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Chinese Contemporary Art

Up until the banking crisis of 2008 Chinese contemporary art (中国当代艺术, Zhongguo Dangdai Yishu) was perhaps one of the hottest investment opportunities out there. Galleries sprung up all over China but particularly in Beijing around the 798 art district. Many of these were lavish and foreign funded as money flooded into the art scene. However, the art scene itself has been developing since the 1980’s and is fact just an evolution of the socialist realism of the Cultural Revolution period of the 1970s.

Contemporary Chinese art covers all the modern mediums of painting, film, video, photography, and performance. Art exhibitions deemed controversial have often been shut down by police, and performance artists in particular have faced the threat of intimidation and arrest. More recently there has been greater tolerance by the authorities but still many internationally acclaimed artists are still finding themselves monitored and have a distinct lack of media exposure inside China or are simply unable to exhibit there.

Construction of the 798 Art Zone

798, an area popular to visit on our China tours, started out life as the Dashanzi factory complex under cooperation between the Soviet Union and China in the early 50’s. By 1951 156 factories had been built however only 2 of these were producing the modern electrical components that the People’s Liberation Army required. The Soviets weren’t keen to engage in more projects and so the Chinese turned to the East Germans who already produced a large amount of Soviet components and headed off to East Berlin to prepare the necessary plans.

The design was left up to the Germans causing friction between them and the Russians due to their differing ideas on how factories should look. A large plot of land to the North East of Beijing was chosen and Joint Factory 718 was to begin construction, 7 being the number the Chinese government used to denote a military factory. Throughout construction disagreements continued causing delays to the project. The Russians thought the Germans were “over engineering” the project – meaning their standards were too high!

It took over 100 German experts and 22 German factories to bring the project into reality. The equipment was transported through the Soviet Union via the Trans-Siberian railway and by 1957, Joint factory 718 began production.

The 798 Zone’s Industrial Period

718 quickly became one of China’s leading factories and it’s workers were treated to a higher standard of living than other workers could expect. They had access to hospitals and dentists that used German technology to provide the highest standard of care available in China. Workers had a higher quality of home and could expect to be treated to orchestral performances that featured Western classical music as well as the standard dose of revolutionary anthems.

Workers would be trained in new skills in Germany and were kept motivated by generous reward systems while still being indoctrinated in Mao thought. During the Cultural Revolution the giant Mao slogans that you can still see there today were painted on the ceilings in bright red characters.
With the economic reforms of Deng Xiaoping came the decline of many state owned factories and enterprises due to the removal of government funding. It’s decline was to continue until its inevitable closure in the 1990’s

Artistic Rebirth

In 1995 the Beijing Central Academy of Fine Arts was looking for somewhere they could set up that was affordable but spacious. They temporarily set up in factory 706 and soon the move was made permanent with the Dean of Sculpture moving his own studio there.

More and more artists and designers moved in as news of this new centre for arts spread by word of mouth. The Bauhaus inspired design of the place had now taken on a new post-industrial chic and at the request of the new tenants Mao’s slogans were left on the ceilings giving it that all important “Mao kitsch”.


Since 2002 the popularity of the place has soared with clubs, bars and cafes joining the art studios and shops. The area rarely charges entry fees to the galleries and generally supports itself by hiring out the space to corporate events. Luxury cars have spread into the area and most of the actual cutting edge artists have now moved out due to the extortionate rents now charged there leaving the area, somewhat ironically, as a preserve of Beijing’s Bohemian Bourgeoise scene.

Contributed by Phil Stanley & Headseast.


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