He Xue-sheng

Song Zhuang is an expansive collection of villages in the Tong Zhou District in the eastern suburbs of Beijing. Home to more than a thousand artists (it is unknown how many), Song Zhuang has become known internationally as a haven for China’s most experimental artistic creations. Many artists have come from all over China, settling in Song Zhuang after a relatively nomadic existence. During the 1980’s there was a trend established for artists to migrate away from cities or their villages of origin to form their own communities. Many artists that currently reside in Song Zhuang previously founded or resided in the artist village of Yuan Ming Yuan in North-East Beijing. Problems arose for the residents of Yuan Ming Yuan when artistic success led to a great deal of notoriety and media exposure that disrupted the relaxed, creative atmosphere. This led to the migration to Song Zhuang.

About an hour outside of Beijing proper, Song Zhuang was once an impoverished farming village. Over the last 15 years the village has blossomed as a major boomtown for contemporary art, with varying styles ranging from academic to the Chinese avant-garde. Many artists have brought life back to parts of the village that had fallen into decay. For example, factories that had fallen into disuse have been converted into vibrant creative workshops. Most residents are painters, sculptors, calligraphers and photographers, though there are also a number of performing artists. They have all found a quiet, independent, pastoral and affordable existence in Song Zhuang that supports the practice of their craft. The community provides an incredible atmosphere of creativity, featuring what some consider the most innovative and inspiring artwork in China.

Visitors and residents alike can take delight in the breathtaking countryside that provides a background for countless artist studios, galleries and exhibitions. Artists live side by side with farmers, and buildings are intermingled with fields and orchards. Song Zhuang is a pastiche of the ancient and modern, the pastoral and the industrial.

Village Life

People come from all over China to Song Zhuang to live and make art. Now that China has opened its doors to the world, people from around the globe are coming to both visit and live. This provides the artists and villagers of Song Zhuang to engage in cultural and artistic exchange. The community is rich with diverse ideas and histories, of people and the land. The pastoral landscape provides inspiration of nature and the Earth, while the people bring new concepts for abstract new art.

The rent for artist homes and workshops are affordable. The proximity to farms and the other non-artist community provides access to living necessities. As Song Zhuang grows, institutions from around the world are identifying its mystique and allure. The Guggenheim, for example, is considering building a museum in the area to feature and support the local artists work, and to encourage further cross-pollination between the Chinese and international artists.

Questions for the Future

No one could have predicted 20 years ago how quickly and to what degree Song Zhuang would develop as an artist village. The founding and immense growth of Song Zhuang as a haven for artists is largely due to the migration of artists from Yuan Ming Yuan. The dispersal of artists from Yuan Ming Yuan was the result of disruption in the balance of the relaxed atmosphere that catered to the freedom and creativity of the artist.

Not unlike Gaobeidien, the government of Song Zhuang has recognized the economic opportunities of the village, especially as a tourist destination. As a farming village, Song Zhuang has had those that support the artists and those that oppose the artists. Whereas many farmers provided artists to this point with very low rent fees, many are reconsidering their rental agreements with artists in order to explore offers from land developers. Given the booming interest in Song Zhuang as an artist village and tourist destination, the local government and developers are engaging in the planning of infrastructure to support this industry.