By Nick Parker
On the outskirts of Beijing, China’s third-largest city, is a thriving community of artists called the 798. The number is not an area code; it was once the name of a government-owned factory used to produce military equipment. It was one of many factories in the area, each delineated by a three-digit number, that got shut down as Beijing grew into a metropolis.
In true poetic form, the artists of the 798 have turned a facility that once produced weapons for the government into a facility that now produces weapons against the government, in the form of art.
It is easy to tell when you have entered the 798, because everywhere you turn, graffiti decorates the drab brick faÃ§ade. Wei Lin, a studio manager in the 798, boasted that the 798 contained “the only graffiti in China.”
The neighborhood is jam-packed with artists’ studios and workspaces, upscale coffee shops, and bars. Everything is decorated in the chic juxtaposition of the primitive and the refined. However, despite the mixture of artistic expression, many feel that the 798 is now too commercialized.
It was originally created so that artists could live an alternative and creative lifestyle.
“There are too many tourists now,” said a dismayed Lin.
Many feel like Gauguin when Paris became overrun with impressionists, and many feel the need to get out.
“They are not here during the dayâ€¦they come here only at night, when [there are] not so many people,” Lin said.
Some fault the government for putting up mall-like directories in English and Chinese and for over-advertising. However, most believe that what is happening in the 798 is a microcosm of something greater: westernization.
Jin, a painter and sculptor of the 798 and a devout Buddhist who advocates democracy, has applied himself to the task of trying to understand Chinese people. He believes that a shift to a capitalist economy and an obsession with making money have manifested themselves in the westernization of China.
“Chinese people are making the same mistakes as the United States and European countriesâ€¦ the cure is not Western medicine, but Chinese herbs,” Jin said. His idea is reinforced by one of his most powerful pieces, which depicts classic characters from the Peking Opera emerging from drawers that one would find in a typical Chinese drug store.
Chinese historian and documentary film producer Charlotte Shalgosky believes that the obsession with money is due to the need for personal security in a country whose government is constantly going through major reform.
“The government is like a pendulum swinging from the ultra-left didactic to the looser policies and regulations [of the right],” Shalgosky said. As an example, she cited the shift from the ultra-left Cultural Revolution, ending in 1967, to the ultra-right Open Door Policy, beginning in 1979.
Another symptom of westernization, Jin says, is that Chinese artists who used to paint classical Chinese artwork are now doing Western-style oil paintings because they can fetch a higher price.
The artists of the 798 are trying to combat this phenomenon. However, it is difficult when the same problems are affecting the community in which their creativity thrives.
Said Jin, “If we hold up Western Democracy as an ideal for China, we are truly in big trouble.”