We’re counting down the Top 10 places in the Chinese capital here, based on my experience living here for over 4 years. With so many interesting places to visit in Beijing, it’s been tough whittling the list down to just ten. In the first post, we explored the student hangout of Wudaokou, which features some of China’s most renowned universities, delicious food, and a wild nightlife scene that ensures plenty of students show up for class late and hungover. Today, we’re heading to the complete opposite side of town to get artsy.
#9 – 798 Art District (798艺术区 – qī jiǔ bā yì shù qū)
Located in the northeast part of Beijing is the hip art area known simply as 798. The name comes from one of many factories which once flourished in this area under the large umbrella name of the Joint Factory 718. Ground broke on this new factory district back in 1954 in a three-way Communist Power Trio partnership of China, the Soviet Union, and East Germany. At one point, it was one of the best places to work in China, as workers enjoyed vast social benefits, such as: sports teams, an orchestra, literary clubs, and the best housing for workers in Beijing. Thousands of people worked here producing a variety of both civilian and military equipment. Maoism study workshops ensured that the army of workers remained loyal to the Party, and some of Mao’s famous slogans can still be seen painted on the ceilings today.
Step forward in time a bit, and the area experiences drastic changes under Deng Xiaoping and his policy of “Reform and Opening Up” (改革开放 – gǎi gé kāi fàng). It lost support from the government and gradually declined, with most workers being laid off and most factories closed in the early ’90s. As luck would have it, Beijing’s underground art community was, at the very same time, evicted from their space on the other side of the city and in search of a new place to call home. Throughout the decade, more and more artists (both Chinese and foreign) began moving in, setting up galleries, shops, and cafes.
Today, 798 is one of Beijing’s most popular attractions, drawing in locals, tourists, art aficionados, and plenty of Chinese couples looking for quirky wedding photos. As most galleries are free of charge, it’s a great place to spend a day without spending much kuai. Of course, there are plenty of ways for you to part with your RMB – artworks are for sale in most galleries, plenty of shops line the streets, and a wide variety of cafes, restaurants, and bars can be found. Taking in the modern, often times avant-garde artwork makes it hard to believe you’re in the same country that experienced Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution not too long ago. Controversial artists such as the Gao Brothers display pieces of art that would have had them sent to labor camps a generation ago. It really is incredible to see how far China has come in terms of its art scene and freedom of expression, although they still have a long way to go.
Big exhibits change often and artists are always coming and going, making 798 a place you could feasibly visit once a month and find something new every time. Meandering through the streets, dropping into any gallery that looks interesting, snapping photos, taking in the post-industrial vibe of the Maoist China of old, and then kicking back with a nice cup of coffee to chat with friends makes for a great day in Beijing.
Once in a while, you’ll even find special shows, concerts, and parties going on within the 798 area. In past years, local electronic music labels have thrown a variety of huge bashes here, such as the Intro Festival and the legendary YEN parties. The artistic mega-event called the Creator’s Project has even rolled through 798 on its way around the world.
A short video from the Creator’s Project in Beijing
With art, drinks, music, architecture, food, history, shopping, and more, it would be hard for someone to come to 798 and not enjoy themselves. It’s definitely one of my favorite places in the Chinese capital, but it only managed to come in at #9 on my list, which begs the question – which eight places in Beijing are somehow even cooler than this one? You’ll just have to stick around and find out!
Take a video tour of 798!