Beijing’s Underground Art Gallery
I was talking to one of my friends recently about a stunning piece of artwork to be found on the Beijing subway. ‘Oh, you mean there is art there?’ she asked incredulously. She said she had never noticed; and I have to admit that when you see thousands of people rushing daily past these murals, sculptures, calligraphy, painted columns, or special lighting displays, many of them with their noses stuck in their mobile phones, it makes you wonder why anyone actually bothered to put anything up in the first place.
When the idea of a subway was first discussed for Beijing, China was going through a period of turmoil leading to the Cultural Revolution. The revolutionary atmosphere was at its peak and there were even proposals to decorate the walls of each metro station with quotations from Chairman Mao. Although the primary aim was to expand the city’s transport system, the metro was also seen as something that could be used for civil defence.
On February 4, 1965, Chairman Mao Zedong personally approved a project to create a subway conduit to move personnel from the heart of the capital to the Western Hills. Eventually it would start off as a utilitarian system, reflecting former leader Deng Xiaoping’s orders that “The stations should not be built like those of the Moscow Metro. They should be solid and practical, not extravagant.” The most controversial decision of the initial subway lines was the demolition of the capital’s historic inner city walls to make way for the subway, since Chairman Mao favoured demolishing the wall over demolishing homes. In the end, Premier Zhou Enlai managed to preserve several walls and gates, such as the Qianmen gate and its arrow tower by slightly altering the course of the subway.
On April 27 1984 the secretary of the Secretariat of the Central Committee, Hu Qili, gave an instruction during a visit to the metro that it would be better to provide murals and sculptures to brighten up the stations. The artists could have their names displayed by their works of art. Thus began the presence of art in Beijing’s subway system.
To start off, three stations on Line 2 had tiled murals applied to the walls of the platforms. One of Xizhimen station’s murals, ‘Yanshan and the Great Wall’, was made by Zhang Ding in December 1984. It is 140 metres long. Jianquomen’s murals were installed in 1985, a year after Xizhimen. The oldest landmark there is the Beijing Ancient Observatory, which was built in the Zhengtong years of the Ming Dynasty (1436-1450), and is the theme of one of the tiled walls on the station. At Dongsishitiao, one of the murals is called ‘Head to the World’ and is a collage of athletes (made by Yan Shangde in April 1985) which alludes to the nearby presence of the Workers’ Stadium.
However, after over three decades, the murals on Line 2 are slowly falling apart. Not only have the colours in them darkened with age, but a number of the tiles are either broken or missing, caused by the shockwaves of faster trains. As the original moulds for the murals have been lost, it is now impossible to bake new tiles to replace the missing pieces.
The six murals of Line 2 were basically how things stayed until the staging of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. At that point the city wanted to show itself off to the rest of the world, and as a plethora of new lines and stations were planned, so too was the idea of using artwork to brighten up the stations.
You can now find artwork and special design effects at over half of Beijing’s 354 stations, though extensive plans now call for 999 km of lines by 2020. (Beijing is currently creating six new fully automated lines which will add yet another 300 km in length to the existing network.)
My favourites are at Zaoyuan (Daxing Line), Gongzhufen and Chedaogou (Line 10), Jintailu (Line 6) and Huagong (Line 7). But art is a very personal experience; so next time you travel on the subway, stop staring at your mobile phone and start looking around you. And prepare to be amazed!