Kingdom of the Little People: Eccentric or Downright Offensive?

Barry Kane

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Kingdom of the Little People - Photo Credit: misseward
Kingdom of the Little People – Photo Credit: misseward

Dwarfism is the term given to a rare set of medical conditions that affect the stature of a person. Though rare, dwarfism incompasses over 200 individual birth conditions, all of which are acknowledged by organisations such as the Little People of America (LPA).

The widely accepted height criteria for someone of short stature, is an adult height of 4 feet 10 inches or under. Abnormal genetic conditions that effect bone growth, such as skeletal dysplasias, resulting from achondrophlasia, are the most common factors involved. Acondroplasia effects one person per 26,000-40,0000 births.

The result of a condition such as acondroplasia is disproportionate dwarfism. This will usually cause a number of different physical features, noticably, shorter limbs in comparison to the torso. The opposite case is proprortionate dwarfism, where the individual’s body and limbs are in porportion to his/her short size.

People with Dwarfism are a minority that have faced persecution and discrimination, which is arguably not spoken about in the media as much as racism or homophobia.  The derogatory term ‘midget’ is still not regarded in many Western societies as a word that sits on the same shelf as the widely accepted racial slurs for example. Though the term is not considered politically correct, it seems to lack the same guttural reaction of disgust when uttered socially.

The film industry has also had a part to play in generalising and shamelessly mocking people of short stature. Freaks (1932) is a clear example of the grotesque marginalization, that those born with dwarfism, along with people who have other physical birth conditions, had to endure.

In the eyes of many, the Kingdom of the Little People (also referred to as Kingdom of Dwarves) is a modern day example of this, having even been referred to as a human zooKingdom of the Little People is a unique Chinese theme park, that has caused mass controversy and public intrigue.

Kunming, China, is home to Chen Mingjing’s unsual tourist attraction. Chen Mingjing is a Chinese real estate entreprenuer, who founded the Kingdom in September of 2009. Since 2010, Mingjing has had plans for massive expansion.

The park currently employs over 100 staff who are all people of short stature.  The ages range between 18-48 years old. There are 33 miniature homes, which are made to look like fairy-tale cottages. The cottages are only for show however, as separate, gender-divided, dormitories reveal where the performers actually sleep. Mingjing fails to mentions this to tourists.

Kingdom of The Little People - Photo Credit: misseward (Flickr)
Kingdom of The Little People – Photo Credit: misseward (Flickr)

The ‘Little People’ perform on stage to audiences, with dance routines, circus tricks and elaborate costumes. Many people in the west have a problem with this park and view it as exploitative, however Mingling argues that the Kingdom is a place where those with dwarfism can find employment and acceptance.

In a recent Vice documentary, employees of the park are interviewed directly. They express appreciation and positivity in regard to Mingling. Many feel that in their previous lives, they suffered discrimination and exclusion but are now in a secure place in life. A 33 year old employee, known as Li, stated that the Kingdom is a place of acceptance.

So, is this a place of crude exploitation? Or is it harder to define? At first glace, Chen Mingjing’s  theme-park seemed like a cheap platform of moral bankruptcy to me. Gary Arnold of LPA has said he thinks the park is “horrible” and sees no difference between it and a zoo.

Is this perhaps an issue of cultural differences? Jean Van Wetter, China’s director for Handicap International, has stated that “this is the kind of thing you see in China.”

We must however take the most important factor here into account; the opinions of the people who work there. There may of course be employees of the Kingdom that feel they were partly forced into their career by a prejudicial and hateful society, yet I have yet to find any interviews or reports to support this.

It is difficult for some to accept, but Kingdom of the Little People might actually be genuinely helpful for some of the people who work there. As  Mingjing’s  business venture is still a relatively new phenomenon, it is difficult to see how much of the interview content was truly honest and how much was preselected for western audiences. One thing is for sure, it will continue to confuse, outrage and shock the outside world.

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Barry Kane