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
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
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
"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 say. …