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Wuhan: Left Behind?

Many believe that Wuhan, a historic inland port city midway up the Yangtze River, is on the upswing. Yet a week of firsthand observation reveals a youth culture struggling to cope with the city’s second-tier identity, leaving questions as to how the creative potential of similar places in China can find a stable course.

“I came to Wuhan looking for rocks,” announced one young Beijing-based artist in explanation of his presence in Wuhan. Rocks are to be found everywhere; why this city? (Rock and roll? If the conversation were in Chinglish, he could have been mistaken for referring to local punk rock. Sadly, the slippage does not exist in Chinese.) One could suppose that sculptures of eons-old stones from the geographical heart of China may tickle the fancy of a critic or two. Alas, it was soon apparent that the artist was there only temporarily, and his search for materials was but a perfunctory—habit of his practice, a diversionary tangent from the real purpose of his visit to the capital of Hubei province: a rarely sighted major exhibition and symposium. The artist would be back in Beijing in less than two days. Though his foray was admittedly short, most people come here seeking to gain—be it limestone or a college degree—and eventually pack up their bags and leave. In terms of creative culture, many Wuhan residents lament a chronic affliction: the city cannot retain its talent.

Or so the story goes. Over a steaming pot of tea in the international youth hostel-cum-event space near the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts that he runs, the poet and scholar Zhang Xianbing quotes one of the most memorized poems of ancient China:

Mounting yellow cranes, the people of a bygone era flew away,
Leaving this place empty but for the Yellow Crane Tower.
Once gone, the cranes are never to return,
An eternity of white clouds have drifted by unhurried.

Penned by the Tang-dynasty poet Cui Hao, the above lines are most associated with Wuhan’s most famous landmark, the Yellow Crane Tower, which from the east bank of the Yangtze in Wuchang district gazes upon Hankou district. Today, though, as emphasized by Zhang, it seems most relevant as an allegory of the city’s unfulfilled potential. With more universities than any other city in China, there are over 100,000 students in Wuhan. Just as with any other college town, though, the majority of these students leave after graduation in search of better career prospects. Here, potential tends to mount its crane and fly north to Beijing, or east to Shanghai.

The reasons behind the post-university, outward migration of Wuhan’s educated minds—those most ripe for creative endeavor—surely vary from émigré to émigré. Those surveyed cite a diversity of motivations for leaving this giant, bustling city as part of their past, including, but not limited to: few job opportunities and scant salaries, dreary weather, and a looming sense of marginalization, real or perceived, in comparison with the cultural epicenters of Beijing, Shanghai, or even Guangzhou. No matter the rationalization, their departure perhaps posits Wuhan as a suitable case study in “second-degree urbanization,” whereby in terms of creative industry, the second-tier cities of China’s interior ultimately find themselves not much better off than the villages that surround them. Over the past few decades, the working classes have all but scurried to their provincial capitals in hope of a better life, and especially in the larger of these cities, the creative strata of society seem to eventually leave as well. Counting only the more famous of Wuhan’s artistic and academic refugees: the artists Zeng Fanzhi, Shu Qun, Xu Tan, and Wang Guangyi; eminent contemporary philosophers Liu Xiaofeng and Zhang Zhiyang; critic Wang Min’an; gallerist Pi Li; and cultural commentator Ye Ying. Certainly, no one is to blame them for leaving, but their respective cultural spheres may have been much more thorough had they stayed.

But not only people have left; so have institutions. Zhang Zhiyang was former professor at the then-promising but now-defunct German Philosophy Research Institute at Hubei University; for the “better weather” in Hainan, he and a number of his peers would leave in the early 1990s. (Zhang Xianbing would even go on to claim that the so-called intellectual and creative demise of Wuhan can be traced to the downfall of the institute.) The influential art magazine The Trend of Art Thought (Meishu Sichao) was founded in Wuhan in 1987, and would see editorial involvement from Li Xianting, Peng De, and Huang Zhuan, among others. However, it ceased publication after a mere twenty-two issues. Although the disappearance of such academic-leaning institutions may not have directly affected the creative finesse of following generations, the cultural fabric of the city would certainly be stronger had they persisted—even if only thanks to offshoot intellectual salons—such those held in the home of Lu Hong, one other editor of The Trend of Art Thought—or any other regular gathering of like-minded individuals.

Size Matters?

There is a second source of frustration among Wuhan residents: the geographical size of the city. Years ago, there was more or less official distinction between the three cities of Hankou, Wuchang, and Hanyang. Today, still, Wuhan vernacular maintains strict associative distinction between these three districts. A not inconsiderable number of taxi drivers, announcing themselves to be Wuchang or Hankou cabs, refuse to cross the river—even should a passenger offer to pay extra. In short, sheer landmass leads to a breed of self-insularity within the city itself. Friends, should they live on different sides of the river, may eventually find themselves estranged. The same holds true for any creative scene, which inherently demands spatial proximity of participants, enabling the catalytic possibility of frequent assembly and activity, lest the ecosystem wane towards eventual extinction. Already, complaints over the pitiful number of cultural happenings can be heard from a great number of those asked. A random check on the nationwide cultural social network douban.com displayed only 212 events in Wuhan during the month of December, as compared to 860 in Beijing, and 728 in Shanghai (the city boasts half the users of Shanghai, but only a fourth of the events). Here is another argument for the left-behind theory: lacking investment capital from the capital, the city’s transportation infrastructure today still relies on public buses and taxis alone. A subway is currently under construction, but until it is finished, distance—at least in the Wuhan mindset—looms as a threat to local cultural vitality.

That the size of a city may deter a sustainable creative infrastructure—no matter what the medium this may support—seems preposterous given the amount of public space a large city generally affords. Historically speaking, the port city of Wuhan increased in size and power because it had not one but two bloodlines, rivers that traverse the entirety of China. But to say that it was the flowing water of these two rivers alone that brought business would be overly simplistic; much of the toil and trade that empowered the area happened not on the rivers’ surface, but on their banks: the uninhabitable, non-arable land between water and borough was the perfect petri dish for brisk, efficient commerce. Today, this largely unregulated space remains dishearteningly disused by local youth, who ignore the prospects afforded by its many kilometers, be these held in organized events or simple discussions. (The arid desolation of the shores of the Yangtze has been well-documented by the photographer Li Xiao, a Shandong native who—in testament to another oft-quoted observation that the Wuhan native is culturally less active than the Wuhan waidiren, or outsider—arrived in Wuhan to study architectural design ten years ago, and has never left.) The same holds true for all the public parks and plazas throughout the city; both are frequented seemingly daily by the generation now in its fifties and sixties, who either gather to sing patriotic “red songs” to the erhu or to dance in groups, as in much of the rest of China. The post-80s generation, however, are scarcely visible in these areas. Why aren’t hopeful guitarists practicing their chords in Heping Park? Why aren’t budding MCs spitting their angst-filled take on hip-hop alongside the billowing waves of the Yangtze? Cui Hao found his voice along these very banks hundreds of years ago; why shouldn’t the globalized poets of Wuhan do the same today?

Voice of Youth, Voice of Freedom

It is difficult to write about youth culture in Wuhan without referring back to its first and last loudspeaker: the infamous, furious, sweat-drenched microphone of punk rock. Ever since the first crate of junk cassettes and CDs surreptitiously found their way onto Wuhan streets in the early 1990s, and a number of now-legendary bands came to be known nationwide, punk has come to be the city’s most lasting claim to fame. Indeed, no matter the variables, in the ebb and flow of Wuhan culture, punk seems to be the only constant. Whoever remains here seems to have played either protagonist or supporting role in the story of the scene, or at least to know it in considerable detail. Surprisingly, and contrary to the idea that everybody leaves after obtaining their objectives, some of these figures have stayed in the city, and continued to weave into its cultural fabric.

Jokingly referred to as “Wuhan’s king of contemporary art,” the painter Gong Jian was in a punk band years ago; he is now more or less omnipresent in the city’s creative ecosystem. Meanwhile, the “boss of Wuhan” Wu Wei, frontman for perhaps the most famous of Wuhan bands, SMZB, is a fierce advocate of the need to nurture local culture, to remain in Wuhan and sagely pass down his knowledge to future generations. Several years ago he opened the creative space Wuhan Prison (also known as Folkhand), which now serves as a bar, second-hand clothing store, record label, and frequented venue for informal congregation. At present, the name of former punk rocker and “freelance artist” Mai Dian is most often dropped in conversations on Wuhan youth culture. Having relinquished the social precepts of contemporary China, he, Special Comic stalwart illustrator Zi Jie, and student-cum-gay rights activist Xiao Tie share a sort of modern-day Utopian commune near Wuhan’s East Lake called “Our Home” (Women Jia). The near-destitute living conditions alone seem to speak of the inhabitants’ ideological tenacity—namely, a fragmentary Hegelian rejection of material importance—but anyone is allowed to join them, and stay as long as they like. Like VOX and Zhang Xianbing’s international youth hostel, “Our Home” plays host also to a number of interdisciplinary events, small word-of-mouth experimental music concerts, animation workshops, and LGBT activities organized by Xiao Tie’s “horizontally democratic” NGO, Wuhan Rainbow. The intended breadth of the ideals behind “Our Home” is laudable, but one wonders how thorough it actually is. Be that as it may, in listening to other Wuhan youth speak of the commune, of the absolute necessity to try to understand it, Mai Dian seems to garner a certain degree of respect, and in the end, that is what counts most. Like the fist-pumping reactions to the anarchist message of punk rock—though he most often shuns publicity—Mai’s status in Wuhan seems buttressed by the appreciative listening of others: a necessary element for any ideal to develop and sustain. His little movement—should there be one at all—might be for freedom, be that from society or from the self.

Complaints that Wuhan has been “left behind” by the central government may be gratuitously masochistic. Believers in the greatness of the city point out that being second-tier has its advantages, particularly in the realm of everyday life: the cost of living is lower, life is lived at a slower pace, and the authorities seem to turn a blind eye to certain trivialities that may be censured in the capital. Such a liberal atmosphere may be conducive to cultural growth. Nowhere is the embrace of local tolerance more apparent than at VOX, the nucleus of Wuhan punk culture and much of the city’s peripheral culture. (Permanently installed on its stage one finds the slogan “Voice of Youth, Voice of Freedom.”) The venue often hosts non-music-related events, and recently, the documentary film Chengshi Zhi Guang (literally, an unimaginative City Lights, though any correlations between it and the 1931 Chaplin film or the 2010 Shanghai Expo promotional film are left to be inferred by the reader) was screened there on a December Wednesday night, followed by a discussion with its twenty-something director, Xie Zi, and a few of its subjects. The one-hour documentary aimed to, through profiles of various “standout” youth in Wuhan—a graffiti artist, a sand painter, a street baller, a b-boy crew, and so on—demonstrate the potential that Wuhan has to be an ideal urban space. The rhetoric was patronizing and, especially given the official inflection of the narrator’s voice and lexical choice (the film was shot in collaboration with a local TV station), verging on pure agitprop, but it did make a case for self-improvement and cultural optimism: just as the young protagonists of the documentary overcame all obstacles to make something of themselves, so can its young viewers help make something of their city. The encouragement was squarely reminiscent of some words in French hastily scribbled by some traveling youth on the wall of the poet Zhang Xianbing’s hostel: Je suis le maître de mon destin, Je suis le capitaine de mon âme. I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.

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Einar Engström is Managing Editor of LEAP magazine. Originally trained in Spanish and Portuguese languages and literatures, he moved to China in 2006 to study Mandarin. Before joining LEAP, he served...
LEAP is the leading international art magazine of contemporary China. Published six times a year in Chinese and English, it presents a winning mix of contemporary art coverage and cultural commentary...

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