Chan Koon Chung
Translated by Joel Martinsen
When in Beijing, Don't Wear a Tie
When I returned to Beijing in the year 2000 wearing a trim western suit, a colleague of mine who knows how to have fun gave me some advice: don't wear a tie in Beijing - women don't like them. At the time I laughed, but since then I've seldom worn a tie.
There are actually more people wearing ties in Beijing these days than in the past, including online marketing types. Tie-wearing culture, however, is still far behind that of international cities like Hong Kong—the majority of fashionable men in Hong Kong's Central District, in both business and government, wear ties during the daytime.
But Hong Kong is a disaster area cut off from culture, a frontier city with a marginalized cultural elite. Conversely, elite culture and cultural elite—that tribe that would rather die than wear a tie—though marginalized in many places occupies quite a visible space in Beijing. Their numbers allow them to do as they please at times, to form a country of their own.
If you go to fashionable parties or trendy restaurants in Beijing, you don't need to wear a tie. Most of the people who attend are artists, musicians, performers, designers, models, media personalities, reporters, PR people, and drifters. There might be someone who works in an investment bank, but he's writing a movie script, or he's just come back from Zhongdian and is hanging around with the shaven-heads and the long-hairs.
This is the scene in Beijing. It may seem as if everything brushes against cultural projects and the creative realm, but that's just on the surface, I'm afraid.
When I thought of Beijing in the past, it was political Beijing the capital, historic Beijing the ancient capital, economic Beijing with Zhongguangcun and joint-ventures, cultural Beijing the folk capital with its Old Beijing flavor, and the academic Beijing of universities and museums.
Leafing through several tourist guides to Beijing, I found that the majority took a similar approach, demonstrating that this is the image of Beijing that exists for the majority of outsiders as well as a portion of city dwellers.
This image is not wrong; it is only missing one very interesting and significant scene. Living in Beijing, I slowly came to realize that during the past two decades there had been noticeable additions to the culture of Beijing, to the point that one could say that the fundamental makeup of Beijing's culture had been altered, leading me to believe that my present image of Beijing required a supplement.
For the time being I call this the Bohemian vision.
Next Stop, Beijing
Fan Xueyi used to live in a small town on the Russian border in Heilongjiang Province, staying beside her mother who suffered from mental illness. She'd occasionally write poems or essays that she never published, and the people in town couldn't understand why she dressed so oddly, acted aloof, and wouldn't marry. In 1998, Fan, who was nearly 28 years old, decided to go work in Beijing. Working as a salesclerk and later as part of a television production team, she met people from the art world, and her compositions gradually circulated around the scene, with some people setting them to music. By 2002 the Writers Publishing House had issued a collection of her poetry and prose, and the veteran Taiwanese composer Chen Bide wanted to release an album of musical settings of her poetry. Fan's first success as an art dealer was selling the oil paintings of Liu Hui.
Liu Hui, from Harbin, Heilongjiang, was a self-styled "dainty fly"; he wrote poetry, painted abstract oils, and had loads of personality but no income. Fan took the initiative to act as Liu's dealer, and she convinced a chic international art gallery in the Holiday Inn Crown Plaza to hold an exhibition for him. It turned out that many paintings sold, causing a sensation within art circles. It was believed that Fan Xueyi had been able to win over buyers precisely because she did not seem like an art dealer.
That first exhibition resolved the problems in Liu's and Fan's lives. Liu was finally able to rent a relatively spacious studio in the suburbs, where he planned all sorts of exhibitions.
Prior to this, Liu Hui had hung around music clubs – idly, most of the time, but occasionally he would respond to the words he heard and give the singers pointers about their lyrics. For a time, he was very close to the Second Hand Roses.
The Second Hand Roses was originally a Harbin Band whose lead singer was Liang Long. The rock scene in Harbin did not appreciate his style, and beyond that there was the intolerance of mainstream society. In October, 1999, Liang Long went down to Beijing with only a Chinese-made guitar. He rented a room for 220 yuan, and lived off a pound of noodles a day.
At a bar in the outskirts of the city two months later, Liang Long performed with another group, covering songs by other musicians, since, in Liang Long's words, "The people I work with in Beijing can't take my songs, either."
At one time, the lead singer of Babylon had left the band, so the group called on Liang Long to sub for him. The lead guitarist Wang Quanqi, from Hunan by way of Xinjiang, had already resigned himself to moving on from Beijing. That night he improvised on the guitar as Liang Long sang his own songs. "We hit it off immediately," says Liang, and the two of them decided to work together under the name Second Hand Roses, singing Liang Long's original songs. On August 13, 2000, they held their first performance at the Get Lucky club for an audience composed primarily of their friends, who had never heard Liang Long sing before. "They were flabbergasted," says Liang. Liang Long sings rock and roll, but includes a bit of errenzhuan – the coarse, sung and spoken combination of rap, crosstalk, and stand-up usually performed in the northeast by a male-female duo. In addition, Liang Long goes on stage dressed as a woman.
At the time, one Niu Jiawei, with the Beijing office of Taiwan's Rock Records, took the Second Hand Roses to the city's main rock venue, CD Café. It was there that the group became known in music circles. Niu Jiawei also got Liang Long together with two hired guns of the Beijing music scene: bassist Chen Jin and drummer Zhang Yue. Liang Long says, "With their qualifications, they had no reason to work with me." But in the end they worked with him. In an online chatroom, Liang Long also met a member of the "Wu woodwind family," Wu Zekun, who plays the suona. Wu joined the group. "Our music started to coalesce," says Liang. In November, the Phoenix cable station recorded a program of the band. Previews were run, and though the program was never broadcast, "It gave us the confidence to continue working." The Beijing Music Station played one of their songs, the Weiku website bought three of them, and another trendy performance spot, "The Loft", had Second Hand Roses open for invited foreign musicians. "We felt that we could really make music."
The hardest-working promotional materials for Second Hand Roses were the freely delivered English-language city guides, and because of this, many of the foreigners hanging around Beijing had seen Second Hand Roses perform. These foreigners were always an important resource outside of Beijing's cultural circles. In March, 2002, the annual Snow Open Air music festival in Europe was to have an appearance by the Swiss band Sina, and whether because Zurich and Kunming were sister cities, or for some other reason, they wanted to find a Chinese band to take the stage with them. The Swiss Embassy in Beijing, after an agonizing decision-making process, selected Second Hand Roses. Liang Long feels this is because his material "has nothing that could be linked to Swiss music."
At that performance, Liang Long was "amazed": "In China there had never been this big of a reaction. I felt the power of music; there was no need for words to explain it – I had only to sing it into place." What made this so unfathomable was that Second Hand Roses' main selling point in Beijing was its satirical lyrics.
Afterward, Second Hand Roses was invited to perform in Guangzhou and Shenzhen. Crossing the Yangtze river was a test – making it in "rough" Beijing did not mean making it in the rest of the country. Apart from the immigrant city of Shenzhen, the south always was closer to Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Lingnan; it was hard for things from Beijing to be accepted.
Why the name "Second Hand Roses?" Liang Long says, "Second hand, or as people in the northeast say, 'second tail,' means something unclear, neither male nor female. Roses are a feeling, a second-hand feeling."
For Liang Long, from Heilongjiang, and Wang Quanqi, from Xinjiang and Henan, coming to Beijing gave their lives a chance to catch fire. The band Second Hand Roses is a Beijing creation.
In Beijing, one can see new things arising out of amalgamations. A "second-hand" feeling can metamorphose into a national first-hand phenomenon.
Fan Xueyi, Liu Hui, and Liang Long are all from the northeast. You may hear their names in the future, or you may not, but I believe that in every part of the country there are many more young people like Fan, Liu, and Liang – strange folk misunderstood by the people around them. They have a vague sense that some place elsewhere is truly meant for them. Where is that other place, the homeland of their heart, the destination of their traveling companions, the ideal new hometown they dream of? They have no other choice; they can only come to Beijing.
Beijing, China's Bohemian Capital
These Bohemians drifting in from all parts joined others who enter the capital in a more normal fashion in pursuit of culture, and together they have built up Beijing's massive cultural force in the new era.
Before the founding of New China, Beijing's cultural industry was a far cry from that of Shanghai, a relationship that later reversed.
At the end of 1948, there were only 13 institutes of higher education in Beiping [name for Beijing during the Republican period when the capital was moved to Nanjing], while Shanghai had 36. In 1952, Beijing's number had increased to 26, while Shanghai's had decreased to 15. By 1987, the Beijing area had 67 tertiary institutions, including 22 universities with 646 doctoral students, claiming 34.5% of the country's total. Shanghai accounted for just 14.6%. Today, there are 670,000 students attending institutes of higher learning in Beijing.
In 1949, Beijing had only three publishing houses, while Shanghai had 321 until 1952. Following the move to Beijing of the large Shanghai publishers The Commercial Press, China Books, and The Joint Publishing Company, Beijing waxed while Shanghai waned, so that by 1987 Beijing had 320 publishers, half of the country's total, and Shanghai had just 33.
In 1948 there were 24 newspapers in Beijing, along with 27 periodicals. Pre-liberation Shanghai had over 200 newspapers, and by 1950 there were still 88 periodicals. By 1991, Beijing had 159 newspapers and 945 periodicals, while Shanghai had just 82 and 159, respectively.
Of course, these numbers don't reflect overall quality. In large-scale reference works and collated ancient works, for example, Shanghai is still strong, and in the reprint field, Shanghai made up 34.6% of the country's total in 1989, topping Beijing.
However, the fact is that after 1949 Beijing became the seat of the central government, which carried along with it the country's cultural capital. As cultural institutions developed, Beijing absorbed a large amount of talent from across the country. Its forces grew continuously, and after the revolution, its sole competitor Shanghai was no longer the country's largest destination for talent. On the contrary, it now had the task of providing the capital with talent; both the founder and former manager of Beijing Joint Publishing Company, for example, had moved from Shanghai to Beijing.
One waning while the other waxed - after the country's founding, Beijing's culture was in the ascendance. However, it was merely the result of government actions under the planned economy rather than a natural convergence like Shanghai of the twenties and thirties. That would have to wait until a new era.
First we'll mention the ten chaotic years starting in the mid-sixties. With cadres undergoing reeducation and young intellectuals being sent to the countryside, Beijing's cultural forces, except for a few brief periods, all flowed outward.
It was not until 1978 when the college entrance exams were reinstated and academics of all ages returned to university-crowded Beijing that the intellectual population truly started to increase.
The new era of the 80s, aside from bring new longings, also opened up public spaces within private society, touching off the cultural craze of the 80s that is already remembered nostalgically.
By the beginning of the 90s, the new documentary filmmaker Wu Wenguang had already used "Wandering to Beijing" as a subject of his filming. It was evident that something was present outside the system.
After Deng Xiaoping's inspection tour of the south in 1992, there was a more open ethos of wandering, nomadic roving, and of drifting south to Guangdong or north to Beijing.
Beijing of the 90s had the country's largest and densest cultural, artistic, academic, and media contingent. Along with those arriving in Beijing on routes both within and outside the system, students unwilling to leave after graduation, and those entering without the constraints of a work unit's household registration, this contingent contributed to the formation of a rapidly developing milieu that the rest of the country's cultural talent had a hard time matching.
Granted, the general drifting of intellectuals and alternative Bohemians was only one stream of the massive flood of a "drifting China." The mainstream was made up of millions of laborers from the countryside (before 1994 they were derogatorily called "blind drifters"), while domestic help, artisans, white collars, and self-employed workers went to special zones and developed cities looking for work. In addition, businesses sent people to set up shop in every city, local students tested into city universities, and regional officials and their families moved to larger cities. This was the rising tide of society – a worthy subject for a weighty tome, but it is not germane to our topic.
The monthly journal Dushu in 1979, and the appearance after 1985 of three cultural camps - "Moving toward the future", "China Cultural Institute", and "Culture: China and the World" - signified that intellectuals had recovered their vitality.
The Bohemian trends that are the subject of this essay were also influenced by Liu Sola's You Have No Choice (Ni bie wu xuanze) and Xu Xing's Themeless Variations (Wu zhuti bianzou), two 1985 novels that announced the formal ascendance of China's "beat generation."
In the same period, Wang Shuo was a central character linking a Beijing-flavored culture with Beijing's Bohemianism. His literature was a hooliganish representative of the new Beijing flavor, as well as being the source of one of the two aesthetic directions Bohemian culture was to take in Beijing. We will return to this later; in passing, we mention the reverberations of his work. In 1988 alone he had four books adapted into movies: The Trouble-Shooters (Wan zhu), Half is Flame, Half is Seawater (Yiban shi huoyan, yiban shi haishui), Surfacing in the Ocean (Fu chu shuimian), adapted into Samsara (Lunhui), and The Rubber Man (Xiangpi ren), adapted into Deep Breath (Da chuanqi). Gaining wider acceptance was the 1990 television series he worked on entitled Longing (Kewang), called by some the turning point between old and new culture in Beijing. In the next year's Story of the Editing Department (Bianjibu de gushi), the popular language of Beijing's new youth obscured the dialect spoken in Beijing's old alleys. Depicting the ugly, the common, and the sexualized aspects of the new Beijing flavor, it toppled the widely accepted Beijing-flavored literature that beautified the vulgar, insisted on amusement, and avoiding writing about certain things. In the 90s, Beijing truly ascended the stage.
Aside from from language and literature, the new energy of this new era of Beijing culture could be found in many other media.
After 1982, filmmakers of various generations made many movies with a recognizable Beijing flavor, like Camel Xiangzi (Luotuo Xiangzi), Teahouse (Chaguan), As You Wish (Ruyi), and My Memories of Old Beijing (Chengnan jiushi), but from today's perspective, it was the Fifth Generation directors, with their "alien sentiment," that was closer to the Bohemian pulse of Beijing. In 1984 the fifth generation filmmakers suddenly made waves on the scene. Although at the beginning they were based in Xi'an and used northwestern subject matter, the main contingent was made up of those trained in Beijing's institutes, and it even included members of Beijing's film aristocracy. It relied on Beijing for its public voice as well; for example, the strong supporters of the Fifth Generation, Modern Film (Dangdai dianying) and Cinema Arts (Dianying yishu), were Beijing periodicals.
In the 90s two important movies brought the setting back to Beijing. The two movies worth mentioning were both financed through Taiwan and Hong Kong, even to the point of having Hong Kong and Taiwan crew behind the scenes. This cross-border cooperation was to be a common sight from then on in Beijing cultural industries, and not limited to just film, television, and music.
Chen Kaige's Farewell, My Concubine (Bawang bie ji) showed viewers the exquisite face of an important artistic form, Peking Opera, using the lives of Beijing-style Peking Opera artists as the axis on which to sweep through the period before and after the liberation.
Jiang Wen, grouped with the Sixth Generation and director of In the Heat of the Sun (Yangguang canlan de rizi), reflected on the situation during the late part of the Cultural Revolution of a certain sort of young person who was born in the 60s, whose parents joined the army or work units after the liberation, and who came to Beijing to live. This second generation of "New Beijingers" is precisely that group that throws the New Beijing-style hooliganism of Wang Shuo into sharp relief.
On the side of television series, Qing dynasty costume dramas aired ceaselessly in the mid to late 90s. Capital officials, Manchu aristocracy, and Beijing-flavored culture were well-known to all, but more in line with the point of this essay was a cooperative venture under the direction of television producers from Taiwan, April Rhapsody (Renjian siyuetian). This production touched of a minor swirl of attention centering on romantic the Beijing School scholars Lin Weiyin and Liang Sicheng, and Xu Zhimo, who shared his time between Shanghai and Beijing.
Traditional artists, Beijing School literati, new Beijing hooligans, and the youth on the outside of the city who were a favorite subject of the Sixth Generation filmmakers gave to the Bohemian ideal a necessary, yet insufficient, charge of atmosphere.
Another contingent arose, revitalizing the carriers of Bohemian culture in the 80s and 90s. We speak first of rock music and avant-garde art.
Few of China's avant-garde rock musicians heard the music of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones before the 80s, but as rock and roll knows no national boundaries, it quickly resonated with young people.
Records state that by 1982 the Chinese mainland had had its first taste of rock music. 1986 was a key year, since the Beijing television station broadcast its first show multi-artist concert, presenting one singer with an opportunity. That singer was named Cui Jian, and his song was Nothing to My Name (Yi wu suo you).
At the beginning of the 90s, the Workers Stadium in Beijing and at other venues across the country hosted Cui Jin, and bands such as Tang Dynasty, ADO, 1989, The Breathing, State of Affairs, and Cobra played at the Capital Stadium, bringing rock and roll to the surface to raise funds for the Asian Games. This was called the “Season of Chinese Rock,” with young people swaying to the music wearing sweaty T-shirts emblazoned with "Nothing to My Name" and "From the Top."
Rock groups organized by young people themselves spread out across the country, not necessarily coming to Beijing, since rock and roll belonged among the people. However, most musicians who wished to encounter more variety or find more breakthroughs would probably choose to go for Beijing. They thought along the lines of what Mao Zedong said in 1949 ("To enter the capital, pass the test. If you fail the test, then it's back to the mountains for you"). Villages on the outskirts of Beijing, like Shucun and Northwest Wang, where rent was cheap, became known as places where musicians gathered.
It is worth noting that while the national music industry is currently depressed, rock and pop talent is almost concentrated in Beijing – Guangzhou, which for a time had a bit of purchase in pop music, has quieted down, and Shanghai is a consumer of music rather than a producer. CDs produced among the people have a hard time earning money, unless they have a savvy manager who can arrange for singers to perform, and these mostly are based in Beijing.
At the start of the 80s, contemporary artists who were able to go overseas went overseas. For those who were unable to go, and who were unwilling or unable to work in local academies, coming to Beijing was an option. More often, however, it was those young people who were on the cutting edge of a strong artistic breakthrough, but who lacked qualifications and were unable to join the institutional art world, who were even more likely to come to Beijing. The situation was like that of France after 1848, when Bohemian artists who could not enter the institutes congregated in Paris, attacking the classical Academy on one side and jabbing at the bourgeois salons on the other.
Though one of the sources of the Fine Art movement of 1985 and succeeding events, termed a wake-up call for the fine arts world, Beijing did not occupy a clear position of leadership. But it achieved immortality through an exhibition that was derived from the 1985 movement: in the spring of 1989, in the temple to art that was the National Art Museum of China, a generation of artists conducted a never-before-seen "China Modern Art Exhibition." In the sound of a single shot, performance decided art, and chance and loss of control proclaimed a new epoch in contemporary Chinese art.
In 1991, Cynical Realism ascended the stage amidst controversy, Political Pop crystallized, and Gaudy Art was not too far away. Installation art and performance art came into being, going off to Venice, Sydney, and other places each in succession. Chinese contemporary art garnered a bit of international attention, and some artists attracted domestic and international collectors. Their living conditions improved somewhat, encouraging their peers to remain steadfast in their artistic creation. The private sector and individuals outside the scene opened galleries, enriching Beijing's cultural life. Social occasions could not do without the participation of artists.
To attain space for development at a low rent, painters also selected villages in Beijing's nearby suburbs for their homes and studios. They choose to settle together, forming a painters' village at the Old Summer Palace, later dissolved but now legendary. This, like the East Village, was a spontaneously organized group. The recent gathering of various skilled artists – easel painters, sculptors, installation artists, performance artists – in Beijing's Tongzhou district (usually called Tongxian) has also attracted notice.
Rock musicians and artists are the most representative of 90s-era Beijing Bohemians. Naturally, there are also those whose chosen vocation is in photography, drama, modern dance, poetry, or other forms of art, those who work at publishing houses, schools, newspapers, advertising companies, or television stations, and even those Bohemians who have a white-collar day-job.
In the 80s, those youth still incubating in their hometowns grew up alongside popular culture. An online essay puts it this way: "I've seen Shaolin Temple more than five times, I remember The Man From Atlantis and The Wonderful Adventures of Nils, I've sung 'Strong as seven horses, strong as ten gods, lalalala…Astroboy!'…I've enjoyed Cheng Lin's 'Empty Bottles' (Jiugan tang mai wu), Zhang Xing's 'Tardy' (Chidao), and Zhu Xiaolin's 'I Was Only 17 Then' (Nayinian wo cai shiqishui), and after that it was Fei Xiang and Qi Qin, watching videotapes from Hong Kong and Taiwan, playing video games, break-dancing, listening to rock and roll, with a large Walkman strapped to my waist…I've liked Weng Meiling, Yamaguchi Momoe, Huo Yuanjia, and Xu Winqiang, I've read Jin Yong, Gu Long, San Mao, Mu Rong, Bei Dao, Wang Guozhen, Wang Shuo, Qian Zhongshu, Zhang Ailing…" They are aware of more forms of media than the previous generation, the forms they encounter are eclectic, they are natural people within popular culture, and in the online generation and afterward, they have become the new producers of domestic pop and Bohemian culture.
Beijing's Bohemianism is a cultural phenomenon that started in the mid to late 80s.
Life in Beijing was as expensive or cheap as you wished. Creative space was fairly open, residents were not surprised at all different kinds of people, and there were plenty of opportunities in all fields, making it easy for Bohemians to live in this place.
One thing that cannot be ignored is bookstores, because no matter what their vocation, Bohemians in Beijing all read books. From the mid-80s to the 90s, apart from institutions such as Xinhua Bookstore, there was only the Three Flavor Bookshop, which had few books, along with a few shops run by presses. Fortunately, the Joint Press Bookstore arrived in the east, with the All Saints bookstore in the west. These, plus the foreign language bookstores, the renovated Xinhua Bookstores, and the emergence of online bookstores and private bookstores like Fengrusong and Guolinfeng, irrigated Beijing's cultural environment. Of course, what is still lacking is a book superstore like the Eslite in Taipei that would raise the profile of the city.
Another essential element is black market movie DVDs (VCDs in the past) and music CDs, because no matter what Bohemians were interested in, they all needed to watch movies and listen to music. The ability of Beijing movie and music fans' to remain in step with the exposure and taste of the world at large relied entirely on this highly circumstantial, imperfect, chaotically ordered system. It required you to search across Beijing, it tested your patience with counterfeits, and it punished your foolish infatuations. But it also let you taste the satisfaction of inexpensive, forbidden fruit. Were the legal system to improve, or if the law were to closely follow the international rights of Americans, choices in Beijing would be narrowed rather severely.
By the turn of the millennium, Beijing was like a magnet, and those people who liked the Bohemian feeling, or those whose vocation was in cultural, artistic, or academic media, seemed even more willing to come to or remain in Beijing. In addition to these were those successful artists, writers, academics, and professionals who returned to the country, foreigners in love with Beijing who would not leave, and people from Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan in the alternative scene who hated Shanghai but loved Beijing. The presence of these individuals led to a more diverse cultural atmosphere in Beijing, creating a national cultural center worthy of the name, and affirming Beijing's position as the Bohemian capital of China.
In light of this, one could say that Beijing has taken the place of Shanghai in the cultural arena as heir to the Shanghai of the 20s and 30s – the destination of all rivers.
One other result of this increased diversity and increased media variety has been a further change to institutions and markets, giving birth in turn to a new Bohemian trend distinct from the one that came before – Bohemianism as life.
Ge" and "Westernism"
It was probably around 1997 or 1998 that small bars began to proliferate in Beijing and a large number of creative industries started to become attractive: specialized restaurants, bars with live music, techno clubs, movie cafés, art teahouses, interior decorating, design, industrial design, architecture, furniture, furnishings, shops, malls, advertising production, packaging, mobile exhibits, commercial photography, multi-media, animation, web cafés, design magazines, free city guides, hair and makeup…
As practical arts, they inclined strongly toward the commercial – they faced market competition and were rated on their innovation. If the avant-garde art could be seen as aiming to "overthrow" the academy, the salons, and vulgar commoditization, and if rock was a "rebellion" against society, then this art now appearing throughout daily live emphasized finding a "substitution." Or perhaps one might call it giving choices to life.
Beijing also had a strong or the strongest position in television, radio, newspaper, and magazine media, and in related fields such as advertising, public relations, new media, and the Internet. To a large degree this strength benefited from Beijing's position as the seat of central power. The flow of these industries and their derivatives provided opportunities for careers and outsourcing.
The world of Beijing's Bohemians gradually coalesced.
From Liangma River south along Sanlitun Avenue, past Worker's Stadium Road to South Sanlitun Avenue, is the north-south axis. From the west gate of Worker's Stadium along North Gongti Road to the south and west gates of Chaoyang Park across the third ring road at Changhong Bridge is the east-west axis. The whole area belongs to the fashionably casual Bohemian restaurant and entertainment district.
The newest development is the ring of bars around Houhai, which have a Bohemian flavor in addition to the natural beauty of the lake.
Renovating factories and warehouses into offices and homes is an even better use of Beijing's resources. The urban face of Beijing, through the course of 50 years of demolishing walls, enlarging plazas, building ring roads, adding apartments, and erecting tall buildings during the 90s, has essentially vanished. Many detached homes and simple buildings were erected quickly after the liberation, so knocking them down is no great loss. Apart from protected cultural artifacts and 25 hutongs, there are also large courtyards in the West City District, scattered old streets and courtyard-homes, a few government buildings, and even fewer western-style homes that deserve protection. Soviet architecture, though not really the best quality, must still be protected as a treasure now.
Is there any other good architecture? Yes – after the liberation many factories were built, solid and utilitarian, blindly incorporating the modernism of the European continent. Today, the city's factories have mostly moved or ceased functioning, leaving only empty shells behind. If they are to be preserved and not demolished, they need not be merely an architectural heritage; they can be be transformed into distinguishing features of Beijing and cultural treasures – giving them to the Bohemians to make factory-residential districts is enough.
Recently, in Dashanzi in the northeast part of the city, a factory built by East Germans in the 60s was snapped up as soon as it went up for rent. It was turned into art galleries, performance venues, offices, and even living space for Bohemians, including a guy who practiced archery in his 6m high living room.
Grain storage facilities are another type of building that could be renovated. Back in the day, silos were built in the various suburbs to store grain for wartime, particularly in Tongzhou, which was called "Storehouse to the World," since it formerly had been the terminus of the Grand Canal. In Tongzhou, not even one hour from Beijing, one can see architecturally rich groups of storehouses.
Beijing's Bohemian community loves pursuits of this kind, because they like "ge".
Ge is Beijing slang, sometimes written as嘎 or个 or各 (as in gese, "all kinds"), but I feel that using格 is more meaningful. This character is more positive than negative, and it has individual subjectivism and uniqueness as shades of meaning, as in personality (xingge), pattern (geju), form (gediao), style (fengge), excessiveness (chuge), competence (gouge), and format (geshi).
I mentioned above the hooliganism in Wang Shuo's novels. This was the origin of the ge aesthetic that later arose among the Bohemians. Those people who came to Beijing from other places for cultural reasons largely had their own individual thinking - otherwise they would not have come. This individuality, when combined with Beijing's hooliganism, explains how Beijing came to value this ge so highly.
Originally, Beijing natives with their sense of superiority were separate from those outsiders who drifted in with their sense of ambition, and there was envy on both sides. Though they generally did not look too kindly on each other, on the question of ge, they were in agreement.
Bohemianism naturally needed ge; otherwise, it would be enough to be merely white collar, bourgeois, and middle-class.
(The word "Bohemia" was originally the name of a place in Europe, but through vagrant gypsies and 19th-century Paris, it gradually transformed into the meaning it has today. Its position has always been tied to an amalgam of art and culture. It is rebellious, romantic, ge, and it emphasizes freedom, liberation, imagination, body and soul together, subconscious motivation, and life set apart from the mass mainstream, the strictures of society, and the caution of the middle-classes. It scorns materialism, prejudice, inequality, the system of conforming to social expectations by marching in step with convention, and the rails governing social classes – this is but an general conceptual outline of something that encompasses many historical variations and internal contradictions.)
Those who are ge in some sense feel they can do no wrong – a sense of individuality, of being able to create a unique sort of fame. But they are often sloppy and have pretenses of greatness. They think highly of themselves, and believe that their every random thought is incredibly profound.
Beijing in the eyes of outsiders, then, is especially coarse.
Recently, Beijingers have been using "Western style" as a compliment, creating tension with the idea of ge. This is an interaction that I think is for the best.
I've noticed that of those using the term "Western style", women make up the majority. And at the same time, I've seen women artists, writers, musicians, performers, Bohemians, and their sponsors and managers stream into Beijing, this masculine place – for that is, I'm afraid, what Bohemian circles are – and be respected here. I have also found that a feminine artistic appreciation can be found in the domain of practical arts like cooking, design, furniture, clothing, and magazines. These fields begun to refine themselves, although they are still a ways off from overall cultivation.
In the past, the unbridled beauty that Beijing's Bohemians took up was a masculine beauty, its coarseness a hard, masculine coarseness. It was said that Beijing was masculine and Shanghai feminine, but if that were true, then neither had reason to be proud.
Of course, Bohemianism could be refined if it needed to be, if Paris were any indication. What is there that mature Bohemianism could not attempt? Who is afraid of male and female together in one body?
In truth, it was only after the revolution that Beijing put a value on grandness to the exclusion of all else. It masculinized itself, distained beauty, and became coarse. Manchu aristocracy and old Beijingers played at arts, enjoyed Cao Xueqin's novels, Qi Baishi's ink paintings, and Mei Lanfang and Beijing's Peking Opera. There were the late Ming sketches admired by Zhou Zuoren and the scholars of Beijing and Shanghai, the "True Old Beijing School." All of these had a delicate charm. Bohemians today ought to consider dialectically and critically inherit the two traditions of the last century.
Beijing Bohemianism cannot escape Western style, either. What are rock and roll and avant-garde art, if not western? From their aesthetics to their value outlook, they are extremely western, even though those musicians and artists can't read the language. Is converting factories western? Eating Yunnan cuisine and eating Vietnamese cuisine are both western enough.
So will Beijing's culture be taken over by an outside culture? That won't happen – Beijing has such a large group of people who possess creativity and ge by their very nature; compared to all other areas of the country, they ought to have stronger stomachs that are abler to digest, abler to give cultural feedback.
Shanghai has Western style, but Shanghainese are not ge. And Shanghai lacks a large contingent of Bohemians. At this point, this is the key difference between the cultures of Beijing and Shanghai: Shanghai is modern, and although Beijing has never escaped modernity, Shanghai is petty-bourgeois while Beijing is Bohemian.
There is no need to fear Western style; Beijing's Bohemians want to use Western style for themselves.
This is the reason I chose to employ the western word Bohemian: I primarily wanted something distinct from the current words used to describe Beijing, in order to find a replenished or renewed vision of Beijing.
Is there any such thing as New Beijing School?
Given the account above, I believe it is simple to explain why I use the word Bohemian rather than "new Beijing flavor" or "New Beijing School".
"Beijing flavor" refers to the cultural flavor of the Manchus and old Beijingers, for which Lao She's novels are commonly recognized as perfect examples in contemporary literature. Lao She was forced to put down his pen in 1962, and afterward during the Cultural Revolution, the nation's citizens were only able to read one book and eight plays. At the start of the new era, Beijing-flavored novels, suppressed for so long, made an immediate, explosive return in large numbers. 1979's Speaking of Taoran Pavilion (Huashuo taoran ting) by Deng Youmei fired the first shot, and a group of outstanding authors of all ages seemed as if they shared an awareness of standing on the stage that the giant Lao She built. Deng Youmei, Wang Zengqi, Chen Jiangong, Su Shuyang, and Han Shaohua continued to put out important works, putting the power of the Beijing-flavored writers on display, and creating a seldom-seen collective expression of a single style.
For this essay, we make particular mention one of the Beijing-flavored writers, Chen Jiangong. Chen's Curlylocks (Quanmao) anticipated Wang Shuo with its subject of the conditions of Beijing's new urbanites, and it gathered together the diverse styles of the works of writers of the "Central Army" – Wang Meng, Liu Xinwu, Zhang Jie, Chen Rong, Cong Weixi, Shi Tiesheng, Liu Zhenyun, Ke Yunlu, Zhang Xinxin, Sang Ye – sketching the new state of affairs of people of this new era. After Wang Shuo's new Beijing-flavored novels appeared, the new attitude toward life and the hooligan aesthetic of new people became part of the internal ideology of Bohemianism.
But the main point is that neither the Beijing flavor of Lao She the patriarch nor the new Beijing flavor of coarse hooliganism was sufficient to describe all of the diverse forms of the Beijing phenomenon detailed in this essay. So we must use the new term "Bohemian."
In a narrow sense, "Beijing School" already has a customary usage defined within academia.
Beijing before the 1920s was the cultural capital of the country. During the May Fourth period the greatest concentration of writers and academics was in Beiping, or more correctly, the universities of Beiping.
In 1928 the government moved to Nanjing, with publishers and cultural media organizations following south, so there was a perceptible change in the atmosphere. Beiping gave up its central position, but scholars remaining at the universities received in exchange a few years of relative tranquility in the old capital, for which there is now widespread nostalgia.
The "Beijing School" these days refers to the group of people from all parts of the country who remained at various universities in Beijing during the 30s. They were mostly academics or professors, as Lu Xun writes: "Of the academics and scholars of Beiping, the majority had positions as lecturers or professors." The fiction of this group of scholars during that time, whether they wrote about Beiping or not, belonged to the Beijing School. The literary historian Yan Jiayan has said that Beijing School fiction refers to "a literary school made up of writers who during the 1930s continued to be active in Beiping after the literary center moved south."
This is basically the same narrow definition people use today. Digging further, we can find a strongly rooted ideological bulwark.
Shen Congwen, an exponent of the Beijing school, wrote an essay in 1933 entitled "The Attitude of Literary Practitioners" (wenxuezhe de taidu), which was published in the Ta Kung Pao newspaper's arts supplement, which he edited. This essay launched the debate over Beiping and Shanghai, and in "A Discussion of the 'Shanghai School'" (Lun "Haipai") and "On the Shanghai School" (Guanyu haipai) that he published the following year, we find his definition of the professional surroundings of the Shanghai School: "A parasite attached to bookshops, newspapers, magazines, and periodicals." Its working style was "a unity of the talent of celebrities and competition of business," "opportunism," and "adaptation to circumstances."
He raised an example: "There is a certain man of the old Saturday School, who until recently has talked of the history of philosophy and says he leans left; this is what is known as the Shanghai School. Perhaps he invites a few newly refined individuals together, imitating elegance – famous gentlemen are together in one place, reciting poetry and reading essays, talking of far-off Greece and Rome, or of the nearby female literati, their actions no different from divination or guessing at riddle poems. With money from the government, they can eat and drink, hold arts meetings, take disciples, and deceive their readers. Their thinking is laughably superficial, their techniques unspeakably low; this too is the Shanghai School. Sentimentalists on the left, brave as lions, jump in as soon as they see something amiss. They point out slights against their friends and take credit for others' achievements; this too is the Shanghai School. Because they thirst for fame, they try all sorts of tactics apart from writing to show off. They exchange promotions with small publications, creating news that benefits themselves…or they use small newspapers to spread rumors about others, circulating and collecting untruths. All of this, too, is the Shanghai School."
Nevertheless, Shen Congwen added, "The writers and working style of the Shanghai School are not confined to Shanghai alone" – they existed in the north as well.
It is clear that Shen Congwen is basically assuming the mantle of a conscientious writer on the side of the right to criticize from a high moral standpoint the actions of those writers who have been determined as problematic. His target did include leftist scholars, but it was not necessarily limited to Shanghai's literati. Shen clearly places Mao Dun, Ye Shengtao, Lu Xun, and a large group of writers and magazine editors (apart from those living off the government) outside of the Shanghai School.
At that time, Beijing School writers such as Yu Pingbo, Zhou Zuoren, Shen Congwen had a relatively independent position. Although they existed together with the Northern Leftist Alliance, they possessed democratic tendencies. Because they were attached to universities, they were later repeatedly referred to as the "elegance of the University School." They possessed an aura of the traditional literati, emphasized learning, had a strong sense of history, avoided pursuit of the popular, looked down on business, and were unfamiliar with the exaggerated showiness of "parasites attached to bookshops, newspapers, magazines, and periodicals."
Lu Xun, however, did not take well to Shen Congwen leaving him off the list of Shanghai School writers. Using the pseudonym Luan Tingshi he took the opportunity to knock both the Beijing School and the Shanghai school, disregarding the fact that Shen Congwen was using the term "Shanghai School" to describe the actions of a particular type of scholar. Lu Xun writes: "The refinement and vulgarity of a particular place will certainly influence a writer's expression. Mencius said, 'One's position alters the spirit, just as one's nurture affects the body'; precisely what this is saying. Beijing was the imperial capital of the Ming and Qing, while Shanghai is a concession to the world. The imperial capital had officials, while the concessions have merchants. So the scholars in Beijing turn to officials, since they lack the merchants of Shanghai. Those close to officials make their name through officialdom, those closer to merchants make profit in commerce, while I am fortunate to have a mixture of both. It must be said, however, that the 'Beijing School' writers are hangers-on of officialdom, while the 'Shanghai School' writers are assistants to merchants."
Lu Xun sets up Beijing and Shanghai as opponents in their very essence, while he maintains a superior attitude of not being subject to "position altering the spirit;" that is, he denigrates the Beijing school, whom he sees as protégés to officials, and criticizes the Shanghai school, whom he sees as protégés to businessmen. In doing this he employs the progressive stance of the left wing of the time.
Why did the Beijing School provoke the left wing? Because its members had their heads buried in composition and scholarship and were not active in politics; that is, what Cao Juren indicted as, "The professors of the Beijing School used scholarship as a screen."
Cao Juren writes, "Recognizing that one cannot simply cover up, willfully letting one's tail hang out is the 'Shanghai School.' Trying to lengthen one's coat and in a mincing attempt to conceal one's tail is the 'Beijing School.'"
Lu Xun further stated, "But the situation of those who live off the government is vague, they can still act lordly to those outside. The situation of those who live off merchants is plain, and difficult to conceal anywhere. So to those who forgot the reasons, the two were divided into clear and muddy."
The Beijing School, with its high self-image that marked the style of the academy, was what Lu Xun referred to as those who live off the government and lord over those outside. The difference between Beijing and Shanghai was that one was hidden and one was revealed, one clear and one muddy. The the morally lofty Beijing School did not expect to be painted as a raccoon dog alongside those vulgar, secularized scholars.
The Beijing School of the past perhaps was a protégé of those in power, but by the 1930s the government was no longer in Beijing. Could the literati remaining in Beijing be protégés of the government even if they had so desired?
Lu Xun said, "Two years ago at the start of the troubles, it was ancient culture that the academics of Beiping wanted to use to shield themselves. Now the only thing that has happened is that ancient artifacts have moved south. Does this not show the true nature of everything in Beijing?"
Lu Xun's logic roughly is: failing to engage in formal opposition is tantamount to assisting the forces in power; thinking only of protecting cultural relics when faced with a nation's problems was politically incorrect.
The Beijing School relied on educational institutions to support culture and scorn commerce. Lu Xun used broader politics to castigate the Beijing School for pursuing only academic culture. Both the Beijing School and Lu Xun had both clear and murky ulterior motives.
The definitions and controversies outlined above form the primary image of the Beijing School whenever it is mentioned in most narratives.
From this perspective, the Beijing of today, after it took the mantle of cultural center back from Shanghai, possessed not only the working style of the University School, but the commercial competition of the bookshops, newspapers, magazines, and periodicals as well. It is a self-defined amalgam of the Beijing School of the 30s and elements of both Beijing and Shanghai.
Or perhaps the greater environment of those working in culture in today's Beijing is moving further and further away from the Beijing of the past, but closer and closer to that era's Shanghai. Shen Congwen was right: the Shanghai School can exist in Beijing.
Because "Beijing School" has such historical connotations, I don't want to casually use "New Beijing School" to describe the current style of Beijing culture while confusing the original meaning, because strictly speaking, the current situation, in which locals and outsiders mix and academic style and market competition coexist as protégés of both officialdom and commerce, is more appropriately a combined "Beijing-Shanghai School.". If the word "new" must be used, then "New Shanghai School" is a more appropriate, and more worthy successor to the bloodline of previous debates; otherwise, why use the word "new" at all?
There is, however, another route to the term "New Beijing School." Before the debate between scholars over Beijing and Shanghai, there was already a "Beijing School of Peking Opera." Moreover, a great deal of media, genres, and fields all have Beijing schools – bonsai, snuff bottles, ink and oil painting, picture books, seal carving, smelly-tofu, qipaos, and so on. We can restore the diverse meanings of the term Beijing School to encompass all media, genres, and fields, and we can break out from these foundations to create and imagine the media, genres, and fields of a New Beijing School, giving us a multitude of new Beijing schools covering many categories.
For example, we may inquire: there exists a new Beijing flavor of literature, but is there a New Beijing School?
It has been said that there exists a "Beijing School" in contemporary culture that succeeded the scholarly atmosphere of Yu Pingbo and Zhi Tang [pen name of Zhou Zuoren] and stressed the importance of values in writing as distinct from the common, secular characteristics of the Beijing flavor of Lao She and Deng Youmei. Some would list Wang Zengqi, Yang Feng, and Zhang Zhong as writers of the "Beijing School," and put Chen Pingyuan, Wang Shixiang, Liu Jinlan, Ji Xianlin, Feng Yidai, Shu Wu, Xu Chengbei, Gu Lin into the "New Beijing School." And there are those who think that in Beijing's universities, all academics in the humanities belong to the New Beijing School.
This kind of definition for the New Beijing School does affirm the original meaning of the Beijing School, but it does not allow for Beijing authors of a different style, from Ah Cheng to Shi Kang to Yin Lichuan to Fan Jing to Liu Sola.
Regardless of whether a New Beijing School of literature can be successfully constructed, Beijing's culture, and the branch of it bearing the Bohemian stamp that includes many media, genres, and fields, is far beyond any comparison to the 30s. Literature and written culture is only one element, and it has already been "decentralized," so that it can no longer monopolize the dialogue of the rest of the media, genres, and fields to represent by its own characteristics the entirety of Beijing culture.
Beijing society today is diversified: you may be a government protégé, I may be a merchant's protégé. I might be no one's protégé, and only help the woman who loves me, and you might help no one at all, shouting just one thing: "Don't mess with me!"
Today's Beijing Bohemianism is an appropriated vision, something that the scholars of the 1930s Beijing and Shanghai of the 30s did not have. The new era has introduced a large number of Bohemian resources, like Parisian Intellectuals and cafés, the beat generation, hippies, rock and roll, punk, hip-hop, techno, abstract art, pop art, minimalism, conceptual art, installation and performance art, Salinger, Kundera, Haruki Murakami, post-modernism, women's rights, gay rights, European cinema, Soho factory living, furniture and interior design, foreign restaurants, non-native decoration, going online, backpacking, and short international tours.
Of course, during the first half of the last century, Xu Zhimo and Ling Shuhua interacted with two Bloomsbury generations, Mei Lanfang knew Brecht, and Zhao Xunmei's girlfriend was the American author Emily Hahn. But the literati of that era, although they lived at the time of the Belle Epoque in Paris and prewar Greenwitch Village, lacked the larger experience of Bohemian ideology: first, because of the great distance; second, because of slow communication; and third, because their imagination was constrained. The nation had too many problems, the era was too hurried, and the transmission was broken only to be picked up now.
With today's particular variety of visions and its diverse media, genres, and fields, Beijing as a cultural center is not too likely to give rise to any overarching characteristics that would make up a capitalized "New Beijing School." Rather, multiple, lower-case “new Beijing schools” arise from the subdivisions determined by internal rules of each particular media, genre, and field, or from the mixing of diverse media and genres.
However, in this "post-grand narrative" era, we can nevertheless put forth a few mid-range analogical concepts, like Bohemianism, that can cohere narratives and spur imaginations. The new Beijing flavor and New Beijing School can spur the imagination, but these terms have specific narrative limitations, and are not broad enough. To use only “Beijing culture” or “new Beijing culture” is to get lost in something too broad, a narrative too coarse, whose ability to capture the imagination is too weak. Perhaps in the future there will be a word more suitable than Bohemianism.
Culture's Glorious Tang?
Beijing culture today has different flavors: government, commerce, academia, old Beijing, and Bohemia. But flavors, by nature, are not easily fixed but rather tend to mix. Ultimately they are sensibilities that cannot be easily captured by words.
The coexistence of these flavors, in particular the fact that commerce and Bohemianism have both taken root, demonstrates that the Beijing of today is at last something different from its past, a reflection of the larger political and economic climate of society.
So to use the cruelly militaristic state of Qin as an analogue for today's China quite clearly is behind the times. This is driving backward; it is destroying the image of China the people of the world hold. Reality and people's hearts have already surpassed the civilization of the Qin, so China should not continue to extol it.
What we must prevent is a return of the cruel Qin.
If we must use the past to depict the present, then for political situations academia looks to the late Qing and early Republic, while for culture, it seems appropriate to use the glorious Tang as the main metaphor for China's image.
The Tang was not built in a day; it required the accumulation of the hard work of officials and citizens, as well as a reform and opening up. In all fairness, today's environment is better than any time since the revolution.
What is rare is the fact that a large cultural realm like Beijing has assembled a huge amount of resources and talent. Looking at the achievements of the past 20 years, as a sub-realm within the larger cultural realm of Beijing, Bohemianism was worth waiting for, even though it had a torturous course of development.
Of Beijing's cultural forces, a large group is in the private sector; that is, they are outside the system, so to speak, not subordinate to the authority of any national work unit. However, we cannot ignore that an even larger group is within the system. There has been cooperation and exchange in the relationship between these two, and they have also worked alone, even to the point of open opposition – there is no single experience.
It is likely that few truly Bohemian rock and roll musicians are within the system, but if they wish to produce an album, they still need to obtain a publication number from a national audio-visual work unit.
In the oil painting world, associations, schools, national galleries, and appraisers are all key, and these are still held within the hands of a few people inside the system. The artists under their control may be completely different from the artists lauded outside the system – the former do not rise as abruptly as the latter, but the latter cannot take advantage of the official resources of the former.
In academia and news, quite a large amount of talent is within the system.
In other areas, such as television, music and film, periodicals, and book publishing, the leadership strata must be in the establishment, and there is no lack of talent there, either. The private sector must collaborate with them through subordinate organizations.
Perhaps the majority of Bohemians are free people, or they may work at private sector jobs, but to one degree or another they maintain a relationship with the system. This is the state of the nation.
However, in the face of market competition, if art and literary media units within the system find that the resources or talent under their authority is deficient, they may take advantage of resources and talent in the private sector. This is the direction in which things are headed today.
All cultural and creative enterprises, both within and outside the system, are subject to the pull of policy. Policy makers are aligned with the national mission, while at the same time they are seeking profit. They ultimately have to face check-ups as to whether they are accomplishing the "Three Represents," or whether they are in accordance with public welfare. These elements, both internal and external, motivate the evolution of policy, and form a large, ever-present sticking point in the development of cultural and creative enterprises on the mainland.
For those engaged in various kinds of cultural pursuits, the eternal questions are what can and cannot be said, what can and cannot be done, and what can and cannot be invested in – how to survive and win alongside policy and the market.
The market is another strange attraction. There exists an inescapable ambiguity and unease in its relationship with Bohemian culture.
Beijing's Bohemian characteristics are one of the attractions of the city, and they can generate for it the precious resource of foreign currency. This is something that cultured officials may not see now, but tomorrow they will. Think of what a loss of color it would be for Paris to rub out its Bohemian past.
Society is enriched daily, the market is growing, and the commercial products increase in number with the flourishing of practical arts like design, fashion, and food and entertainment flourish. As taste in certain areas is elevated, certain kitsch items can be discarded – people are no longer satisfied with just McDonald's. This is known as consumer-driven market specialization. Of course, this does not mean that it is equally good for a Bohemian to have good taste in clothing as it is for him to have good taste in modern poetry.
Commercialization also noticeably revitalizes television serials, variety shows, city papers, fashion magazines, book publishing, advertising, boutiques, and tourism. These media, genres, and fields are not only essentials of modern society, but they also support the lives of many Bohemians.
But there are also common market phenomena where bad money drives out the good. Many worthy pursuits and institutions, if they turn their fate entirely over to the market, cannot continue to exist. Even in such a city as Hong Kong, the government spent the equivalent of 2 billion yuan in tax money in 2002 on support for arts groups like symphony orchestras, folk music groups, ballet troupes, and plays, along with performance venues, museums, and libraries. An extreme example is the United States, where the federal government hands out very little in support of culture, turning the responsibility over to local and private institutions, where they first rely on market mechanisms (fortunately the interior of the country has a sufficiently large economy). What the market does not support must count on non-profit organizations, philanthropic societies and personal donations. The market is obviously not omnipotent, so complete reliance on it and complete disregard for it both highly mistaken.
Many of Beijing's established cultural institutions no longer receive financial support from the state. Lacking the support of the private sector and unable to work the market, those holding land develop land, and those holding publication numbers sell publication numbers. Their core business lies dormant, and their members split off to private institutions to find their own way. It currently does not look as if an avenue will be found leading back to health out of the continued drought. I notice that people who have come out of dance academies, art schools, and music troupes have no way to develop within their fields; though they say Bohemians should be ready to starve, in the end it is still painful to watch.
The Beijing author Zha Jianying, who studied in the United States, pointed out in her English language book China Pop that avant-garde artists in Beijing in the early 90s were already nostalgic for the late 80s (at that time, thought and art were believed to mean something).
After that, the wave of commodities swept callously onward, while avant-garde artists felt like they had been left behind and humanities intellectuals felt marginalized. Musicians asked themselves if they were not compromising themselves, and there were internal divisions in the Bohemian camp.
In 20th-century Europe, the artistic avant-garde and the political left had times where they walked together, and others when they were in fierce opposition – from the late 20s to the 80s the latter was mostly the case, when the regimes in power did not tolerate the avant-garde, while the anti-Bourgeois left wing was often seen by the avant-garde as fellow travelers. In addition, ultra-right regimes had the avant-garde by the throat, although the 20th century occasionally saw segments of the avant-garde, like Italian Futurism, close to the ultra-right. What allowed the avant-garde to survive the best was a relatively free and open space. It is possible to learn from others' mistakes: the cultural avant-garde need not force itself to follow any particular political outlook; instead, it must carefully protect the resources it possesses that allow it to create and live, and those habits, desires, and companions that support it.
The existence of Bohemianism is meaning in and of itself. Suppose Beijing had no Bohemianism – how bare, how cold it would be! Small places like Singapore and Hong Kong use politics and economics to suppress Bohemianism, to their own detriment. In a large country, if the road to modernization does not at the same time open up space for Bohemianism, it has definite problems, and the human cost will certainly be high. It will become self destructive like Nazi Germany or militaristic Japan, bland like 50s-era middle class America, or caught in its own web like the Soviet Union. That we have reached the point where we have given birth to a large-scale Bohemian realm is an auspicious sign for the country, one that will keep modern life from being too one-dimensional, one that will allow diverse values to exist together in modern life, one that will realize the choices of modern life. Beijing's Bohemianism is the Other to the country's separate modernities, and it intrinsically enriches the country's modern life. Because it is unique, it is all the more to be treasured.
In Beijing one often hears a cynical statement, disparaging something as "merely a commercial product." This is limited thinking, empty words, because in fact many items that become popular do have a certain commercialism; saying that something is a commercial product tells me nothing about it. The monthly Dushu relies on circulation for its revenue, so it has a commercial side, yet it is not merely a commercial product. Some of its writers are not even writing for royalties. Artists sell their art or recordings of their actions, academics and authors sell their writing. They all want to improve their lives, but what is important is not whether or not they sell, but whether their works have any meaning.
The era of manifestos is over, and everything solid has evaporated. Parasites exist at academies and art institutes as well as at bookshops, newspapers, and periodicals; there is no fundamental difference between clear and muddy. In this era of media equality, one can no longer pronounce a work good or bad based on a fixed notion of its artistic genre or whether it is cultured or vulgar, high or low, mass produced or not, popular or not.
But that does not mean there are no standards. Aside from policy and the market, creators are continuously under the influence of the habits, achievements, and criticisms of connoisseurs of the earlier generation as well as the current one. Perhaps creators go along with them, perhaps they push the boundaries, and perhaps they break out; to do otherwise is self-isolation. The sociology of Pierre Bourdieu says that an arena in which practitioners gather, like Paris after the 1830s, is most able to polish old standards and to establish new internal standards of value. In today's China, one must look to Beijing.
Paul Moony, a reporter for the American magazine Newsweek, asked me in Beijing why "Bobo" (Bourgeois Bohemian) was a trendy term in Beijing when it wasn't used by too many people in the United States. I think it is like this – Beijing has lots of Bohemians, a fact that everyone acknowledges, and when there are many people in a group they subdivide. Some of the Bohemians got rich first, while other people with a high standard of living became Bohemian. Given the presence of an imported word, it was simple for them to see an identification, giving rise to the trendy term. What is key is that there first had to be a large group of Bohemians before they were able to divide, and division and regrouping among this kind of creative, individual, unstable alternative group is a necessity. Apart from Bobos, there are also Subaltern Bohemians (Subos), commercial Bohemians, cultivated Bohemians, western-worshipping Bohemians, China-infatuated Bohemians, aesthetic Bohemians, vulgar Bohemians, avant-garde Bohemians, classical Bohemians, academic Bohemians, populist Bohemians, progressive Bohemians, decadent Bohemians, intellectual Bohemians, anti-intellectual Bohemians, political Bohemians, apolitical Bohemians, violent Bohemians, non-violent Bohemians, nationalist Bohemians, Bohemians-without-borders, stylish Bohemians, unstylish Bohemians, New Age Bohemians, cyber-Bohemians, alternative lifestyle Bohemians, latent Bohemians, faux Bohemians, Bohemian celebrities, Bohemian hooligans, Bohemian gentlemen, Bohemian lunatics, Bohemian geniuses, Bohemian drifters, Bohemian foreigners…it's enough to recall the culture of the glorious Tang.