Art and Epiphany on the Outskirts of Beijing

A dispatch from Beijing's Factory 798

By / October 2012

The first thing you should know about Factory 798, the sprawling arts complex in northeastern Beijing, is that Ai Weiwei lives less than two miles away. Ai, the dissident Chinese artist best known for designing the Bird’s Nest stadium for the Beijing Olympics, moved to the area in 1999, shortly after the factory was converted from a manufacturing plant to a squatter’s camp for creative types looking for cheap studio space.

Did Ai follow the nascent art scene there or did he establish it by virtue of his rockstar presence? Whatever the case, the years that succeeded his arrival in the neighborhood saw the opening of galleries and studios, bars and cafés and restaurants, and more galleries. Factory 798 became Ai’s Monmartre, his Haight Ashbury, or, as the frequent comparison with New York goes, his SoHo.

And not only his. Zhang Xiaogang and Zeng Fanzhi, Beijing-based painters whose careers have been nurtured by the creative and commercial energies concentrated in the 798 district, now rank among the top ten highest-paid artists worldwide.

A friend back home in Washington had tipped me off to “the 798.” I had to check the place out, he said, because it thrived, almost impossibly, as a center of expression that was not only free but frequently anti-government, in a capital city which imposes its authoritarian will on well over 1.3 billion souls. With an afternoon to spare, on the last day of my three-week summer vacation backpacking alone through China, I decided I had better go.

According to Beijing’s city government website, Factory 798 is “an artist paradise” and “doesn’t have a gate or a boundary,” physically speaking. I found this ironic, given that the same government maintains six surveillance cameras on each of the countless lampposts in Tiananmen Square. Thus curiosity fueled my patience through the 40-minute cab ride from the city, the gray buildings growing shorter but no less dense against an equally gray, smoggy sky. When we arrived the driver couldn’t find the entrance, so I paid and followed the meandering foot traffic through a cinderblock maze to the art zone’s center.

A wall plastered with a dozen layers of graffiti stretched along one side of a pedestrian-only road. Along the other side, contemporary sculptures both portrayed and subverted classical Chinese figures: the hoary-bearded scholar, the soldier wielding a scimitar with his cartoonish, stumpy limbs. A bookstore offered coffee-table books of European architecture, fashion design, soft-focus nudes. A nineties-era poster of the British rock singer PJ Harvey hung in the corner of one store window, edges curled, the scotch tape brown with age.

Around another corner, a hulking sculpture stood of a man whose bulbous muscles and primitive, no-detail design made you think of a prehistoric fertility idol, with a height advantage if ever he ran afoul of a woolly mammoth.

The complex spans 16 acres of poured-concrete industrial sprawl. Opened in 1957, it first produced electronics, then weapons. A signal achievement of Communist cooperation under Mao Zedong, the plant was a joint project between China, the Soviet Union, and especially East Germany. In its heyday Factory 798 employed tens of thousands. Pay was low but the perks were many. Workers received a smorgasbord of benefits such as childcare, schools, the best dental facilities in China, and apartment rental rates at 3 percent of workers’ income. Large families, encouraged by Mao’s reproductive policies, flourished at the site. China’s current one-child policy, a drastic reversal of Mao’s, was first established in 1979 and implemented largely through China’s factory system of work units and de facto communities called the danwei.

This system governed both factory work and factory society. Residents had to request permission to travel, marry, have children. Once admitted, workers were bound to their danwei for life. To exist in a work unit was to accept a state-controlled career, state-controlled families, state-controlled basic freedoms. The danwei-bound family lived in a vacuum of liberty. But it probably kept a lot of Chinese families together, too, protecting them from poverty and unemployment, delivering on the Mao-era promise of the “iron rice bowl,” a euphemism for a state-guaranteed job for life.

Certain other features of the 798’s history were simply interesting. Brought to life, as it was, with East German participation, the 798 once featured a German-Chinese library, organized classical music concerts of German repertoire, and even put on motorcycle shows and races. All the bikes were East German-made, of course. The complex maintained its own militias, counting hundreds of volunteers and armed with anti-aircraft guns.

As China’s economy liberalized through the 1980s, its state monopolies shrank while skilled workers flocked to higher-paying jobs. Who could have imagined that this once-thriving plant, which was out of business by the mid-1990s, would find a second life as a haven for artists?

Outside a drowsy café in the art zone I came upon an anti-government statue, perhaps the enduring image of my sojourn to the 798. Cast in loud red acrylic, it soared skyward. Two lantern-jawed peasant revolutionaries stood flank-to-flank with fists in the air, sleeves rolled over pipe-fitter forearms. They had archetypal faces and, pointedly, pinhead skulls holding even smaller brains. In their paddle-like hands they supported a stack of 100-yuan notes, easily four feet across, Mao’s stoic regard shining in plastic relief. The artist’s blatant irony stemmed from the fact that the likeness of Mao, a historical figurehead of anti-capitalism, now graces nearly every bill in China.

If the take-away image was the pair of acrylic Red buffoons hoisting up cash, the central moment of my pilgrimage to the 798, among so much abandoned human effort and broken history, occurred on the walk back to the taxis.

A somewhat-proficient guitar player was strumming a cheap acoustic on a bench nearby. He was singing, too, and though his accent hobbled the English lyrics, I could make out music by the British band Radiohead. The song, “High and Dry,” a hit from Radiohead’s 1995 album, The Bends, was, like the PJ Harvey poster, dated but strangely prescient.

The evening was dimming, the cinderblocks turning dark. My flight home left in three hours. Compulsively, I began thinking about how to get back to the hotel, about finding dinner, catching my plane. “Don’t leave me highh,” the guitar player sang plaintively, black overgrown bangs in his eyes. “Don’t leave me dryyy…”

His pitch was sturdy, the high notes right on. He sang with a vulnerability I found affecting. Uncomfortable, in fact. Forget the accent, I thought. He knows what he’s saying. I took a seat on a bench near his. Three weeks in China were far too few for a place so big. I had seen tons, of course. A new country, new people, new norms. New everything. I had thought highly of myself for leaving, for volunteering for such a gutsy self-education campaign, with a travel guidebook for a primer and East Asia as my classroom.

But for all my ambition and cleverness, I had left my friends and family behind. Most of them didn’t have three weeks’ vacation to spare. The few that did hadn’t wanted to see China the way I was planning to — which is to say without plans, running pretty much on optimism alone. I didn’t blame them. “It’s the best thing that you ever had,” the street musician continued, “the best thing that you ever, ever had…”

Walking to the outer edge of the 798, I moved in the direction of the taxi rank and central Beijing. My heart had turned resolutely toward Washington and loved ones there. Maybe I would dust off some old Radiohead after I arrived. Maybe I would take my buddy who had recommended this detour out to dinner, in gratitude.

I had thanked the soothsaying guitar player before leaving, but I wondered if he might ever realize just how much he had given me in that moment of clarity, on that fading Beijing afternoon, where Chinese creative types made art and sometimes fortunes too. Where Chinese workers used to make weapons, read German, raise families large and small. In short, where they built life afresh, first in their work and then, after the factory shuttered, in some other place, perhaps far away.

I was headed home to do the same.


Will Fleeson is a press officer at the French Embassy in Washington.