Once China’s first electronics factory, Joint Factory 718 in Beijing is home to a community of artists—and is itself a work of art
Located on the 4th ring road of Beijing’s Chaoyang district, the often understated historical treasure that is the 798 Dashanzi Art District, better known as ‘798 DAD’, is more than just a venue for brilliant vanguards to display their projects.
Before its transformation into a ruggedly charming enclave for refugee vanguards or BoBo (bourgeois-bohemian) communities that once called the Yuanmingyuan Artist Village until they were evicted in 1994.
Along with the highly anticipated art complex at Gaobeidian and 798 DAD’s smaller village counterpart named Songzhuang Art District, 798 DAD showcases the growing interest of China’s citizenry in aesthetic devices—a great gauge of the increase in the standard of living increase in the country.
Built and designed before the Cultural Revolution era of the 1960s, each crevice on 798 DAD’s walls, each scratch on the glass that make up its high ceilings, end even the visibly dilapidated pavement on this 640,000-sq.m property has a greater cultural significance than any painting showcased in contemporary 798’s more than 50 galleries.
Before Sino-Soviet ties dissolved in 1962, East German architects took responsibility for creating the blueprint of the entire industrial zone as reparation for damage inflicted on the Soviet Union in World War II. Construction began in 1954 with the intention of jumpstarting China’s industrialization with aid from its ideological ally, the Soviet Union.
The first of what would eventually be split into six sub-factories (706, 797, 798, 761, 707, 751) was actually named Joint Factory 718; 798 is just one of the series of factories patterned after Germany’s famous Bauhaus architectural style.
During the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao Zedong’s red slogans covered every walled corner of China’s cities. It was a time when the cultivation of individuality was considered an act of treason and where suppression of personal development was considered a necessary discipline.
The factory’s rigid work culture at that time strictly implemented Mao’s socialist concept of non-differentiation and discouraged any form of social deviation. Workers were mobilized according to strict schedules, lived in indoor housing facilities, attended mandatory night school, and were provided daycare facilities so female workers would not need to stay at home.
Escape from poverty was the incentive for productivity at that time. Personal testimonials speak of an attached sense of prestige in being part of the 10,000 laborers chosen to work on some of the most advanced radio technology of that day. These workers were picked according to their class background and their stories permeate the barren spaces of what once housed China’s first electronics factory.
By the late 1980s, the factory faced production slowdowns worsened by rollbacks of government subsidies for state-built factories. This led to the shutting down of most factories and left some 60% of employees jobless. Currently, the factories that are still in operation produce military spare parts and equipment.
By 1995, Central Academy of Fine Arts moved their sculpture department to the now defunct Factory 706. Because of the appeal of its spacious structure paired with relatively low rent at that time, Dashanzi Zone began to attract young, financially-strapped avant-gardes. The Maoist slogans and remnants of Maoist-era quotes gave it the right amount of nostalgia.
In 2006, art activists fought a proposed eviction by then managing company Seven Star Huadian Science Technology Group, eventually getting the Beijing Municipal and Chaoyang District Government to declare the place a Special Creative Zone and Cultural Park. In preparation for the 2008 Olympics, the Chinese government allocated US$ 21million for the development of DAD.
The Dashanzi creative industrial enterprises carries the birthright of the entire socialist movement of that decade making it befitting of Time magazine’s recognition as one of the Cultural Landmarks of the World in 2003. Its survival and ironic transition from a factory intended to promote socialist thinking to a venue that promotes and encourages the very forms of creative expression that the Cultural Revlution tried to destroy is a testament to the strength and resiliency of China’s people.
Print ed: 11/10