China’s cities are trying to buy their way to cultural prestige, and it’s really weird

Beijing's colossal National Centre for the Performing Arts, designed by Paul Andreu. Image: Francisco Diez.

The turn of the last century was a pretty good time to be a big-shot architect with an eye on China.

Paul Andreu, a French architect, is the brains behind the gargantuan National Centre for the Performing Arts in Beijing, a hulking egg of curving glass, costing upwards of £300m to build in time for a July 2007 opening.

Sitting bizarrely on the reflective surface of its own artificial lake, the complex hosts a concert hall, an opera house, and a theatre – adding up to an impressive total of 5,473 seats. The dome is panelled with Brazilian mahogany, which hardly comes cheap, and floors are covered in marbles of differing shades sourced from 22 different provinces, blended to form a contiguous but varied textured surface.

In short, it’s an impressive space inside, and a formidable landmark from outside.

Jean-Marie Charpentier, also French, did a similarly hefty job for the city of Shanghai back in 1998. Coming in somewhere around the £135m mark, the Shanghai Grand Theatre is actually home to three theatres – the Lyric, with 1,800 seats, a drama theatre for 600 and a studio theatre for 300.

Zaha Hadid, one of Britain’s own, finished a masterpiece for Guangzhou, a provincial capital just round the corner from Hong Kong, in 2010. And Carlos Ott, a Canadian architect born in Uraguay, bagged four jobs building performance halls for Zhengzhou, Wenzhou, Hangzhou, and Dongguan, all finished in the mid-noughties. Google them if you like. They’re ridiculous.

The common thread here is that Chinese cities are pumping an awful lot of money into nebulously useful infrastructure projects like concert halls, opera houses, and ‘Cultural Centres’.

Look at it. An egg. In some water. Why, Paul? Image: Caribbean88.

Part of that story, of course, is the mere fact of how huge so many of China’s cities are, and how they’re only getting bigger – both in terms of economic output and the number of people living in them.

But the other part of the story is a deep insecurity in China about its position on the world’s cultural stage. China knows it’s an economic superpower, set to overtake America in not all that many years; and with financial tendrils across Africa and military and diplomatic tendrils across east and south-east Asia, its recent emergence as a political superpower is becoming incontrovertible.

And yet, China sees itself falling behind in terms of its cultural power.

Hu Jintao, China’s leader before Xi Jinping, said it in no uncertain terms in a fairly groundbreaking essay in 2012:

“The international culture of the West is strong while we are weak,. We must clearly see that international hostile forces are intensifying the strategic plot of Westernising and dividing China, and ideological and cultural fields are the focal areas of their long-term infiltration.

“We should deeply understand the seriousness and complexity of the ideological struggle, always sound the alarms and remain vigilant, and take forceful measures to be on guard and respond.”

The essay was part of a drive offering more government funding for Chinese companies to work on cultural products – anything from an opera production company to a book publisher. Jintao argued that boosting China’s cultural standing was a way to increase both national prestige and soft power internationally.

He tried to make the cultural drive a central part of his legacy as he left office in 2012, and the current premier, Xi Jinping, has continued the theme.

Peculiar examples of a cultural drive abound under Jinping’s tenure.

The 12 “core socialist values” were turned into a song-and-dance routine by authorities in Hunan Province, in the south-east, and traditional “square dancers” – by best approximation the Chinese equivalent of morris dancers, but actually popular and not awful – were encouraged to take on these routines.

The push came under the direction of the Ministry of Culture, and 10,000 textbooks including videos with demonstrations of the routine were distributed across China.

Coming soon to a town square near you: freedom, equality, patriotism, dedication, prosperity, democracy, civility, harmony, justice, rule of law, integrity, and friendship – the all-singing, all-dancing 2017 edition. (Just don’t ask too many questions about the first and sixth of those.)

Similarly, Matt Damon’s embarrassing starring role in The Great Wall, a rather oblique bit of pro-Chinese propaganda converted into Hollywood blockbuster format, hit cinema screens at the end of last year, at a cost of at least £110m.

The little town of Wuzhen is probably the oddest example. After a major fire gutted much of the town twenty years ago, it was rebuilt as manufactured tourist destination.

Wuzhen's picturesque canals. Image: Jakub Halun.

Its canals, part of the Grand Canal system dating back to the 5th century BC, were designated as the centrepiece of two new ‘Tourist Zones’ – charging around £11 each for entry. Now the 50,000-strong town receives around 7m visitors a year, with one of the principle highlights being the four-year-old Wuzhen Theatre Festival each October.

There’s also the Wuzhen International Contemporary Art Exhibition, which last year launched with works by Damien Hirst and Ai Weiwei, amongst others.

Meng Jinghui, the theatre festival’s artistic director, said: “In terms of content and budget, they have given us complete freedom. That’s very rare in China.”

Clearly, someone somewhere high up has an interest in the success of this odd enterprise.

But odd is still a key word. Chen Xianghong, the chairman of Culture Wuzhen, which supports the festival, told the New York Times last year: “With Wuzhen, we have built a beautiful shell. Now we are trying to fill in the shell with culture.”

Admittedly, it may be a western attitude that makes this so uncomfortable, but the notion of building a shell in order to artificially fill it with cultural value is a little jarring.

Xi Jinping is clearly in it to win it on the cultural front, just like his predecessor. In a plea for artists to embody ‘Chinese values’ in their work, Jinping said that “Chinese art will further develop only when we make foreign things serve China, and bring Chinese and Western art together via thorough understanding.

“Fine art works should be like sunshine from blue sky and breeze in spring that will inspire minds, warm hearts, cultivate taste and clean up undesirable work styles.”

In theory, this is all great. Proper investment in the arts and the infrastructure that creatives need to thrive is a very good thing, and a cornerstone of sound policy that our own leaders could probably do with learning from.

But China already has an incredibly rich cultural fabric. It has the second-highest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and Chinese influences on food, music, art, and poetry are felt throughout the world.

Building shiny concert halls is all very well, but if they’re built to house the genres imposed by another culture – the western orchestra, the western opera, the western notion of drama and theatre – then surely the only culture that gets a boost is the Western culture?

And, just as pressingly, what point is an outrageously expensive opera hall or theatre stage if its people have no real freedom as to what they can say, sing, or play in it?

The commitment that China’s cities have shown to culture and the arts is astonishing, and should be a lesson to nations and cities in Britain and Europe. But until China and its cities can have real freedom, and have the bravery to foster Chinese culture on its own terms, it all feels just a bit weird. 

Jack May is a regular contributor to CityMetric and tweets as @JackO_May.

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