The Art Scene in Beijing

Kara Smith

The Art Scene in Beijing

by Kara Smith


At the research proposal stage, my project was a very broad, general inquiry into the place of art in current Chinese society. I prepared one central question: “Is art viewed more as a field of employment or a pastime enjoyed, yet not relied upon for income?” In addition, I sought to find out whether or not people could support themselves working as artists, and how those people generally fared (any possible stigma that may have been attached to that was of interest). Since then, the project has undergone several changes.
This topic was less about art itself and more about cultural perception of art, and my main plan for research was to designate a field site to visit weekly: said field site was the Dashanzi Art District in Beijing, commonly called the 798 Art Zone. However, only a short few days after arriving in China, I had the opportunity to go with some classmates to the Beijing 潘家园 (Pan Jia Yuan) Flea Market.

What I found

​What I was expecting based on what I had been told about Pan Jia Yuan was an antique market whose inventory would consist mostly of antiquated objects with a lot of history behind them. What I saw at the location was the largest collection of artwork that I have ever seen: examples include detailed sculptures of fearsome dragons, figures of 石狮子 (shi shi zi, guardian lions) sold in pairs- a male holding an embroidered ball and a female restraining a boisterous cub, picturesque paintings of flowers and waterfalls, depictions of deities from Chinese and Hindi religion, and calligraphy paraphernalia. I bought a small bauble from the market that is a glass vase with flowers and butterflies painted onto it.
As I was taking in the artwork there, I kept on seeing many of the same symbols and subject matter. This was ultimately what inspired me to change my topic to evaluating recurring themes: what are they, and why are they so prevalent? Initially, the list of recurring themes was, of course, not exhaustive, but very long. I considered how often I noticed the 12 animals of the Zodiac (ex: 牛niu- ox, 羊yang- sheep, 鼠 shu- rat, etc.); however, later managed to narrow the themes down to a focus on animals or people with religious connotations. Dragons, which I knew even before starting this research project were a major symbol of Chinese culture, made up a disproportionately large part of the content, followed closely by deities such as 观世音 (Guanshiyin, sometimes shortened to Guanyin) and the usually laughing Buddha.
​My plan for research changed with my topic. Going exclusively to one field site would have severely limited my opportunities to observe, and opting not to make repeated journeys to the 798 Art Zone turned out to be a very good decision. My intent was to visit older or historical sites, such as museums, that would undoubtedly have antiquated artwork on display so that I could search for the common themes that had been present for quite a while.
​I suspected that there might be a visible difference between art of an older style and art of a newer style. Based on what I knew of the site, which was originally a factory that was later turned into a center devoted completely to art, I hypothesized that the 798 Art Zone’s collection might fall under the latter category. This question was answered upon visiting- furthermore, to my amazement, the common themes that I had been searching for were either completely absent or had undergone varying degrees of modification, resulting in them being extremely difficult to recognize! The pair of shi shi zi that I saw on the premises were very different from the usual style. More than anything else, they resembled mountain lions, and they both looked exactly the same. It was impossible to distinguish the male from the female as one usually can when looking at a pair of these entrance/exit guardians.
I distinctly remember seeing a gallery full of calligraphy writings, with every one being a remarkably profound saying. Most of these did not follow 集体主义 (ji ti zhu yi)- the collectivism that is prominent in Chinese society, but encouraged the individual to strengthen themselves and achieve their own personal goals, regardless of others’ opinions. I think back to the proverb, “枪打出头鸟,” (quan da chu tou niao) which is a saying that literally “shoots down” nonconformity, likening it to a bird that puts out its head above others and as a consequence is struck by the first gunshot.
The impression that was left on me by the whole experience on that particular day was that the 798 Art Zone is a place where art is less about following universal themes and more about using it as a form of self-expression. The pieces are more recent, and, in my opinion, the perspectives behind it are more recent as well.
Before changing my research topic and ultimately allowing it to dissolve into a mere component of a different topic, I read an academic article entitled “Artistic Urbanization: Creative Industries and Creative Control in Beijing,” written by Xuefei Ren and Meng Sun. The article discussed the effect of censorship by the state on both the production and content of art, and brought up the subject of art districts, a category under which 798 Art Zone falls- this was a driving force as to why it was my first choice as a field site.
To return to the brunt of the focus, the common themes that I identified at Pan Jia Yuan remained consistent throughout my project development. It was a much better idea to visit different locations and conduct research on the artwork there; the best places being historical sites to explore how themes have stayed consistent over long periods of time. My chosen research field were, in order from earliest to most recent: Pan Jia Yuan, the Muslim market, the Temple of Heaven, the 798 Art Zone, and the Summer Palace. This does not include extra observations made at other places over the course of this assignment.
My research methods were going to field sites, keeping a weekly field journal, speaking to sellers of artwork, a great deal of observation, and amassing a wealth of photographs- as well as one short video. I also did outside research, as I had to know certain details such as what I was seeing, names of deities, proper pronunciation, etc.
A strategy that worked particularly well for me was to constantly conduct research, in a way- even when I was not in a place where I was specifically searching for observations, anything that might pertain to the topic was duly noted. This is how I noticed the presence of door gods, which are two figures, usually male and often famous generals, placed on each side of a door to bring good fortune in the form of protection by warding off evil spirits.
My main thesis for this project after I settled on a decision about how to discuss what the recurring themes were was that the animals and religious figures were present as symbols of fortune, wealth, power, and protection.
As previously stated, most of my observations centered around or included dragons. They commonly adorned the emperor’s clothes as a symbol of strength, and it was quite obvious why they would be chosen as a suitable image to represent an authority figure. They also are used to symbolize natural forces and weather. Some dragons themselves are deities, an example being 应龙 (Yinglong), the dragon of rain.
For the most part, I was never able to identify if any dragon was a specific character, though I do think that I saw either 神龙 (Shenlong) or 烛龙 (Zhulong) carved into a design on the side of a building, wrapped around his 宝珠 (baozhu- flaming pearl, a fiery ball that a large majority of dragons are depicted guarding). He was identifiable by his distinctly human face that was turned outward.
One photograph that I have is a very clear image of a pottery bowl depicting a large red dragon surrounded by flames, with his front legs outstretched, and keeping his flaming pearl directly below his open jaws- I hold this to be one of the most typical examples that I took note of. It contains almost all of the elements of a classic image, from what fieldwork and outside research has taught me.
There were several times that I saw specific gods and goddesses as characters in depicted scenes. I know for sure that I have seen Guanshiyin, 文昌(Wenchang, a god of literature), and Buddha. During one group excursion to the Silk Market, I spied a small shop whose shelves were stocked full of sculptures and figurines: mostly of the deities and animals that I was on the lookout for. Upon entering and seeing an elaborate picture of a deity hanging on the wall, I asked the salesperson, “他是谁?” She replied, “他是伏羲.”
伏羲 (Fuxi) is a god hailing from a Chinese creationist account, and is usually associated with the goddess 女娲 (Nüwa). They are often shown together; however, this depiction was just of Fuxi by himself. Fuxi and Nüwa were not among the most common of my observations, and without asking someone, they would have been very difficult to identify, but it was still fascinating to see one of the pair.
Guanshiyin, a goddess of mercy whose name literally means, “observing the world’s voice/invocations of herself,” (I interpreted this as listening to the sounds of those who call out to her) was the second most common of the gods that I saw. She was often depicted in a sitting position outdoors in colorful robes and with a large amount of flowers around her; her frequent presence on walls and near doorways would invite good fortune/the heavens to look kindly upon the people in that building.
The Buddha was the most common of the gods that I observed. He did not always appear in the same manner: the somewhat iconic smiling man in a cross-legged position was sometimes replaced by a meditating figure with a set face. One interesting observation about this was that people tended to keep tiny figures of the Buddha on the dashboards of their cars- most likely for travel safety.
The dragon’s positive connotations remain today, as the symbol can be seen on people’s clothing, incorporated into designs of newer buildings, and used in idioms- one that comes to mind is “望子成龙,” (wang zi cheng long) which essentially expresses a parental figure’s hopeful desire to see their child grow to become successful in life: directly translated, to become a dragon.
As for my personal opinion, if I were asked, I would say that the high volume of deities everywhere is comparable to the United States’s perception of Christianity, using the crucifix to make the point. It has become a routine sight printed on clothes, hung up on the wall in houses, attached to vehicles, and of course in its natural habitat, which is the church. Likenesses of Jesus Christ and the Virgin Mary are also common, especially in the more religious households. I would compare the Chinese dragon to the American bald eagle. A symbol of strength, justice, possible longevity, and freedom, the eagle has a similar status to the dragon. The shi shi zi I at one point tried to liken to gargoyles, but this does not fit too terribly well, since the emphasis on them is they are designed to safeguard an entrance and less of a deterrent against incomers.
I would be very interested to see how the subject matter of art continues to develop, and would like to know whether it had moved farther away from its roots or returned to the origin. I could see the new concepts building off of the old, as evidenced in the 798 Art Zone, but traces of the original always remaining.

Works Cited

N.p. Bing Maps. N.d. Bing. Web 6 August 2015.
N. p. China- Pan Jia Yuan. N. d. Beijing Panjiayuan Flea Market. Web. 5 August 2015.
Ren, Xuefei and Sun, Meng. “Artistic Urbanization: Creative Industries and Creative Control in Beijing.” International Journal of Urban and Regional Research 36.3 (2012): 504-521. Web.