ONE day, high school art teacher Liu Fengzhi got fed up and quit.
"I just walked out because I didn't want to go through the bureaucracy of resigning," he says, recounting his departure from his job in Harbin, an industrial city in northeastern China.
"I didn't have a big teaching load, and the climate was relaxed, but I couldn't stand attending all the sessions and meetings," Mr. Liu says. "I knew that by staying there, I wouldn't have any chance to get in touch with the cultural mainstream."
The artistic current brought him to China's cultural hub, Beijing, where he settled in Yuanmingyuan, an artists' colony on the capital's outskirts. The former farming village of brick huts and dirt streets has become a bustling magnet for avante-garde artists hoping to sell their work in Beijing's growing foreign community and eventually go overseas to join the boom in modern Chinese art.
In recent years, China has exported dozens of Modernists, Expressionists, Cubists, and Pop artists frustrated by Communist strictures of political correctness or the reserve of traditional Chinese art.
At last able to work and study freely, the artists produce work that blends China and the West and has been exhibited from New York and London to Hong Kong and Sydney but, poignantly, not in Beijing.
Yet the artists of Yuanmingyuan say economic reforms are beginning to change that. The 60 painters and sculptors, working and sleeping in cluttered huts, sharing meals and partying until late, live a Bohemian-style existence that a few years ago would not have been possible, they say.
Their numbers have mushroomed in the last year amid widespread publicity in the Chinese press. Many say they had the freedom to leave jobs because Chinese are no longer prevented from moving by residency registrations and food-rationing coupons. The artists renew their temporary Beijing residency certificates for a $2 monthly fee. They often draw visits from the police whom, they say, don't interfere except to lecture them on their long hair and beards.
"Some of us could have jobs, but we don't care," says Liu Yan, a physics teacher who became an artist in 1983 and has been living in the colony for four years. The walls of his two-room house are dotted with sculptures made from watches, melted telephones, burned books, and plastic toys, symbolizing modern life. His work has been displayed in Hong Kong, Australia, and the United States.
"Since the economic reforms, Chinese have more freedom in choosing what way of life they want to live," he says.
Economic change has also given Chinese modern art a boost by putting more money in people's pockets, the artists …