Urban Planning + Design + Research


Writing on a variety of topics related to cities, urban theory, sustainable development, China, urbanism.

Beyond Terracotta: An Ancient Capital Attempts to Reinvent Itself as a Center for Creativity


 Fangzhicheng Next to an abandoned factory on the outskirts of Xi’an, a giant ironclad bust resembling one of the city’s iconic terracotta warriors stands alone, albeit with a wooden beam through his head.  It’s one of the few signs that the run-down factory on the outskirts of Xi’an was once a bustling artist colony.  Mostly quiet now, workers are busy redeveloping what city officials hope will be the center for art and creative industry in Western China, the “Banpo International Arts Zone.”

Since 2006, artists from Xi’an Fine Arts Academy began setting up studios in Fangzhicheng, or Textile City, eventually creating an informal but lively community of artists in what had once been a thriving factory.  Now, a developer is partnering with the city government to renovate the area to attract more tourists, shoppers, and hopefully artists and creative industries from China and abroad.  But the process of redevelopment also threatens to displace the very artists themselves, and shows just how tenuous Chinese cities’ efforts to develop innovative “creative” industries can be.

These efforts are also motivated by China’s perpetual national hand-wringing about its perceived lack of soft power and global influence, recently illuminated by the worldwide success of other Asian nations’ pop culture like Korea’s Gangnam Style.  The government has set up numerous Confucius Institutes around the world to teach Chinese and Chinese culture.  But pop culture, movies, and music have largely failed to gain a foothold outside the Chinese-speaking world.

Textile City was developed as a self-sufficient industrial city in the 1960’s as part of the 1953 First Five Year Plan to develop industry in inland China.  At one point the city boasted the largest dyeing mill in Asia and was directly managed by the National Ministry of Textile Industries.  The self-contained city housed a population of over 100,000 workers and featured dormitories, schools, and recreation facilities, according to economist Zhiming Cheng of the University of Wollongong in Australia, who studied the restructuring of state-owned enterprises in China.


Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms in 1979 ushered in the export-oriented manufacturing boom in coastal provinces and with it, Textile City’s rapid decline.  Far from ports and overseas markets, much of the equipment was dismantled and sold to upstart private factories in Guangdong province, according to Wu Xiaochun, a deputy director of the Xi’an Fine Arts Academy.

“When I first arrived, it was still a working factory,” Wu says.  “A few of the abandoned spaces were very suitable to artists with high ceilings and lots of flexibility for adapting the space to individual needs.”  Artists came largely by word of mouth, and by 2008 the factory had become established as a burgeoning art scene in northwestern China.

A few of the more high-profile artists moved to Beijing a few years later to take advantage of greater opportunities in the art scene there.  This exodus triggered concern by the city that the area needed a comprehensive development plan.  But this year, more artists have left due to uncertainty created by redevelopment, leaving the place void of its former activity.

After decades of decline and recent stirrings of an art scene, Textile City is now the chief focus for the Xi’an municipality’s effort to establish itself as a cultural center both in China and internationally.  The fortunes of the factory have largely mirrored those of China’s larger economic trends: its beginnings as a self-contained production center in a planned economy, the decline of state-owned enterprises in the 1990’s, and the property boom of recent years which has seen city governments across China selling off land rights to developers in exchange for the money that has powered urban growth and state investment.  Now, it’s a part of a growing trend of Chinese cities looking to develop “creative industries”, following a recent directive under the 12th Five Year Plan in 2011.

The current spaces are indeed old and in some cases badly in need of repair.  But some of the artists are suspicious of the redevelopment plans and the process.

“The developer says that the new renovation will make infrastructure improvements and improve leaks, but the rent will increase,” says Zhou Li, a graduate of the academy who has a studio for her painting at Fangzhicheng.  “Artists don’t really require that much to have workshops, just space and freedom to work,” Her investment will be lost if she has to leave.

She also believes the project is about more than just art and culture.  “The developer can use the word ‘cultural development’ to obtain government support and loans, but in the end it really doesn’t have too much to do with us artists.  It’s more about their own interests and profit from the surrounding real-estate development.”  She later mentioned that the head of the Sha’anxi Art Association’s daughter-in-law is the chief of the development company.  Zhou Li believes he wants to revamp the district as a traditional art center while expelling edgier artists.

In fact, the art center is only part of a larger redevelopment area that will see high end retail, apartments, and office parks, centered on the subway line that is due to be completed in September this year, improving access from downtown Xi’an.  Zhou Li complains that most of the artists have not been informed of redevelopment plans and therefore do not know whether they will be able or allowed to remain when the process is over.

As with most projects in China, there is no public comment process, no city hall meetings or environmental review.  The city set up a development agency to lay out a plan for the area.  But it is possible that in Xi’an’s push to develop “creative industry” they may in fact drive out the very artists and creative types who make a city creative.

Other artists are more hopeful about redevelopment but pointed to larger problems that impede the development of arts and creative industry in China.

“The government is now pouring a lot of money into the animation industry in Xi’an,” says a professor of animation in Xi’an who wished to remain unnamed.  “But most students who study animation go into marketing.  Few go into art or teaching.”

He pointed to a lack of understanding of modern art in Xi’an as an obstacle to development.  Other artists voiced similar concerns.  The director of the video animation program at Xi’an Fine Arts Academy feels the problem lies more within the education system

“Students are sick of everything, they’re sick of political theories like Marxism, but they have no passion for their work,” he notes.  “We teach ink painting and other traditional forms in the classroom.  But historically these arts were supposed to be learned from nature, by painting for enjoyment.  There is a complete disconnect between the context in which traditional ink painting was once taught and how it is taught now.”

Back in the developer’s office a model of the future Banpo International Arts District shows the site after proposed renovations.  Long Qi, a spokesperson for the development company, points out the commercial section with coffee shops and restaurants, shops.  She also mentions a proposed movie theater and exhibition hall where fashion shows and car exhibitions will be held.  But the main purpose, she says, is to develop this as a “landmark of Xi’an’s art scene.”

“We hope to attract more visitors, especially with the subway opening.” She says.  The developer hopes to showcase the specialty of Sha’anxi province, which is traditional ink painting. But she claimed modern artists would be welcome as well.  She admitted rent increases were a possibility, but also one that had to be balanced against the potential for increased visitors.

Despite the glossy brochures and renderings of the proposed redesign which aims to preserve the original concrete structure of the main factory space, like Beijing’s 798, current artists have good reason to be skeptical.  The redevelopment of 798 has seen an exodus of most of the original artists and an influx of shops selling souvenirs and other products.  The video animation professor agrees that 798 is a terrible example.  “It’s very poorly done, it’s too commercialized now.”

It remains to be seen whether “second-tier” cities like Xi’an can successfully develop their own art scenes, let alone whole cultural-industry agglomerations involving computer animation, motion-picture production, media, and high-tech.  The city is already one of the centers of China’s aviation industry, as described in James Fallows’ China Airborne.  As growth in more developed coastal-cities slows, inland cities like Xi’an are hoping to capitalize on increased investment, both foreign and government.  But so far, Xi’an has been unable to match other inland cities like Chongqing and Chengdu in attracting foreign capital.  For a city that was once the capital of China and one of the largest cities in the world during the Tang Dynasty (500-756 AD), the return to international eminence is a goal that can be seen in the slogans and posters around town that proclaim Xi’an’s future as an “International Great Metropolis” or guoji dadoushi.

“The drive to develop the west (xibu dakaifa) has been trying to open the economy and create infrastructure,” said Hai Yin, an artist and owner of the 18 Degree gallery at Fangzhicheng.  “But the problem is people’s minds and thoughts; people’s minds are still closed.”

Perhaps the statue of the warrior with a plank through its head is an apt sign of a city both reverent of its storied past, and looking for a fresh-way of thinking.