantly, because she wanted a human soul.
And while 1 million tourists come to visit her every year, arguably no one loves her more than the Chinese. Their love of the Little Mermaid began with Mandarin translations in 1918 of the H.C. Andersen story; generations of Chinese have grown up with his tales, and Andersen resonates with them as a real proletariat: a poverty-stricken, hard-working man from the slums who persevered to achieve ultimate success. So popular is Andersen in China that next year a $13-million theme park based on his fairytales will open in Shanghai.
In recent years, the piscine darling has helped secure the Scandinavian country favorable trade and tourism agreements with China. When former Chinese president Hu Jintao embarked on a state visit to Denmark last year, he wanted to meet the Little Mermaid in person. In response, the Danish Foreign Office constructed a wooden observation deck on the esplanade specifically for Juntao’s brief visit, complete with a red carpet. In 2010, in an historic and unprecedented move, the Danish Ministry of Culture decided to loan the mermaid for the World EXPO in Shanghai. Called “a business trip” by Danes, the act had the symbolism of a small, aspiring country marrying their beautiful daughter to a superpower.
And the statue continues to serve in a diplomatic capacity to the People’s Republic of China. Denmark has long had a relationship with China, having established diplomatic ties in 1950—the first European nation to do so. The Chinese government, however, broke that relationship off in early 2009, after Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen received the Dalai Lama in Copenhagen. Already opposed to the statue’s trip, which they called “grotesque,” the right-wing Danish People’s Party threatened to block the Little Mermaid trip to the EXPO as punishment. Nevertheless, she went and was received in China as a VIP. The Danish pavilion, where the mermaid was housed in a blue lagoon, was second in popularity only to that of the Chinese pavilion, and during the course of her March-to-November stay, some 5.5 million people visited the little fish-girl there.
“She did such a good job,” former Danish Ambassador to China Christopher Bo Bramsen told me at the time. Indeed, since then, Chinese tourists have been flocking to Copenhagen. Denmark’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs reports that an unprecedented 80,000 Chinese traveled to the country in 2011, the year after Shanghai’s “year of the mermaid,” and the numbers have been ever record-breaking. In 2012, Scandinavian Airlines inaugurated two daily, direct routes: from Beijing and Shanghai to Copenhagen.
On Friday, the little lady’s big birthday, Wonderful Copenhagen live-blogged reports of the celebration in Mandarin. Additionally, a new informational sign was revealed, telling just a little of the Little Mermaid’s life story in Danish, English, and Mandarin. And, all day long Copenhagen buses that run routes to Carlsberg brewery and the mermaid at Langelinie Quay flew celebratory Danish flags. “Usually that is reserved for royalty,” says Signe Hedemann Mikkelsen, Wonderful Copenhagen’s Project Leader for the statue’s centennial. “But she is royalty.”