The Beijing Art Scene: Factory 798

The contemporary art scene in China is still in its early stages, but there’s little doubt that it has come a long way since the 70s, when the Cultural Revolution was responsible for the repression of all the arts. A vivid example of China’s newly flourishing art movement is the vast complex of galleries, shops and bars spearheading the renaissance in a largely abandoned military electronics complex located in Beijing’s Dashanzi District.

With its still intact Mao Zedong slogans propagating Marxist-Leninist thought, factory 798 is the hub for creating and showcasing contemporary paintings and sculpture, contrasting sharply with its fairly recent history. Warehouse rooms where workers once studied the Little Red Book are now populated with painters and performers and purveyors of gourmet food, designers of haute couture, and crafters of luxury furniture. Live music can be heard at numerous house bars and chic bookshops and cafes. Factory 798 can best be described as the Soho-esque district of Beijing and is now the third most visited attraction in the city after the Great Wall and the Forbidden City.

Built by the Russians in the early 1950s as part of the war-reparations deal with Germany, the State-owned plant churned out electronic goods by the millions for the People’s Liberation Army. Architecturally, the factory was built in the Bauhaus style reflecting the influence of the German designer Walter Gropius. During China’s modernization in the 1990s, most of the factory was closed down due to falling orders and other factors, resulting in thousands of workers being laid off and the warehouses being vacated.

The buildings are architecturally simple, emphasizing utility. Their massive ducts and vast windows were designed to help conscientious workers increase production, and the open spaces served as large assembly lines. The walls still bear slogans painted during the Cultural Revolution, but now the peeling paint and massive boilers have become part of the art. Currently, over seventy artists and fifty chic enterprises have settled in. It’s now considered the place to go for a look at modern Chinese art.

Unfortunately, Factory 798 is an endangered species. The city is continuing its campaign of urban development, replacing the labor-intense and polluting industries with low-pollution, low-capital office buildings and high-tech electronic industries. Demolition of Factory 798 is set to begin by the end of this year.

Artists have submitted a proposal to the government to save the art center, but they are not optimistic. A final decision of the fate of Factory 798 will be made before the end of 2007. One can only hope that China’s center for the avant-garde remains intact and continues to flourish.

Timothy Green is the co-author of SPEAK E-Z CHINESE In Phonetic English. You can find fun and easy Mandarin lessons, as well as travel and culture tips about China at http://www/CathayCafe/com.

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