300 million rural Chinese are projected to move into cities by 2050. So why is the government pushing artists to celebrate its old ways?
Two billion people watched the opening ceremony of Beijing's 2008 Summer Olympics. As 15,000 performers drummed, danced, spun, twirled, and flipped through the 90-minute spectacle, the world witnessed a once-in-a-lifetime show. As the final act came to a close, it was evident: China, an emerging global power, had raised the bar of Olympic artistry to new heights. A state-owned newspaper would later call it "China's proudest night."
Six years later, however, Beijing seems far less satisfied with its art—and, consequently, its artists. A new official policy, made public earlier this week, seeks to acutely influence the direction of Chinese contemporary art. This comes at a time when certain cities, such as Beijing, have developed world-class art scenes.
Reported in the New York Times and elsewhere on Tuesday, China's new political regime is establishing a program which encourages artists to document the country's de-populating rural areas. Government officials hope that once urban artists get out to the countryside, they will "unearth new subjects" by embedding with farmers and other rural residents for up to 30 days. The program doesn't sound overtly hostile, but it is being interpreted as a politically driven attempt to co-opt the creativity of China's intellectual class. The objective seems to be to develop an artistic trend that is free of cosmopolitanism and safeguarded from Western influence.
"Artists and writers that have lived through the cultural revolution and the Mao period have learned their lesson," says Judith Shapiro of American University in Washington, D.C. That lesson, Shapiro says, is that cultural-reform efforts come and go. Sending artists to the countryside is just the government's latest stunt, though some artists will likely jump at the opportunity. Shapiro, who has written extensively on China's cultural-reform policies, says that rural villages have become fashionable vacation destinations for affluent urbanites. A free trip out of the city will likely entice certain artists to enroll in the program. But that's likely to be the extent of participation by Chinese intellectuals, she says. Independent artists are unlikely to be swayed towards a rural-centric creative vision simply because the government encourages them to do so.
"They will almost laugh in the face of anybody that says, 'go out to the countryside and get your brains washed,'" she says.
Since the early 1980s, as the communist party started to liberalize China's economy, contemporary art blossomed. A profound creative culture always existed in the country, yet art communes largely operated underground. During the rule of revolutionary leader Mao Tse-tung from 1949 to 1976, artists and intellectuals were disdained as out-of-touch elites working against socialist values. (Mao's rule was shortly interrupted from 1962 through 1966.) But as China opened up to the world in the early '80s, it also started opening up to its artists. By the early 2000s, a group of displaced artists would relocate to an abandoned building in northeast Beijing. It became known as Factory 798, and is now a globally renown arts district, proof of the country's recent art renaissance.
A large, Bauhaus-style warehouse built in the 1950s, Factory 798 carries many memories of China's socialist revolution. Pushed in the corners are rusted, Soviet-era industrial machines. "Long Live Chairman Mao!" and other firebrand slogans adorn the building's walls. But hundreds of artists now ply their craft in the massive structure. It housed 398 different art studios and galleries as of 2008 (there were only 22 in 2003). A recent study emphasizes that the success of Factory 798—and Beijing's growing art culture more broadly—can be traced to China's acquiescence to the forces of globalization. China's economic and military prowess was unquestionable by the late 20th century. But in order to gain world influence culturally, says Yue Zhang, a scholar and author of the new report, China needed to loosen the reins on their artists.
"Artists and art districts are often at the fore of urban changes," and "Chinese artists are empowered by globalization," Zhang explains in her study. "[T]he government has changed its attitude towards the art community from recurrent suppression to limited tolerance in order to create a better global image for itself.”
So why is China risking this global image by suddenly taking a harder line against its art community?
This new policy is partly an effort by the government to rehabilitate dissident artists that have "gone astray," according to the New York Times. Scholars also generally agree the edict reflects China's return to intensely nationalistic and pro-socialist values not seen in recent decades. The idea of a strong, China-centric state is creeping back into official policies, Yue Zhang told CityLab. Getting talented artists to create renderings and films about an egalitarian and agrarian nation—not one Westernized and urban—will help the government promote these values.
"[T]heir new policy towards arts and culture actually serves the idea of fulfilling the Chinese dream," Zhang explains.
Yet, a state-sanctioned dream hinging upon China's rural culture is just that: A dream. Indeed, China's hinterlands are home to one of the world's largest remaining rural populations. But that is changing rapidly. Many of China's historically rural communities are being swallowed up by sprawling cities. A 2014 U.N. report projects that 300 million rural Chinese—roughly half of its remaining rural population—will relocate to cities by 2050. The reality is that China's future—and much of its artistry—will take place in cities.
"The farmers have by and large been forced into high-rises. The land sold off to real estate developers. There’s a real shrinkage of arable land in China in general," says Judith Shapiro of American University.
"So when the regime says artists and writers should go to the countryside, it’s hard to imagine what that would look like.”