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Hi Art, May 2007


The editor of Hi Art has called me twice to invite me to contribute something. I have to take these opportunities when they arise, otherwise he’ll never ask me again.  

In recent weeks, I have heard several people recalling memories of childhoods in courtyards. They stamp their feet and beat their chests as they recount tearfully the happy times of childhood. For those of us who were savage children, growing up beside railways and roads, we feel inferior that we were not privy to the fine life lived by the children of the general staff, the Navy Song and Dance Troupe, or the family of the Fine Arts College faculty.  

I naively thought that when New China was established nearly sixty years ago, class discrimination and oppression was eliminated. Now, I realize that a new group of “nobles” emerged from I don’t know where, and disharmony has existed ever since. The only difference is that in the past, power mattered, whereas now it’s money.  

In the past, people with power poked fun at those without power, and distinguished themselves by living separately. Today, the rich can still live in the same quarters as the poor, and in this way it appears that society has moved forward. But harmony continues to be a problem.  

When I was young, I lived in the family accommodation for the Capital Iron and Steel Co in Shijingshan, west of Beijing. Tens of thousands of people lived there, and workers and factory employees were mixed in with the farmers who grew vegetables. You couldn’t tell from looking at peoples’ faces who did what.  

Later, I went to school downtown, but would travel by bike in order to save money for a few meals. As I cycled through Haidian on my way home, I would pass the courtyards owned by state and army units. In particular, I was impressed by the courtyards of Cuiwei Lu and Wanshou Lu. They were solemn and horrifying. Nobody could enter, no matter now small you were, and the people who emerged walked with proud and confident manners. Even the guards looked as though they could affect the state of affairs.  

Several youngsters with adult family members would stand by the front gates with civilized and polite manners. Then, it came to me that people were indeed living entirely separate lives. The clean, straight walls of the compounds suggested a life inside that was a far cry from where I lived. The girls inside must surely dress neatly and behave gracefully - nothing like the girls from my neighborhood, who rarely washed their faces. In spite of these airs and graces, I disliked those courtyards.  

Time moved on. Reform and opening has benefited China for more than 20 years, and new movements of live have begun. Driving, buying apartments, going abroad are no longer dreams. And if someone wants to boast about his or her experience abroad, it is the listener and not the speaker who has a say in starting up the conversation. In the twinkling of an eye, people began to aspire for a high level, cultured inner life.  

We soon became familiar with the former arms factory of 798. Built by the German Democratic Republic with our socialist brothers in the Soviet Union acting as go-betweens, the plant was built in the uniform Bauhaus style, whose sturdiness could rival that of Japanese defense towers, and bear any hammering of the decoration workers. Now, it has been turned into an artistic zone, with nearly 100 galleries, studios, bookshops, and information institutes from home and abroad. People flock there to sell and buy paintings, sculptures, radiators, photos, devices, and foreign art books. Some rush all the way across here to collect items as soon as the auction market makes the first sign of interest in a new trend. Others sell unconventional garments with independent labels. Some are here for the artists’ vain admiration, and some aspire to go down in history. Some throw away the still reusable residue after decoration, while a few small female security guards with cheeks as red as cherries stand at the entrance to prevent taxis from entering.  

I like this district, because it is a relatively free area that belongs to all the people, just like the Yutai Teahouse owned by Lao She’s character Wang Lifa - where anyone can slide in as long as the world outside does not change.  

I also like this area because its artistic components have changed. In the 1950s, small sparks were scattered here and there, and people tried to act against the government or say what they wanted to say. My generation born in the 1960s never said anything, and liked painting around the city’s edged, but never entered the center. For those from the 1970s and 1980s, their attitude is more straight forward, and they play around downtown. These adolescents, with their foreign peers, are like a pack of happy moles, digging the earth and smelling the air above and below ground, doing what I never could previously imagine doing, and speaking what I failed to understand. They are leisurely, free, and stubborn with their ideas. Words such as “teacher” and “master” frequently slip from their mouths, making fun of those older than them. Their international outlook are wide and gentle, and completely different to my own generation, who are blind and confused.  

Today’s adolescents may be the nth generation of the morning sun, welcomed into the area - and they are surely the product of a third or fourth generation of peaceful evolution after the imperialists left.  

But times have changed, and those artists who return from the nations of the imperialists do not find that opportunities await them back in China. The new generation is turning a blind eye to them, and I think that there will not be any “nobles” any more. Or at least, those bastards will never live the life that they enjoyed in the past.  

The 798 District managed by these children grows and flourishes. As Mr. Guo Degang, a post-70s and not-so-famous comic crosstalk actor said, “Tian’anmen may be moved here”.  

No. 798 courtyard managed by those children is more and more flourishing. Here I want to quote a sentence by Mr. Guo Degang, a post-70s not-so-famous comic cross-talk actor, “It is said that Tian An Men will be moved to here”.

Zhu Wei

Sunday, April 15, 2007