C3S Paper No. 0119/ 2015
One of China’s biggest art expos, Art Beijing, wrapped up in the capital on May 3rd 2015. Celebrating its 10th anniversary, Art Beijing is considered by many as a weather forecast for China’s art market[i]. Of the various booms that has accompanied China’s economic rise. China’s art boom has garnered much attention internationally. The Chinese artefacts are well known around the world for their unique and elegant craftsmanship. However the fall of imperial China in the early 20th century and civil unrest inside the country lead to various artefacts being destroyed or displaced abroad.
Today the Chinese have realized the need to bring back their lost antiques and revive the art scene back in their homeland. The Chinese government has also been pouring millions of dollars in building museums and art galleries to house their antiques and contemporary art pieces. Hence, China is focusing on an art boom to showcase itself as a distinct global power with its own unique culture. To further understand China’s new interest in the art world, we will now answer the following questions.
What factors drive China’s art boom? What is the kind of art that the Chinese prefer? Despite the art boom why is there strict monitoring of the art scene by the Mainland China government? What are the challenges faced in the art scene by both museums and galleries in China? How can India collaborate with China in the art movement?
Commercial and Cultural Interest Overlap:
China’s first Cultural Revolution during 1966-76 saw most of its museums and artefacts being burnt down. This was followed by decades of reforms and rapid economic growth. Increase in the number of millionaires may be one of the reasons behind China’s recent art boom. Collecting antiques is a popular hobby among China’s newly rich. The Chinese government has now identified art and culture as essential elements to reaffirm its national identity. Apart from building their own public museums, the Chinese government has now opened this sector for private investments. Thus both private and public museums exist together in China. The museums of China showcase the country’s passion for arts that has its roots in its history.
During ancient history, the first ever documented collection of artwork in China was that of an emperor belonging to Han dynasty. Emperor Wu Han had his treasures assembled in his Shanglin garden more than 2000 years ago. As the country got richer during the Qing dynasty, art collecting became a hobby for the rich Chinese. However, in the late 19th century Imperial China had almost become a western nation’s puppet. The country saw its heritage being smuggled and looted abroad[ii]. Therefore, Chinese nationalism and individual passions in collecting art has contributed largely to China’s art boom. Today, the rich Chinese are purchasing art and antiques for status and investments. Thus, China has become one of the dominant forces in the global art market scene. Apart from their own Chinese art, they have also developed a taste for different forms of art.
A Globalized Art Market:
Initially, the Chinese concentrated on returning their artefacts to their country to revive their lost heritage. In the past few years China has recognized the need to broaden its horizons and reach out the international community through the art world. Many Chinese are now constantly visiting museums and galleries abroad to learn more about global art scene. They are now well aware of the need to include different forms of art to build world class museums and art galleries. Chinese now prefer both traditional and western style artefacts. Therefore China’s taste for arts has become more globalized.
In the recent years Western art has become highly popular among the Chinese elite. The number of Chinese flocking into foreign auction houses to buy Western artefacts has constantly increased. Chinese bidding for non-Chinese works at Sotheby’s, an auction house based in France has increased by 54 per cent since 2010[iii]. Some of the art works bought by the Chinese include the Old masters paintings belonging to 1800’s European artists, impressionist paintings and 19th century European furniture.[iv] One high level purchase made was the sale of one of Picasso’s work for USD 30 million to Chinese billionaire Wang Zhongjun.
The Chinese now buy western art mostly to house them in art galleries and museums. Chinese public who are unable to visit museums abroad can now visit museums inside their homeland to get a glimpse of Western art. Apart from the museums and galleries which concentrate on Western art. There are museums which house both western and traditional art. However, museums based on tradition and history are more popular among the Chinese. The traditional Chinese art mostly includes oil paintings, handicrafts, pottery, embroidery, calligraphy, theatre and Chinese opera.[v]
Ming Dynasty Artifact sold for USD 36 million
Shanghai based art collector Liu Yiqian bought a Ming dynasty cup for USD 36 million. Sale of traditional or western art the Chinese have indeed become one of the main players of the art world. Hence, China’s strong presence in the global art scene has given rise to new geopolitics in the art world.
In the past geopolitics in the art world evolved only from west to east. The western art markets preferred their own western artists. The art markets in the east preferred their traditional paintings and antiques. However, China’s recent establishment as an economic power house has changed the geopolitics of the art world[vi]. United States ranks number one in art sales but stands next to China in terms of antiques market. China has now established itself as the world’s largest antiques market. In the past few years China has become well aware about the fact to include different forms of art apart from its usual traditional style. After taking over the antiques market, China is now catching up with United States in art sales. In the global art scene, European art market giants United Kingdom and France now stand next to China. Its strong presence in the art world has reversed the polarity of the global art market from west to east. Hence a new bipolar world between China and the west has evolved in terms of the art market. However the art scene inside Mainland China seems to be strictly monitored by its government.
The State of the Chinese Art Market: The Mainland vs. Hong Kong
Several years ago sale of antiques was banned inside Mainland China. Due to its planned economy model no auction houses were allowed to operate. In 1992 the Chinese government issued a circular on public auctioning of antiques. The new issuance granted the auction of antiques by Chinese auction houses in Main land China. Thus, China Guardian became the first to conduct auctions in 1993.In the late 1990’s Main land China’s demand for auctioneers increased. New Chinese auction houses such as Hanhai and Huachen began operating soon. The rise of mainland China auction houses took place mainly in 2009-2010[vii].
In 2012 foreign auction houses Christies and Sotheby were teamed with local partners to operate in Main land China. With the business of auctions generating high revenues, China is now gradually relaxing its policies and regulations. In 2013 Christies became the first foreign art auction house to receive a license to operate in China without a local partner. In the past, due to strict laws surrounding art sales it was difficult importing goods to Main land China. The recent establishment of free trade zones in Shanghai and Beijing has made it easy for importing antiques and artworks without customs duties. However, the foreign auction houses in mainland are not permitted to sell Chinese antiques. With a preference for Chinese antiques, the Chinese view Hong Kong as a better choice for art sales.
Unlike Mainland China, Hong Kong has no strict rules imposed on art sales. Hong Kong has always served as the Mecca for the sale of Chinese antiques to customers from all over the world. Initially the market for Chinese art was dominated by foreign auction houses. Christies and Sotheby are well known foreign auction houses in Hong Kong. In 2013, Mainland China based auction houses began operation in Hong Kong. The auction houses view Hong Kong as a gateway to the international Market and necessary for their growth. Now the customers at the Hong Kong international Art and Antique fair have gone from 90% western at the beginning of the millennium to 95% Chinese today. China’s newly rich millionaires have become the main buying forces in these auction houses. The Chinese buyers are not just based in the Mainland. They include the Chinese Diaspora from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Indonesia and Singapore. The contrasting art scenes in both Mainland and Hong Kong have not stopped the Chinese from buying art and antiques. At the same time mainlanders intentions to build museums has been overwhelming.
Museumification of China:
The so called museumification of China has gathered headlines around the world. According to China’s five year plan 2011-2015, China was to have 3,500 museums by 2015.However the target was achieved two years earlier, by the end of 2012, there were 3,589 museums with new ones being added at the rate of one a day[viii]. In China the discussion about the advantages and disadvantages of the government policy that sees over 100 new museums open each year has been highly debated. In the last three to five years China’s art market has grown quickly. People in China no longer invest only in gold or real estate. Instead the rich Chinese collect art and build museums. The public and private museums in China which co exist together face their own set of challenges
In 2012, it was estimated that 535 of China’s 3589 museums at the end of 2012 were private[ix]. The rest – 3054 museums- in China were public or state owned museums. The state owned museums have stable funding and resources from their government.
The state owned museums also have the best location in the city but they do not have much freedom when conducting programmes or exhibitions. In China, a lot of state run museums don’t really have self initiated exhibitions. On the other hand, private museums have more freedom to conduct exhibitions but the cost of maintaining these museums lie in the hands of their museum owners. Public attendance to the museums in China is an important factor for them to survive in the longer run. In 2013 Shanghai’s PSA museum received less than 250,000 visitors. The attendance to private museums was much lower when compared to public museums. Some of the factors contributing to lower number of visitors include out of the way location and poor transport links. With Chinese education
Systems giving importance to high school and university entrance exams, the student community in China has little or no time to learn from these museums.
The fake Chinese art market also poses a great threat to the growing museum industry. Many museums in China were shut down for holding fake artefacts. As the Chinese art market continues to grow, the techniques used by the art counterfeiters to create cheap artefacts have also increased. It is estimated that creating quality fakes, requires big investments. However, huge profits are earned by selling these fakes. Therefore it’s important for the Chinese museum sector to find its solutions to its own particular challenges. Despite the risks involved in this sector both public and private museums continue to proliferate in China. The Chinese passion for culture has not stopped them from taking highly expensive restoration projects.
Forbidden City Palace Museum
The massive restoration of China’s Forbidden City proves the nation’s passion for restoring its lost glory in the art world. The Chinese government is spending USD 12 million to restore the Forbidden City. The Forbidden City located in the centre of China’s capital city Beijing, was home to 24 emperors of the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties. Built from 1406 to 1420, it consists of 9,000 rooms and exhibits traditional Chinese architecture. In 1925, one year after the last Qing emperor was forced to leave the palace. It was opened to the public as the palace museum. The Palace Museum now houses countless number of ancient artefacts such as paintings, ceramics, silk clothes, bronze wares etc. Before 2002 only 30 percent of the Forbidden City was open for visiting. As of 2012, 46 percent was open to the public. In 2020 when the Forbidden City is 600 years old, is expected to be completely restored[x]. Hence, the Forbidden City will be ready to stand for next 600 years as a symbol of Chinese history and culture. Despite facing their own set of challenges in the museum sector, the nation’s efforts to preserve its cultural identity are very strong. Similarly, one of Asia’s cultural power houses India can collaborate with China in the art movement to strengthen its cultural ties.
Rising Asian Art Power Houses:
Indian and Chinese Civilizations have had their share in Asian continent’s rich culture. It is said that both Indian and Chinese culture has flown into all parts of the Asian continent. In Northeast Asia and some Southeast Asian countries, the Chinese culture influence can be detected. In South and Southeast Asian Countries, Indian culture influence can be traced. Such cultural influences reveal the great contribution made by China and India to the Asian Continent. The spread of Buddhism from India to China is one of the main events in Sino-Indian ties. Monks traveled from both China and India to carry texts containing teachings of Buddha. Buddhism’s entry into China marked the earliest cross cultural exchanges made between both the nations.
Apart from cultural and religious linkages, both Indian and Chinese civilizations have also contributed largely to the art world. The Indian art includes pottery, sculptures, woven silk, and wall paintings. Unlike China’s art scene the art scene in India seems to be completely contrasting. The Indian art world can learn a lot from the Chinese. Though the west frequently clubs China and India together as the rising Asian art power houses, the Chinese are far ahead both in terms of market size and a domestic audience for art. There are nearly half a dozen private art museums in Shanghai alone, while India has very few private museums. The Chinese art market is the second largest in the world, worth USD 14 billion. In contrast Indian art market is less than USD 0.2 billion. Clearly, Chinese attention can help the Indian art scene[xi].
In May 2015 the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited China. As part of his three day trip, on his first day Prime Minister Modi visited the famous terracotta warriors’ museum in Xian district. Modi exclaimed that he was deeply impressed by the way museum was preserved. It might be the beginning of expanded Indian interest in Chinese art. Art can be used as a soft power medium to spread cultural influence onto the territory of the other. [xii]Thus, cultural exchange programmes, Bollywood blockbuster movie PK’s release in China and India China film industry’s joint production of movie Kungfu Yoga indicate the growing India-China cultural ties. In the coming years spreading awareness about art can help India enhance its status in the global art world. China can also export their artists and its technology in preserving and restoring art. The 21st century is often termed as Century of the Dragon and the Elephant, which signals India and China’s rebirth to the modern world. Unlike the west, both India and China who are rich in culture and values can collaborate to derive back their lost glory in the art world.
The current art boom in China will help promote its image as a distinct super power which has not forgotten its ancient cultural traditions. The Chinese passion for collecting art can be traced back to its history. Hence, collecting art in modern day China stands as a symbol of high status and a good option for investments. The Chinese are also building museums to house their art collections. Apart from the usual Chinese art, Chinese preference for western art has also increased. The rich Chinese mostly fly abroad to purchase a different variety of art works. Since the art scene in Mainland China seemed to be strictly monitored and foreign auction houses were restricted only to Hong Kong. In the past few years, the demand for art inside Mainland China has constantly increased. Hence, the Chinese government is slowly relaxing its policies and encouraging the art business. Accompanied by art boom, the growing number of private and public museums in China seems to be remarkable. The government is also having its own forays into the art world by running state museums and undertaking massive renovation projects such as the restoration of Beijing’s Forbidden City. In the future, China can also collaborate with emerging economies such as India to promote strong cultural ties between both nations.
The current art scene in China is often compared to Japan in the early 1980s. The Japanese who experienced high rates of economic growth around 1980s increasingly dominated the global art market. However, slowing economic growth in the late 1990s saw Japanese selling back their artefacts for much lower prices than its usual price. The question is, in today’s China whether its culture and heritage will help regain its lost status or China’s future is similar to Japan of the 1980’s? Right now it’s too early to predict the future of China’s art boom. However, China’s dominant presence in the art world indicates the emergence of a new China, more or less similar to the ancient Chinese civilization. Clearly China seeks to project itself as a unique cultural powerhouse, which may even be an integral part of its soft power.
[ii] Patrick Lecomte, ”Boom in Chinese art has roots in traditional passion for collecting”, South China Morning Post, July 21 2014, https://customerservice.scmp.com/meter/2/3/exp2?destination=http://www.scmp.com/comment/insight-opinion/article/1556191/boom-chinese-art-has-roots-traditional-passion-collecting
[iii] Alex Capon,” Sotheby’s figures show rising state for western art in China”, The Art market Weekly, December 16 2013,
[iv] Sarah Cascone, “ Wang Zhongjun snaps up $30 million Picasso at Goldwyn sale”, Art net news, May 7 2015,
[vii] Wang Audrey,Chinese antiquities : An intro to the art market , (Ashgate publishing Ltd, 2012)
[ix]Philano Woo, ”From necessities to niceties: a look at China’s fast and furious museum boom”, Jing Daily, March 12 2014, https://jingdaily.com/from-necessities-to-niceties-a-look-at-chinas-fast-and-furious-museum-boom/
[x] Cao Zhen,” Forbidden city adding new features to mark 600th anniversary”, Shenzhen Daily, September 23 2014, http://www.szdaily.com/content/2014-09/23/content_10185749.htm
[xi] Gargi Gupta, “China shows interest in Indian art scene at India art fair”,DNA India, February 2 2014,http://www.dnaindia.com/lifestyle/report-china-shows-interest-in-indian-art-scene-at-india-art-fair-1958789
[xii] Atul Aneja, “Soft power set to define modi’s China visit”, The Hindu, May 13 2015, http://www.thehindu.com/news/international/social-media-bollywood-and-yoga-to-dominate-modis-china-visit/article7194559.ece
(Shruthi V is an intern with Chennai Centre for China Studies. As a statutory requirement of her academic course in Stella Maris college, she is required to carry out research in a think tank on identified issues in China under the guidance of the members of C3S. The views expressed in this article how ever are of the author. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org )