Planning a trip to Beijing? The city's temples are beautiful. The Forbidden City and Temple of Heaven are preserved as symbols of China's past greatness and are amazing links to its dynastic past. The city also maintains strong links to its more modern communist history. The Military Museum in the capital is a grand five story statement of the Chinese Communist Party. It is also a shopaholics paradise: The Hoziadiao Pearl Market is the place for electronics, clothes and of course pearls, or Sanlitun village is a shiny new mall complex full of designer names and youthful, fashionable Beijingers and foreigners. What if you get 'templed out' or the flourescent lights of the malls start giving you a head ache? Get in a taxi and say, 'Seven, Nine, Eight'.
The 798 district encapsulates a cosmopolitan and artistic face of the city that is hard to find anywhere else. Sat in one of the gallery come cafe's in old construction warehouses, as young Beijingers strut past with designer handbags hanging from their arms, it is easy to mistake this stretch of the city as somewhere in Paris, or London.
It presents a refreshing break from the tourist bedlam surrounding other famous sites, it also has a classy, modern air which a lot of Beijing lacks. Modernisation in China often takes an obscure form, trying to westernise is hard when you have such little exposure to the West. 798 on the other hand has created is own identity. Young Chinese artists have come together to create a small haven in their capital away from political conformity.
Another surprising fact is the subtle mockery of the Communist party line which is followed across Beijing and China. One sculpture on a side street has a bronze bust of the peasant jacket, which Chairman Mao was always pictured wearing. Yet over the top of the bust is a Chinese porcelein bra and bunny ears.
One gallery had Mao's infamous figure strolling along in traditional peasant garb - yet this time his head had been replaced by a cow, another sculpture had a dog's head. Surely the Chairman would be turning in his grave, or mausloeum to be more precise.
A photo gallery off one of 798's many side streets had several symbolic pictures from the Cultural Revolution. This time the Great Leader was not Mao but Barack Obama. Calling on the people to join his revolution! Uh oh! Mao's mausoleum glass might have just shattered!!
The majority of people walking around or enjoying 798 cafes and restaurants were Western or wealthy Chinese sporting designer this and that. Maybe authorities are blase about the influence of art, or cannot understand its symbolism themselves. Regardless, 798 is not only a refreshing break from the chaos of Beijing, but a refreshing place for young Chinese to have a voice, through art they can stand up to the rigid and conformist Chinese system.
Many guidebooks will focus on the beautiful temples, parks or the shopping spots in Beijing. However few places are able to show you a different face to the Chinese capital. I am not suggesting you do not visit Beijing's beautiful temples and impressive museums. 798 though is a change, you will not find it anywhere else. Even if there is still a touristic air to the place - this appears impossible to escape in Beijing. So pay a visit, be refreshed, then dive back into the malls.
No. 4 Jiuxian Bridge Road / 酒仙桥路4号 (在大山子) in Dashanzi District, north east of city centre.
Transport: Subway to Dongzhi men then No. 401 bus OR 20 Minute Taxi journey from CBD.
Google map: bit.ly/rBSHQF
I was living in Beijing when the Gallery started, and it is for me the fondest memory I keep of the Dashanzi contemporary art district.
Founded by a French couple, it was one of the first galleries to expose exclusively photography - young Chinese photographers and the work of international artists on China. Over the last four years, it has slowly expanded, opened in Paris, and gained a bit of a reputation, eventually showing Martin Parr's first exhibition in China.
You will find there a good collection, every time, and great helpful staff. And good wines at openings! A must do when passing in Dashanzi.
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