Special Artistic Zone in Asia Literary Review


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Over the past year, we developed the concept of the SAZ, the Special Academic and Art Zone: a concept for the development of cultural life in emerging Chinese megacities. We launched the concept last year in the Global Times, spent time thinking and writing about it and tested it in the Chengdu Biennale last October. We also wrote an essay about it, which is recently published in the winter 2011 issue of Asia Literary Review. You can find an introduction to the essay here:

THE MAKING of ideas follows the same logic as that of laws and sausages: ‘Laws, like sausages, cease to inspire respect in proportion to our knowledge of how they are made’, according to the nineteenth-century American poet John Godfrey Saxe. And contrary to the common notion of a sudden, bright insight, an idea tends to grow gradually, nurtured by reflection and discussion, improved after opposition and setbacks.

Seen in this light it is difficult to reconstruct how the idea for a Special Academic and Art Zone emerged, but I like to think it began on a sunny morning while I was riding my bike to our office in Shanghai. Traffic was chaotic as usual and demanded my constant attention, but my mind kept drifting off. For weeks, one question had been bothering me: would Chinese cities ever become thriving, mind-blowing, cultural hotspots, true metropolises that attract not merely businessmen but artists, entrepreneurs, writers, actors and intellectuals from all over the world?

In 2009 architect Daan Roggeveen and I began the Go West Project, a think tank tracking the development of megacities in China’s hinterland. We travelled to sixteen megacities including Wuhan, Chongqing, Shijiazhuang and Guiyang – fast-growing urban agglomerations with millions of people and impressive skylines comparable to those of London, Hong Kong or Sao Paolo. We were finishing our book, How the City Moved to Mr Sun, which would show the results of our work, and we needed to draw conclusions about everything we had seen.

As I was cycling, I structured my thoughts. All the Chinese cities we had visited seemed prepared for the future: they had promising new business districts, gleaming new airports and endless new residential districts. They were interconnected with high-speed bullet trains that made the American and European railway systems seem like children’s toys from another, bygone age. Judging from their infrastructure and physical appearance, most Chinese megalopolises resembled the world’s biggest, tallest and most modern cities; however, in other aspects of urban life we found Chinese cities lagging behind culturally and intellectually, despite their immense populations.

We were sure this had to change. ‘It’s inevitable that Chinese cities will enter a new phase,’ Daan said. ‘At some moment, their focus will have to shift from physical growth to non-physical growth, from hardware to software.’

We realised this was easier said than done. One of the obstacles to creating cultural life is China’s rigid political system. In a lecture at Xiamen University, China’s literary bad boy and blogger Han Han addressed this issue:

Leaders, teachers and students, hello. Do you know why China can’t become a cultural power? Because in most of our speeches, “leaders” always come first, and our leaders are illiterate. Moreover, they are scared of culture. Their job is to censor culture so they can control it. How can such a country become a cultural power? What do you say, leaders?

On that sunny morning, riding my bike in Shanghai, I was not looking to lay blame; I was searching for a solution, and I thought the answer lay in a concept that Chinese government officials would understand because they had seen it work before.

Read the rest of this essay in this month’s Asia Literary Review.



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