The nascent economic giant that is China is nudging its way ever more insistently into western consciousness but does it have a distinctive voice? No one would argue against the spectacular growth projections and the sheer weight of numbers that testify to China's growing importance in the world. That is a closed argument by now.But we seem to want something more. It is a truism that economic prosperity is accompanied by cultural prowess. We are conditioned to think that the world's new economic powerhouse should also be its artistic trailblazer – think of Renaissance Florence, or New York at the beginning of the last century.
Western art, fraying a little round the edges, flirting ever more dangerously with decadence, is glancing eastwards with a heady combination of excitement and anxiety. What will be our new cultural landmarks? And what, if anything, can they teach us about ourselves?
British observers are about to get a crash course in the subject with the launch next month of “China Now”. More than 800 events, encompassing art, design, cuisine, science, technology and sport, constitute Britain's largest ever festival of Chinese culture.
The festival is a business initiative, chaired by Stephen Green, group chairman of HSBC, the bank that was founded by a group of traders in China in the mid-19th century. It is little surprise that he sees a direct link between the burgeoning spirit of entrepreneurship in the country these days, and the flourishing of a new creative spirit.
We talk in his office at HSBC's headquarters in London, where he is freshly returned from breakfast with the Chinese ambassador. She has reaffirmed her belief to him, he says, that “China Now” will be an event of “profound importance” in transforming British attitudes towards China.
Green says he hopes the British public will be surprised by what they see. “Of course people admire things like the calligraphy or the terracotta warriors. But what they may not appreciate is the effervescence and liveliness of what is happening in China today.”
Much of that effervescence is associated with new Chinese wealth. The contemporary art market, as elsewhere in the world, is booming, with the scene's most famous names beginning to attract serious money: the record ￡2.9m paid for Yue Minjun's “Execution” in Sotheby's London last October was instantly trumped by the ￡4.6m raised by Cai Guo-Qiang's series of gunpowder paintings the following month at Christie's Hong Kong.
Beijing's 798 district, a giant Bauhaus former munitions factory turned into a collective of small art galleries, already has the feel of a shopping mall rather than a radical cultural experiment, with its own hip sense of self-conscious wit: one of the restaurants in the complex is adorned with large black and white pictures of east German communist dignitaries visiting the site in its former incarnation, a gentle ironic reminder of times past. But the predictable symbiosis between a new affluent class and young, fashionable artists is one thing – to wonder whether there is anything fresh, distinctive or radical in what Chinese culture has to offer is quite another.
One of the centrepieces of London's Chinese festival is ‘China Design Now', an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert museum opening in March that examines the cutting edge of a range of activities, from fashion and lifestyle to grand architectural projects. It will be as good an indicator as any of the extent and worth of Chinese cultural innovation.
Design, like its close cousin contemporary art, is a globalised phenomenon in which distinct national traditions increasingly struggle to be noticed. Can China buck the trend?
The show will be split into three locations and their associated themes: the “dream city” of Shanghai; the “future city” of Beijing and the “frontier city” of Shenzhen. It will bring together the work of young designers, some of them not yet born when the slow cultural and political thaw of the 1980s began to take effect.
One of them is China's architectural superstar Ma Yansong, the first Chinese architect to win an important foreign commission, with his twisted “Absolute Towers” project for Mississauga in Canada. Speaking in his Beijing studio on the day after his 32nd birthday, he is the epitome of Chinese cool, laconic and understated in his assessment of the city's cultural scene.
He says there are two distinctively Chinese features to his architectural designs: an emphasis on nature, and an instability of form. Both come to the fore in his playful reinterpretation of Mies van der Rohe's famous Farnsworth House, the undulating forms of which make it look like it is melting.
A project for the Venice Biennale saw him cover Tiananmen Square with a landscaped forest. “We know that people like trees,” he says simply. “The intention was to make something more free, more public.” There is only the merest hint of the acute symbolism with which such a notorious venue inevitably resounds. He says he has a slogan – “Be political or be polite” – and gives every impression that he is performing a highly skilled balancing act between the two.
He is relatively impolite about Beijing's most prestigious current project, Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren's large and ostentatious headquarters for CCTV, China's national broadcaster. “It gives another feeling to the city. It is like when you have a nice family dinner, and a stranger suddenly comes in.”
In spite of his tender years, Ma does not lack confidence. He trained with Zaha Hadid and says the most important thing she taught him was the way in which “she focused on her personal interests. She doesn't care.”
If Beijing, with its inevitable emphasis on grand Olympic-scaled projects, is a relative newcomer to the western concept of modern cultural regeneration, Shanghai, with its worldly cosmopolitan background, is more organic in its cultural infrastructure. My search for a distinctively Chinese approach to design took me here to the studios of fashion designer Lu Kun, an up-and-coming figure, just 26 years old, who will also be featured in the V&A show.
The focus of his work is the city in which he works, rather than his country. The Shanghainese woman, he says, is not like any other Chinese woman, having absorbed British and French influences, and having learnt the delicate arts of assertion over their menfolk. “They don't subdue themselves. They are quite bitchy,” he says with relish.
He shows me a dress that he deconstructs for me: it is a traditional Chinese qipao, which has been made transparent to show off the corset (a European influence) inside it. The fabric is rough, he says (“women need to be rough”) and the length is adjustable, from short and practical to long and diva-like. “It is a dress with several layers of meaning. It is for the multi-dimensional woman.”
I ask him if the wife of a communist party official would wear a dress like that. “If she did, the police would be round the next morning,” he jokes quick as a flash.
Among the several designers I met in both Beijing and Shanghai, the issue of government liberalisation is scarcely referred to, although widely taken for granted. Ma Yansong says he has a good relationship with the authorities – “If they trust you, they believe anything can happen”.
Truth is, such is the powerful nexus between new money and the fleets of young, talented designers busy working for the emergent urban middle classes, that there is no need for any kind of government intervention. The idea that art might act as some kind of subversive or shadowy force in what is still, after all, a country with dubious democratic credentials, does not seem to arise. A new economy means new lifestyles, and new lifestyles demand new products, and new innovators. It is win-win.
It may be the cleverest feat yet of China's leaders, to allow economic and cultural liberalisation to flourish hand-in-hand while keeping a brake on the more challenging issue of political reform.
That flies in the face of the widely held western belief, that art can and should be an important instrument of social change. It is no accident that one of the most widely recognised Chinese artists is Wang Guangyi, whose prop art posters ironically mix cultural revolution iconography with western brand names such as Chanel, Rolex and Coca-Cola. Wang is a one-trick pony – but it is a trick that reveals a deeper truth about the evolution of Chinese culture.
In the meantime, perhaps we should have more modest ambitions for “China Now” than to expect a definitive state-of-the-art announcement on a country that is multifarious and complex. I ask Peter Wong, HSBC's executive director for Hong Kong and China, what message he thinks the festival could impart, and his reply is simple.
“What I hope people will understand is that China is changing, and changing for the better,” he says.
“And that China has a very welcoming attitude to culture. And that it is a basically polite and friendly society that treats people with respect and good manners.”
‘China Now' runs from February to July. ‘China Design Now', sponsored by HSBC, opens at the Victoria and Albert Museum on March 15
此次伦敦中国文化节的重头戏之一是“时代中国”设计展，该展览将于3月开始，地点是维多利亚与艾伯特博物馆(Victoria and Albert Museum)。它将展示中国在时尚、生活方式、巨型建筑项目等诸多领域中最为先进的成果。这将是测算中国文化创新价值及范围的一个上佳渠道。
表示，自己的设计中掺入了两个独特的中国元素：即对自然的彰显，及形状的变化性。这两点都在他的作品中体现得淋漓尽致，使得这个波浪形状的建筑看起来仿佛正在融化。马岩松的作品趣味十足地再次诠释了路德维希·密斯·凡·德罗(Mies van der Rohe)的传世之作范斯沃斯住宅(Farnsworth House)。
对于当前最有名气的北京建筑项目，雷恩?库哈斯(Rem Koolhaas)和奥勒?舍仁(Ole Scheeren)那巨大而豪华的央视大楼，他就不是那么客气了。“它会给这座城市带来一种完全不同的感觉。就像是你在和家人高兴地吃着饭的时候，突然闯进一个陌生人一样。”
“时代中国”活动于2月至7月举行。《创意中国》当代设计展由汇丰银行赞助，将于3月15日在维多利亚阿尔伯特博物馆(Victoria and Albert Museum)开展。