By, Taylor Schultek (MFA 2016)
Welcome to Wangjing.
A district of Beijing, primarily inhabited by Koreans, bustles with the latest western style malls and taxis lining the streets. Situated along the north east section of the Fourth Ring of concentric circles that make up Beijing, this district is home to the Central Academy of Fine Art and is where we would be spending the next six weeks.
With the first week I aimed to suspend any judgment. I tried to feel that culture shock that I was anticipating considering it was my first time leaving my home country, to probably the most foreign place I could end up. A full twelve hour difference on the exact opposite side of the globe, but for some reason it still felt familiar. Sure all the signs were in a different language and it was unquestionably more difficult to communicate, but I felt a similar underwhelming sense when I first came to New York. For me, major metropolitan cities feel pretty homogenous, and despite some minor adjustments you never really have to leave your baseline of modern comforts.
I passed the feeling off as bleak cynicism for the time, but I was still optimistic that China had something to show me. Our amazing CAFA contemporaries that we would be sharing a studio with in order to create an exhibition had shown us a street just behind the major art store next to campus.
This was the first glimpse I had at something I hadn’t seen before anywhere in the US. This small street shared by family run stores, street food and apartments alike showed me something unexpected about Beijing. As a foreigner, you would never have found these stores, since the art store around the corner on the main road would have everything you need. It was here that I first started to think about my first painting teacher, Zhimin Guan, a native to southern China who often painted what I learned were called hutongs. I wasn’t sure at first why this was important to me, as this street certainly wasn’t a hutong, but it recalled a similar feeling and aesthetic that I gathered from his paintings.
As the second week came around I continued to carry on doing the small plein air paintings I had intended on doing before I left, still unsure what was going to drive my imagery for the exhibition. I knew I didn’t want to paint the usual subjects, based on superficial understandings of a place I would only barely scratch the surface of. I, for some reason, thought heading to the old city at the center of town would guide me toward something uniquely Chinese. So I made my way to Tiananmen Square near the Forbidden City, a place that is supposed to have historic architecture and an important place in Chinese history.
And there it was, I had just rubbed salt into the wound. Hordes of crowds, selfies as far as the eye can see, and more foreigners than I had seen in my all of my time in Beijing put together. I had accidentally walked myself into the Times Square of Beijing, a place no average citizen would go on a normal day by choice.
I turned around and little bit of my inner punk died, seeing a place that was a teenage symbol of revolution and anti-militarism turned into a shrine of tourism made me cringe. Thankfully my old teacher’s paintings kept coming back to my mind. A local I had talked to mentioned that there were hutongs near the square. I felt I needed to try and find my own version of what he saw, and luckily the guards were reasonably accommodating. They pointed me in the direction of a small area just south of Tiananmen, and what I found was a whole different world.
I found a place where there were no crowds, no taxis, and even some quiet solitude. There was no rush here, no glamour, or competition. The markets had great-looking produce and everyone seemed to know each other. Obviously I stuck out like a sore thumb, and almost got into a fight with a stray dog, but this was a place unlike what you imagine a modern city to be. This was where the culture must have really come from. Not in the fancy western façade that is being displayed to the world, but in the back alleys, hutongs and family owned shops. These are the places where people aren’t trying to become something different, and where the only important aspects of life seem to be adapting to survive and finding happiness within a community.
If there’s anything that will lead me back to china, it’s these small areas with honest working people just getting by, not the newest shopping malls.