Culture of China: Glimpses of the Forbidden City, 798 Art District and the Yema Hotel, Urumqi

    Written by: Dr Dushka H Saiyid
    Posted on: February 02, 2015 | Post your comment here Comments | 中文

    Open-air display at 798 Art District - Culture of China: Forbidden City, 798 Art District, Beijing and Yema Hotel, Urumqi

    Open-air display at 798 Art District

    Visiting Beijing for work in the dead of winter, with temperatures often below zero degrees centigrade, we only had time to visit the tourist hot spot of the Forbidden City, and the lesser known 798 Art District.

    Culture of China: Forbidden City, 798 Art District, Beijing and Yema Hotel, Urumqi

    The Forbidden City, so named because ordinary people did not have access to it, is situated in the centre of Beijing. It faces the Tiananmen Square, where all the ceremonies and parades of the Peoples Republic of China are held. The weather had not deterred the tourists, mostly Chinese, but they were nowhere near the scale of visitors during the summer months. Built in the early fifteenth century, it was the palace of the Chinese emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties till 1912, when the last emperor, Puyi, abdicated, his life brilliantly captured in Bernardo Bertolucci’s film, The Last Emperor. The Forbidden City was both the residence of the emperors, and also the ceremonial and political center. UNESCO declared it to be the largest collection of ancient preserved wooden structures and a World Heritage Sight in 1987.

    Culture of China: Forbidden City, 798 Art District, Beijing and Yema Hotel, Urumqi

    The Forbidden City

    The Emperor was considered to be the son of Heaven, the emperor’s palace a replica of the Purple Palace of God, and his palace the center of the world. It is recognized as one of the five great palaces of the world, besides Versailles, Buckingham, Kremlin and the White House. However, unlike other palaces, it is a complex of 90 courtyards and halls spread over 180 acres and surrounded by a moat; an embodiment of the traditional Chinese palace architecture.

    Unlike the Forbidden City, the 798 Art District wore a deserted look, maybe because we went there during office hours on a cold weekday.  Lots of galleries, small and big, dot what was once an industrial area full of factories built by the East Germans. These disused factories provide ample space for the contemporary art and multimedia exhibitions; somewhat reminiscent of Soho in New York City, which had originally housed warehouses and factories but has since morphed into a home for artists, art galleries, and more recently into upscale shops.  

    Contemporary Chinese art has evolved creating a new visual language, drawing on traditional art with its use of ink brush and ceramics. As we weaved our way through the galleries, we found the art pricey, though uniquely Chinese, with superb technique and craftsmanship. Forbes, commenting on Chinese art wrote, “There’s a fantastic new generation of artists in China whose creativity and originality only demands to be seen”. All the galleries had names in English, a sure sign that Chinese art had gone global. Not surprisingly, China has become the second largest market for art and antiques in the world, and the 798 Art District has been at the centre of the revival of art and its commercialization.


    Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang province, was our next stop. Situated in close proximity to the Central Asian Republics, the influence of that region is visible. Like all Chinese cities, Urumqi has the usual modern architecture, and highly developed infrastructure, reflecting the global image of a rising China.

    Culture of China: Forbidden City, 798 Art District, Beijing and Yema Hotel, Urumqi

    A stable at Yema Hotel

    We stayed at the Yema International Business Clubhouse Hotel, owned by two enterprising brothers, Chen Geng and Chen Zhifeng. The ambience of the hotel transported us into a different world with its rustic wooden construction and décor of antiques like urns and wooden carts, that hark back to an age that has disappeared.  An art gallery consisting of paintings by local artists, supplements the collection of antiques and curios: portraits of farmers with deeply lined faces, an amalgam of paintings of the common people with their peculiarly local features, and an electrifying painting, deifying a local hero on a full gallop as he shoots an arrow. There were intricately crafted dolls of warriors, dressed in traditional clothes, with fierce and warlike expressions. A number of small sized sculptures of Lenin, and a huge portrait of Marx, were a reminder of the Soviet influence and communist past of this region.

    The temperature was below zero, and it was dark already, when we were taken for a walk through the Yema Ancient Ecological Garden. There were dimly lit, but perfectly organized wooden walkways through a garden with a collection of petrified Populus wood, thousands of years old.  We maneuvered our way through  icy patches, and were led into comfortably heated and clean stables with a variety of different breeds of horses that we had never seen before: dwarf-like short horses; a hardy Mongolian breed, the steed behind the success of Changez’s conquering hordes; and I think I spotted a beautiful but rare black thoroughbred Akhal-Teke, found in Turkmenistan.

    We had only caught a fleeting glimpse of the varied culture and history of China that had now emerged as a force majeure on the international scene. Chen Zhifeng typifies the new Chinese man: a soldier in the Peoples Liberation Army who had become a successful businessman, and through his collection of art and antiques, was conserving the rich heritage of this vast country.

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