Leaving the City: Artist Villages in Beijing





artist village, Beijing, suburb

How to Cite

Huang, A. L. (2011). Leaving the City: Artist Villages in Beijing. M/C Journal, 14(4). https://doi.org/10.5204/mcj.366
Vol. 14 No. 4 (2011): suburbia
Published 2011-08-18

Introduction: Artist Villages in Beijing

Many of the most renowned sites of Beijing are found in the inner-city districts of Dongcheng and Xicheng: for instance, the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square, the Lama Temple, the National Theatre, the Central Opera Academy, the Bell Tower, the Drum Tower, the Imperial College, and the Confucius Temple. However, in the past decade a new attraction has been added to the visitor “must-see” list in Beijing.

The 798 Art District originated as an artist village within abandoned factory buildings at Dashanzi, right between the city’s Central Business District and the open outer rural space on Beijing’s north-east. It is arguably the most striking symbol of China’s contemporary art scene. The history of the 798 Art District is by now well known (Keane), so this paper will provide a short summary of its evolution. Of more concern is the relationship between the urban fringe and what Howard Becker has called “art worlds.” By art worlds, Becker refers to the multitude of agents that contribute to a final work of art: for instance, people who provide canvasses, frames, and art supplies; critics and intermediaries; and the people who run exhibition services. To the art-world list in Beijing we need to add government officials and developers.

To date there are more than 100 artist communities or villages in Beijing; almost all are located in the city’s outskirts. In particular, a high-powered art centre outside the city of Beijing has recently established a global reputation. Songzhuang is situated in outer Tongzhou District, some 30 kilometres east of Tiananmen Square. The Beijing Municipal Government officially classifies Songzhuang as the Capital Art District (CAD) or “the Songzhuang Original Art Cluster.” The important difference between 798 and Songzhuang is that, whereas the former has become a centre for retail and art galleries, Songzhuang operates as an arts production centre for experimental art, with less focus on commercial art.

The destiny of the artistic communities is closely related to urban planning policies that either try to shut them down or protect them. In this paper I will take a close look at three artist villages: Yuanmingyuan, 798, and Songzhuang. In tracing the evolution of the three artist villages, I will shed some light on artists’ lives in city fringes. I argue that these outer districts provide creative industries with a new opportunity for development. This is counter to the conventional wisdom that central urban areas are the ideal locality for creative industries. Accordingly, this argument needs to be qualified: some types of creative work are more suitable to rural and undeveloped areas. The visual art “industry” is one of these.

Inner and Outer Worlds

Urban historians contend that innovation is more likely to happen in inner urban areas because of intensive interactions between people (Jacobs). City life has been associated with the development of creative industries and economic benefits brought about by the interaction of creative classes. In short, the argument is that cities, or, more specifically, urban areas are primary economic entities (Montgomery) whereas outer suburbs are uncreative and dull (Florida, "Cities"). The conventional wisdom is that talented creative people are attracted to the creative milieu in cities: universities, book shops, cafes, museums, theatres etc. These are both the hard and the soft infrastructure of modern cities. They illustrate diversified built forms, lifestyles and experiences (Lorenzen and Frederiksen; Florida, Rise; Landry; Montgomery; Leadbeater and Oakley).

The assumption that inner-city density is the cradle of creative industries has encountered critique. Empirical studies in Australia have shown that creative occupations are found in relatively high densities in urban fringes. The point made in several studies is that suburbia has been neglected by scholars and policy makers and may have potential for future development (Gibson and Brennan-Horley; Commission; Collis, Felton, and Graham). Moreover, some have argued that the practice of constructing inner city enclaves may be leading to homogenized and prescriptive geographies (Collis, Felton, and Graham; Kotkin). As Jane Jacobs has indicated, it is not only density of interactions but diversity that attracts and accommodates economic growth in cities.

However, the spatiality of creative industries varies across different sectors. For example, media companies and advertising agencies are more likely to be found in the inner city, whereas most visual artists prefer working in the comparatively quiet and loosely-structured outskirts. Nevertheless, the logic embodied in thinking around the distinctions between “urbanism” and “suburbanism” pays little attention to this issue, although both schools acknowledge the causal relationship between locality and creativity. According to Drake, empirical evidence shows that the function of locality is not only about encouraging interactions between SMEs (small to medium enterprises) within clusters which can generate creativity, but also a catalyst for individual creativity (Drake). Therefore for policy makers in China, the question here is how to plan or prepare a better space to accommodate creative professionals’ needs in different sectors while making the master plan. This question is particularly urgent to the Chinese government, which is undertaking a massive urbanization transition throughout the country. 

In placing a lens on Beijing, it is important to note the distinctive features of its politics, forms of social structure, and climate. As Zhu has described it, Beijing has spread in a symmetrical structure. The reasons have much to do with ancient history. According to Zhu, the city which was planned in the era of Genghis Khan was constituted by four layers or enclosures, with the emperor at the centre, surrounded by the gentry and other populations distributed outwards according to wealth, status, and occupation. The outer layer accommodated many lower social classes, including itinerant artists, musicians, and merchants. This ”outer city” combined with open rural space. The system of enclosures is carried on in today’s city planning of Beijing. Nowadays Beijing is most commonly described by its ring roads (Mars and Hornsby). However, despite the existing structure, new approaches to urban policy have resulted in a great deal of flux. The emergence of new landscapes such as semi-urbanized villages, rural urban syndicates (chengxiang jiehebu), and villages-within-cities (Mars and Hornsby 290) illustrate this flux. These new types of landscapes, which don’t correspond to the suburban concept that we find in the US or Australia, serve to represent and mediate the urban-rural relationship in China. The outer villages also reflect an old tradition of “recluse” (yin shi), which since the Wei and Jin Dynasties allowed intellectuals to withdraw themselves from the temporal world of the city and live freely in the mountains.

The Lost Artistic Utopia: Yuanmingyuan Artist Village

Yuanmingyuan, also known as the Ming Dynasty summer palace, is located in Haidian District in the north-west of Beijing. Haidian has transformed from an outer district of Beijing into one of its flourishing urban districts since the mid-1980s. Haidian’s success is largely due to the electronics industry which developed from spin-offs from Peking University, Tsinghua University and the Chinese Academy of Sciences in the 1980s. This led to the rapid emergence of Zhongguancun, sometimes referred to as China’s Silicon Valley.

However there is another side of Haidian’s transformation. As the first graduates came out of Chinese Academies of the Arts following the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976), creative lifestyles became available. Some people quit jobs at state-owned institutions and chose to go freelance, which was unimaginable in China under the former regime of Mao Zedong. By 1990, the earliest “artist village” emerged around the Yuanmingyuan accommodating artists from around China. The first site was Fuyuanmen village.

Artists living and working there proudly called their village “West Village” in China, comparing it to the Greenwich Village in New York. At that time they were labelled as “vagabonds” (mangliu) since they had no family in Beijing, and no stable job or income. Despite financial difficulties, the Yuanmingyuan artist village was a haven for artists. They were able to enjoy a liberating and vigorous environment by being close to the top universities in Beijing[1]. Access to ideas was limited in China at that time so this proximity was a key ingredient. According to an interview by He Lu, the Yuanmingyuan artist village gave artists a sense of belonging which went far beyond geographic identification as a marginal group unwelcomed by conservative urban society.

Many issues arose along with the growth of the artist village. The non-traditional lifestyle and look of these artists were deemed abnormal by many of the general public; the way of their expression and behaviour was too extreme to be accepted by the mainstream in what was ultimately a political district; they were a headache for local police who saw them as troublemakers; moreover, their contact with the western world was a sensitive issue for the government at that time. Suddenly, the village was closed by the government in 1993.

Although the Yuanmingyuan artist village existed for only a few years, it is of significance in China’s contemporary art history. It is the birth place of the cynical realism movement as well as the genesis of Fang Lijun, Zhang Xiaogang and Yue Mingjun, now among the most successful Chinese contemporary artists in global art market.

The Starting Point of Art Industry: 798 and Songzhuang

After the Yuanmingyuan artist village was shut down in 1993, artists moved to two locations in the east of Beijing to escape from the government and embrace the free space they longed for. One was 798, an abandoned electronic switching factory in Beijing’s north-east urban fringe area; the other was Songzhuang in Tongzhou District, a further twenty kilometres east. Both of these sites would be included in the first ten official creative clusters by Beijing municipal government in 2006. But instead of simply being substitutes for the Yuanmingyuan artist village, both have developed their own cultures, functioning and influencing artists’ lives in different ways.

Songzhuang is located in Tongzhou which is an outer district in Beijing’s east. Songzhuang was initially a rural location; its livelihood was agriculture and industry. Just before the closing down of the Yuanmingyuan village, several artists including Fang Lijun moved to this remote quiet village. Through word of mouth, more artists followed their steps. There are about four thousand registered artists currently living in Songzhuang now; it is already the biggest visual art community in Beijing.  An artistic milieu and a local sense of place have grown with the increasing number of artists. The local district government invests in building impressive exhibition spaces and promoting art in order to bring in more tourists, investors and artists.

Compared with Songzhuang, 798 enjoys a favourable location along the airport expressway, between the capital airport and the CBD of Beijing. The unused electronics plant was initially rented as classrooms by the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in the 1990s. Then several artists moved their studios and workshops to the area upon eviction from the Yuanmingyuan village. Until 2002 the site was just a space to rent cheap work space, a factor that has stimulated many art districts globally (Zukin). From that time the resident artists began to plan how to establish a contemporary art district in China. Led by Huang Rui, a leading visual artist, the “798 collective” launched arts events and festivals, notably a “rebuilding 798” project of 2003. More galleries, cafés, bars, and restaurants began to set up, culminating in a management takeover by the Chaoyang District government with the Seven Stars Group[2] prior to the Beijing Olympics. The area now provides massive tax revenue to the local and national government.

Nonetheless, both 798 and Songzhuang face problems which reflect the conflict between artists’ attachment to fringe areas and the government’s urbanization approach. 798 can hardly be called an artist production village now due to the local government’s determination to exploit cultural tourism. Over 50 percent of enterprises and people working in 798 now identify 798 as a tourism area rather than an art or “creative” cluster (Liu). Heavy commercialization has greatly disappointed many leading artists. The price for renting space has gone beyond the affordability of artists, and many have chosen to leave.

In Songzhuang, the story is similar. In addition to rising prices, a legal dispute between artists and local residents regarding land property rights in 2008 drove some artists out of Songzhuang because they didn’t feel it was stable anymore (Smith).  The district’s future as a centre of original art runs up against the aspirations of local officials for more tax revenue and tourist dollars. In the Songzhuang Cultural Creative Industries Cluster Design Plan (cited in Yang), which was developed  by J.A.O Design International Architects and Planners Limited and sponsored by the Songzhuang local government in 2007, Songzhuang is designed as an “arts capital incorporated with culture, commerce and tourism.” The down side of this aspiration is that more museums, galleries, shopping centres, hotels, and recreation infrastructure will inevitably be developed in order to capitalise on Songzhuang’s global reputation.

Concluding Reflections

In reflecting on the recent history of artist villages in Beijing, we might conclude that rural locations are not only a cheap place for artists to live but also a space to showcase their works. More importantly, the relation of artists and outlying district has evolved into a symbiotic relationship. They interact and grow together. The existence of artists transforms the locale and the locale in turn reinforces the identity of artists.

In Yuanmingyuan the artists appreciated the old “recluse” tradition and therefore sought spiritual liberation after decades of suppression. The outlying location symbolized freedom to them and provided distance from the world of noisy interaction. But isolation of artists from the local community and the associated constant conflict with local villagers deepened estrangement; these events brought about the end of the dream. In contrast, at 798 and Songzhuang, artists not only regarded the place as their worksite but also engaged with the local community. They communicated with local people and co-developed projects to transform the local landscape. Local communities changed; they started to learn about the artistic world while gaining economic benefits in many ways, such as house renting, running small grocery stores, providing art supplies and even modelling. Their participation into the “art worlds” (Becker) contributed to a changing cultural environment, in turn strengthening the brand of these artist villages. In many regards there were positive externalities for both artists and the district, although as I mentioned in relation to Songzhuang, tensions about land use have never completely been resolved.

Today, the fine arts in China have gone far beyond the traditional modes of classics, aesthetics, liberation or rebellion. Art is also a business which requires the access to the material world in order to produce incomes and make profits. It appears that many contemporary artists are not part of a movement of rebellion (except several artists, such as Ai Weiwei), adopting the pure spirit of art as their life-time mission, as in the Yuanmingyuan artist village. They still long for recognition, but they are also concerned with success and producing a livelihood.  The boundary between inner urban and outer urban areas is not as significant to them as it once was for artists from a former period. While many artists enjoy  the quiet and space of the fringe and rural areas to work; they also require urban space to exhibit their works and earn money. This factor explains the recent emergence of Caochangdi and other artist villages in the neighbouring area around the 798. These latest artist villages in the urban fringe still have open and peaceful spaces and can be accessed easily due to convenient transportation.

Unfortunately, the coalition of business and government leads to rapid commercialization of place which is not aligned with the basic need of artists, which is not only a free or affordable place but also a space for creativity. As mentioned above, 798 is now so commercialized that it is too crowded and expensive for artists due to the government’s overdevelopment; whereas the government’s original intention was to facilitate the development of 798. Furthermore, although artists are a key stakeholder in the government’s agenda for visual art industry, it is always the government’s call when artists’ attachment to rural space comes into conflict with Beijing government’s urbanization plan. Hence the government decides which artist villages should be sacrificed to give way to urban development and which direction the reserved artist villages or art clusters should be developed.

The logic of government policy causes an absolute distinction between cities and outlying districts. And the government’s enthusiasm for “urbanization” leads to urbanized artist villages, such as the 798. A vicious circle is formed: the government continuously attempts to have selected artist villages commercialized and transformed into urbanized or quasi-urbanized area and closes other artist villages. One of the outcomes of this policy is that in the government created creative clusters, many artists do not stay, and move away into rural and outlying areas because they prefer to work in non-urban spaces. To resolve this dilemma, greater attention is required to understand artists needs and ways to combine urban convenience and rural tranquillity into their development plans. This may be a bridge too far, however.


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[1] Most prestigious Chinese universities are located in the Haidian District of Beijing, such as Peking University, Tsinghua University, etc.

[2] Seven Star Group is the landholder of the area where 798 is based.