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Worth a Thousand Words: 798 Art District, Beijing (七九八艺术区,北京) Posted by on Feb 17, 2011 in Culture


When living in a major metropolitan city in China it’s often difficult finding the true pulse of the people. In Beijing, identity is difficult to locate because so much society is in flux. Amongst the rapid call for development, people are neglecting or missing altogether the issues that are relevant to Chinese culture. Everything is changing-even to the point that some locals don’t understand the society they’re living in today. For foreigners and citizens of Beijing, the fallout of the 2008 Olympics (a time when everyone was rallying behind a singular event) was palpable, forcing many to ask “what’s next” without any clear solution presenting itself. As China continues to develop its economy and gain footing as a global leader, not much time is spent looking inward and reflecting on what it means to be growing up and living as a Chinese person.

Nowadays, many citizens are feeling a growing tingle of social despair, caused by a myriad of economic, political and social reasons. Yet opportunities for voicing dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs is censored at every turn. With most expression stifled, especially among the media, internet and television, finding an artistic community can be a challenge. Luckily the 798 Art District, or 七九八艺术区 (qījiǔbāyìshùqū), in northeastern Beijing is becoming the premier location in China for modern art, highlighting many of the political, economic and culture problems China is starting to question.

现代艺术 (xiàndàiyìshù) or modern art comes in a variety of shapes an forms and most are present at 798 due to the size of the district alone. Located in the Dashanzi former factory district of Chaoyang, the decommissioned factory building # 798, along with surrounding factories and sides alleys, have been retrofitted to house and display the works and collections of Beijing’s art community. Upon entering the sprawling location, you first notice a series of metal pipes running up and down the streets and leading into concrete, soviet-esc factories. In fact, the district was first established as a “Socialist Unification Plan” between the USSR and the Chinese government, failed and was later converted to an electronics plant. However, in the last few decades, artists have flocked to the region buying up any skeleton of a warehouse they can find and setting up shop. In the last few years, the reputation of 798 as both a source for fine modern domestic and international art has grown immensely–to the point of being labeled as the SOHO of China.

The irony of it all definitely adds to the experience as you walk amongst communist relics alongside politically scathing commentary. Buildings still housing communist slogans in bright red paint are part of the exhibits. Mao–be him in statue form, plastic form, as a bobble head, as a painting, or even as a penguin–is everywhere. It’s like some twisted homage to a complicated and revered man. Images of the communist military, including tanks, bombs, guns and missiles serve as a reminder of how much Beijing and China has changed in just the last few decades. Some exhibits will make you feel transformed back to the cold war days, others incorporate elaborate video displays that can only be described as post, “post modern” or 后现代 (hòu xiàn dài).

Outside, sculpture art, graffiti, tagging and architecture fills the streets and squares. There are numerous coffee shops, bars, hotels and restaurants that cater to  upscale and western tastes. Recently, many exhibits have included the works of famous international artists. Exhibits featuring China’s environmental degradation and the relocation of millions of Chinese citizens for the Three Gorges Dam project are just a stones throw down the street from exhibits featuring pictures of famous people portrayed solely with vegetables and fruit and images from life in a Chinese mega-factory. It seems obvious that both China and the rest of the world are taking a good look inward at this nation of 1.4 billion.

If you are visiting Beijing, you definitely have to see 798, and may want to schedule it before you do the standard tourist traps like Tiananmen, the Forbidden Palace and Summer Palace. With so many exhibits, you’re guaranteed to find at least one artist or work you like. You’ll also get to see what issues contemporary China is conflicted with. Further, if you live in Beijing, I suggest going during different seasons, as artists and their works are constantly rotating through.

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About the Author: Stephen

Writer and blogger for all things China related. Follow me on twitter: @seeitbelieveit -- My Background: Fluent Mandarin speaker with 3+ years working, living, studying and teaching throughout the mainland. Student of Kung Fu and avid photographer and documentarian.


  1. Peter Simon:

    A great topic, thank you. Perhaps a bit before time for modern art – a society without the feelings of problems have no need for art except the kind that celebrates the successes. I spent 3 years in China right after they joined WTO and Beijing was given the Olympics – everybody was filled with optimism on account of these two events. No thought about other things – and no sign of modern art wherever I went, not even in modern Shanghai. Nice, even funny modern expressions of traditional art, yes, but nothing suggesting problems. When asked about their plans and time after the Olympics, my more than 160 students had no ideas. Optimism. It’s only 2 years after the Olympics and an economic crisis. But now there’s nothing to look forward to that could cover their problems.
    Still, it would be interesting to know whether there’s any artistic and intellectual stirring going on anywhere outside Beijing yet. Beijing is the leader of the country, but – strange as it may sound – only a very small part of that vast country. Far from anything typical, though a mixture perhaps of all the population. So, is there any art life going on in, say, Nanjing, Xian, or Chongqing that anybody knows of? And these are only the metropolises … each at least as big as London …

  2. Sam:

    Mayby reflection isn’t necessary in Beijings case. American’s seem to reflect, but nothing good seems to come from it.

  3. raphael:

    Here are some pics i took few days ago in 798 art space.
    A place not to be missed when visiting Beijing !

    • Steve:

      @raphael Great photos! You definitely saw some exhibits that I missed. Keep snapping those photos!


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