Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Art and Power in the New China: An Exploration of Beijing's 798 District and Its Implications for Contemporary Urbanism

Academic journal article The Town Planning Review

Art and Power in the New China: An Exploration of Beijing's 798 District and Its Implications for Contemporary Urbanism

Article excerpt

This article explores urban change in the Chinese context, specifically in terms of the creation of Beijing's Dashanzi Arts District, also known as 798. As the fusing of the cultural and economic now defines cities within the post-industrial economy, Beijing is recognising the symbolic importance of the arts within its financial system and urban image construction. The campaign for and establishment of the arts district demonstrates not only a political awareness of the economic power behind cultural districts, but also the increasing pluralisation of power within Chinese society. This paper will focus on how the 798 Arts District has been branded, first unofficially by its original artists to preserve the industrial area and then officially to promote Beijing as a global city. In relation to the cultural shift in Chinese urban policy and the global utilisation of arts districts in urban image construction, it will discuss how the area is both a result of and an influence on China's contemporary culture. It also explores the possible gentrification consequences of the area's establishment and places such a scenario within the increasingly global (yet still overwhelmingly Eurocentric) reach of gentrification research.

From Montparnasse in Paris in the 1880s to Chelsea in London in the 1920s and SoHo in New York in the 1960s, art districts are not a new phenomenon. Furthermore, they are not unique to the affluent world; districts devoted to the visual arts have been established in places like Mumbai (Harris, 2005) and Mexico City (Hooks, 1998). Often inhabiting former industrial areas, these districts are common in Western cities, but they are still a new phenomenon in China. Despite this, with around twenty art districts or artists' villages and more on their way Beijing now rivals other global cities for the most urban spaces devoted to the arts. Not only does this dynamic evolution demonstrate the city's structural change from a productionbased economy to a consumption-based economy (particularly cultural consumption), it also highlights the official recognition of the symbolic importance of the arts within economic and political urban policy. However, even with the plethora of art districts and the significant urban changes they represent, these Chinese cultural areas have been explored little within urban studies (although see Tan, 2005). This academic neglect is particularly curious with regard to Beijing, since it is not only China's political capital, but also its cultural capital. In fact, like other non-Western cities, Beijing has traditionally been underserved in terms of urban research, despite its large size and increasingly global reach (Robinson, 2004).1

This article2 addresses the research gap by exploring the emergence and growth of 798 (often formally referred to as Dashanzi Arts District), one of the most prominent arts districts in China and one that has battled for its existence. Originally a 1950s military factory, it has become a fashionable home to a growing collection of independent galleries, studios, eateries and cultural enterprises that collectively have been able to survive Beijing's rapid growth. The arts district's story reveals not only a political awareness of the economic power behind cultural districts, but also the increasing pluralisation of power within Chinese society. Furthermore, it gives rise to new thoughts about explorations into such places, especially within the theoretical ground of gentrification.

Although arts districts have existed elsewhere for awhile, the emergence of such areas in China does not imply a replica complex. China's post-industrial society is still being formed, and is not following the trajectory of the West; instead it is evolving a 'Chinese form of modernity' with its own distinct characteristics (Friedmann, 2006). Thus, the goal of this article is to explore arts-led urban change in the Chinese context by focusing on the example of 798. …

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