Theoretically astute and engagingly written, Winnie Won Yin Wong’s Van Gogh on Demand: China and the Readymade tracks the rise to global fame between 2004 and 2010 of Dafen, an urban village in South China where migrant workers reproduce masterpieces of Western art that are sold by the millions around the world. Merging aesthetic analysis, artist interviews, and participant observation, including several months spent learning how to paint Van Gogh trade paintings in a local Dafen workshop, Wong shows how the Chinese party-state, global conceptual artists, and local migrant workers invoke and challenge concepts of artistic creativity and alienated labor.
Most impressive about this book is how Wong’s interdisciplinary approach allows her to shed light on questions of creativity, reproduction, artistic labor, and the nature of the work of art in a manner that is of interest to art historians, philosophers of aesthetics, and anthropologists of art and media. Contemporary debates about the nature of art in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries in all of these fields have been greatly influenced by Walter Benjamin’s classic 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility.” Benjamin famously argued that the increasing pervasiveness of technological reproduction had led to the decay of the “aura,” the unique quality of the traditional work of art established through its indexical ties to a particular genealogy of production and ownership.1Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility, Version 2,” in Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 3: 1935–1938, ed. Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings, 101–33 (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2002). Taking up these questions as developed by Benjamin and by twentieth-century conceptual artists concerned with modernist notions of originality, Van Gogh on Demand complicates and enriches our understanding of the status of the work of art in the age of the copy. What makes Wong’s contribution to these debates particularly important is her ability to situate a rigorous understanding of these art historical concerns within the ethnographic context of Dafen trade painting.
Drawing on aesthetic analysis of trade paintings and her own apprenticeship in a Dafen workshop, Wong argues against the popular stereotype that trade painters work in assembly lines to create identical copies of original masterpieces. In fact, as she shows, artists and clients alike sought works that emulated Van Gogh’s distinctive style and “modernist markers of originality” by emphasizing the creative contribution of individual painters. Wong recounts that the workshop boss frequently cautioned her and other painters against consulting the gao, or image of the Van Gogh original, kept on file, instead encouraging them to paint “freely” in an effort to produce works that would communicate the trade painters’ “individuality” and, in so doing, capture the expressive quality of Van Gogh’s work. In a fascinating paradox, supposed copies are valued by Dafen workers and their clients for their ability to convey a “uniqueness” and “self-expression” associated with Van Gogh but dependent on the labor of anonymous artists. This account reveals how the production and consumption of Dafen oil paintings confuse easy hierarchies between originality and copy, “resurrecting the aura,” as Benjamin might have put it, through the unanticipated means of a manual technology of reproduction.
Such surprising reversals are repeated throughout the book. For instance, the Chinese party-state at once celebrated the ways in which Dafen trade painting democratized art for the masses and, in a period when China was ratifying international copyright agreements, attempted to transform Dafen “copyists” into creative artists who reconciled self-expression with market success in ways that emblematized postsocialist reforms. For their part, global conceptual artists drew upon Dafen paintings as Duchampian “readymades,” producing works that played with questions of authorship, creativity, and the copy all while appropriating and often obfuscating the labor of Dafen artists. Throughout, Wong shows how Dafen trade painters navigated these disparate interests in unexpected ways as they pursued their own aspirations to be successful entrepreneurs and creative artists. The end result is a theoretically compelling and ethnographically rich account of the ways in which concepts of authenticity and reproduction, creativity and alienation, shape global ideologies of modern art as revealed by the lives of a unique class of cultural workers caught up in China’s postsocialist economic and political transformations.
In closing, I have two sets of questions for Winnie Wong:
- As a number of scholars have pointed out, state officials, cultural producers, and ordinary citizens in China and other late- or postsocialist contexts have often associated market reforms with an increased emphasis on creativity, self-expression, and the sensual.2See, for example, Judith Farquhar, Appetites: Food and Sex in Postsocialist China (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002); William Mazzarella, Shoveling Smoke: Advertising and Globalization in Contemporary India (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003); and Lisa Rofel, Desiring China: Experiments in Neoliberalism, Sexuality, and Public Culture (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007). In some cases, cultural producers and citizens use such discourses to criticize earlier focuses on the collective at the expense of the self under state socialism. Other scholars have noted a widespread nostalgia for state socialism in many postsocialist contexts, a nostalgia that they argue represents less a desire to restore state socialism than a critique of neoliberalism and longing for a more robust sense of the common good.3See, for example, Kristen Ghodsee and Laura A. Henry, “Redefining the Common Good after Communism: Beyond Ideology,” Newsnet: News of the Association of Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies 50, no. 4 (2010): 1–7; and Maria Todorova and Zsuzsa Gille, eds., Post-communist Nostalgia (New York: Berghahn Books, 2010). With the above observations in mind, I wonder if you might elaborate on the comparative importance of your nuanced study of Dafen painters and the “creative industries” in twenty-first-century market reform China. How do Dafen painters and the Chinese party-state’s management of creativity echo or depart from similar emphases on self-expression and the sensual observed in other late- or postsocialist contexts? Did the Dafen painters or other Chinese cultural producers you worked with ever articulate their pursuits of economic success or creativity as a critique of state socialism? Conversely, did they articulate ambivalence about the market or nostalgia for an earlier state socialism? What, if any, differences exist between how discourses of creativity and nostalgia played out in China in the early twenty-first century, when you conducted your fieldwork, and how these discourses worked in China in earlier moments of market reform, such as the 1990s?
- Your study compellingly challenges Eurocentric depictions of the West as the site of creative self-expression and China as the locus of derivative reproduction, demonstrating how the state, conceptual artists, and Dafen artists associated trade painting with both the copy and auratic art in complex ways. Given the fact that your current research focuses on Chinese export painting from 1760 to 1848, could you elaborate on how you think debates about originality and copying in Dafen painting fit into a longer history of Chinese aesthetic practices, ideologies, and engagement with the West? Finally, as you point out in a number of locations, art produced in China and other global south and socialist contexts is often subject to a range of stereotypes at the global level, including assumptions that it is derivative and that artists act either as opponents to or propagandists for a totalitarian state. Did these global stereotypes about their work play a role in how Chinese conceptual artists reacted to Dafen trade painting?
Winnie Won Yin Wong Responds:
- Laura-Zoë Humphreys is very right to connect the case of Dafen village to the now widespread rise of “creative industries” discourse and activity throughout urban China. As China’s first model cultural industry, Dafen village’s unique development between 2004 and 2010 anticipated the ways in which the commercialization and the popularization of both the production and consumption of high art would be leveraged in the urbanization of many villages and urban districts throughout China. In Guangdong Province, for example, “art villages” or “artists’ villages” have emerged in and around virtually every city, a few patterned on the painting trade of Dafen, but many utilizing very different configurations of art and rurality to assemble novel experiences, industries, and built environments. To the extent that most everyone regularly criticizes the vast economic reform and urbanization of the Pearl River Delta region, among Dafen painters I did note consistent criticism of local officials and policies and their implementation. Most of this criticism was contradictory—for example, some painters wanted more propaganda, while others thought there was too much—but primarily painters objected to the government’s favoritism of “original artists” over “art workers” as a whole. However, for those Dafen painters old enough to remember the Cultural Revolution, the collectivism implied in the rhetoric of “art workers” often recalled the fervor and madness of that time. And certainly, as Humphreys points out, such nostalgic invocations of the 1960s and ’70s articulate a desire for the economic equality (and concomitant “happiness”) that has since been lost.
At the same time, I think we can clearly detect within the newer discourse of creativity, self-expression, and the “China Dream” an implicit critique of the prereform past. In the book, I describe a Dafen television documentary about a retired couple from a northern province who have settled as artists in Dafen; with each invocation of a realized dream follows the reminder of a past when such dreams were not possible. Looking forward, I think that an important avenue of future research will be in locating that implicit measure of the past in the persistence of the rural—that is, in the legacy of individual and collective rights that villages and “villagers”—no matter their current status, wealth, or ways of life—continue to represent. In Shenzhen, for example, villages were officially eliminated as an administrative category in 2004. Yet despite Shenzhen’s dense high-rise developments, which may not look like villages, traces of village life, including its social relations, collective rights, and built form, continue to permeate this megacity. These urbanized villages, whether they are self-styled as “creative” or not, will probably continue to represent the legacy of a socialist past (when the rural was privileged over the urban) and serve as one counterweight to the unrelenting transformations of the present.
- In my current research, I am indeed working on a much earlier period, uncovering the history of oil painting produced in Guangzhou (Canton) for European consumption in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and through that history exploring the emergence of concepts of cultural imitation and progress. Humphreys’s question is one that I am pursuing in this new work, where I continue my efforts to question the naturalness of the concept of “Chinese copying” by turning to a historical moment when things were reversed; when Europeans found in China much uniqueness, rarity, and artistic skill, while they themselves were developing a culture of copious reproduction.
Regarding the varying stances adopted by Chinese and Western conceptual artists with respect to Dafen village, in the final chapter of Van Gogh on Demand I explain that most Chinese-trained conceptual artists I encountered did their utmost to ignore Dafen village, while many Western-trained artists found it a fascinating place and even made it a subject of their art. My explanation for this stark contrast is that Chinese conceptual artists tend to have a more nuanced, or perhaps more conflictual, engagement with the socialist political legacy than many of their counterparts in the West, who I found were often at risk of uncritically applying Marxist politics in their work without attending to the actual conditions of production in their sites of social engagement. Furthermore, these Western-trained artists often failed to see the cultural hierarchies and distinctions among Chinese artists in their overgeneralizations of “Chinese“ art, as if that art were represented by Dafen painters.
For their part, Chinese conceptual artists, because of the continued power of socialist-era institutions like the Fine Arts Academy, were precisely attuned to the social and class distinctions between themselves and the uneducated Dafen painters—whose low cultural standing embarrassed them. That embarrassment for Chinese-trained artists, in turn, often mirrored the implicit condescension in the work of Western-trained conceptual artists, who expected Chinese art to be derivative and thus found it among the Dafen painters they paid to copy. While derisive attitudes against the professional artisan (in China) and the Chinese painter (in the West) can be traced to the very foundations of modernity, my goal in this book was to highlight how this highly charged discourse of “Western originality” and “Chinese copying” is inflected in our contemporary period by the twentieth-century socialist legacy, and to illustrate the bifurcation of the ideals of this discourse across the avant-garde divides for artists in socialist and capitalist states. That recent and dramatic history is today often forgotten in the West’s engagement with China, and the absurdities that that amnesia breeds is evident in the encounter between conceptual art and the painters of Dafen village.
Like most people, I am keenly aware that many of my material possessions have probably passed through the hands of a Chinese worker at some point in the production chain. But while we might have ideas about the conditions under which those commodities were produced, we are unlikely to be troubled by the anonymity of those workers. After all, we don’t expect to know the names of those who made our clothes, dishware, or dinner tables. This is, in some ways, the essence of commodity production—the anonymity of the producer and the interchangeability of products, effected through market exchange.
But what happens when the commodity being produced is supposed to be an anticommodity? Winnie Won Yin Wong’s book on trade painters in China, Van Gogh on Demand: China and the Readymade, is a marvelous examination of just such a set of commodities—hand-painted reproductions of paintings from the Western canon. A Van Gogh painting is not, of course, generally thought of as a commodity; it is viewed as a unique expression of the artist’s intentions, of his creative genius. So what are we to think of the production of thousands of hand-painted “copies” by trade painters in Dafen, southern China? Is this the industrialization of art? The popularization of high art? Yet another example of the exploitation of the downtrodden Chinese worker or of the deskilling of the artist? What is more problematic, the anonymity of the artists or the appropriation of canonical images for commodity production and profit?
As a sociologist of work, I found Wong’s focus on artistic production to be especially thought provoking. Wong explores the distinction between industrial work and (idealized) preindustrial craft or artisanal production practices—a longstanding concern in my field, in which themes like deskilling, the separation of mental and manual labor, and alienation are all central. But by focusing on trade painters, Wong highlights the tensions between these forms of work and the work of creative artists. Is the embodied skill of the craft person an expression of creativity, or is it simply the unreflexive and repetitious (if nevertheless meticulous) enactment of habitual practice?
She convincingly shows how the trade painters of Dafen village are often portrayed, from outside China in particular but sometimes even within the village itself, as engaged in assembly line–type production—deskilled, alienated, and certainly not creative. The relationship between Dafen’s painting trade and a Western-dominated international art world is steeped in ironies—mass production of Van Gogh’s paintings in Dafen, for example, is dependent upon the stature of Van Gogh as a canonized artist in the West. And while his work, seemingly unique and priceless, garners vast sums in international art auctions, the reproductions, as popular commodities, are not viewed in the high-art world as art at all, in part because they are produced to order. High-end art gives rise to the consumer desires that help fuel the pace of production in Dafen, and the pace and volume of production in Dafen are in turn read (and represented) as the industrialized, mechanized factory production of “non-art.” In a further irony, this misrepresentation of Dafen painting provides the raw material for conceptual artists, Western and non-Western, to appropriate the trade painters’ labor materially and symbolically in the creation of “real” art.
Wong shows us that what in fact exists in Dafen is a “flexible specialization” model of production, with layers of subcontracting in which small teams of painters and independent contractors are temporarily assembled for a job and then disperse. In what reads like wonderful detective work, Wong uncovers a much longer history of trade painting in the region and a continuity of production practices and work organization across time and place. Certainly, the painters we encounter in the book enjoy high levels of autonomy and are largely free to devise (individually or collectively) the most efficient ways of carrying out their work. Yet this is not the kind of creativity that is celebrated by the international art world or by the layers of government propagandists and bureaucrats who seek to remake Dafen village as a center of creative industry in China, both of which seem to have the power to consecrate “real” artists and to determine who reaps the symbolic and material benefits of being recognized as such.
Given the un-factory-like mode of production Wong describes in Dafen, why does the image of the factory wield such power in how people understand the organization of production there? Why have outsiders and even some insiders been so easily convinced that Dafen’s trade painting is industrialized in a factory-like way? On the other hand, why has trade painting not become more mechanized or strongly characterized by a more extensive division of labor? Does the answer really lie in the consumer’s desire for handmade art objects? And does the fact that Dafen is surrounded by factories influence how the trade painters understand their own labor?
Winnie Won Yin Wong Responds:
Amy Hanser’s question about why the factory imaginary is so overwhelming touches on one of the historical, journalistic, and Eurocentric myths that I had to examine closely in this book because it informed my own expectations at the outset of my research. During the course of my fieldwork, I found myself searching for “the factory” in which I could observe the kinds of exploitative, industrial, and assembly-line processes that I had expected and that had been so evocatively promised in journalistic accounts of Dafen village. Yet ultimately, in Dafen and its environs and then in cities like Xiamen, Guangzhou, Shanghai, and even Los Angeles and New York City, I observed many kinds of intensive painting production, but I never found the “factory” that continues to fire the popular imagination. During my fieldwork, I was consistently told by painters that the factories had existed only in the past, or that they had moved to Xiamen or Guangzhou. But in Xiamen or Guangzhou, I was told that the factories had moved even further inland, to cities like Putian and Yiwu. And yet I continued to observe production in Dafen that could supply the large orders demanded at industrial scales. Van Gogh on Demand thus tries to explain how flexible production in this trade can account for the volume of production we witness without the need for factory-scale centralization. Furthermore, as I scrutinized the history of “factories” that did exist in Dafen, I found little evidence that accorded with our theoretical or historical models.
There are many reasons why “industrialization” never took hold in this small-scale and precarious trade, despite our expectation that it already has. Van Gogh on Demand tries to show how those reasons are interconnected and have to be understood comprehensively as a discourse about value and labor. In other words, the history of Dafen forces us to challenge the entire series of questions—about culture, art, technology, and society—presupposed by the factory imaginary centered in Europe’s nineteenth-century industrialization, and the rise of modernist art in Europe as a consequence. When we examine processes that occur long after and in places such as post-Mao China, it is sometimes difficult to recognize that a very different set of cultural and economic conditions are at work. In part, this is because key local purveyors (such as factory bosses and propaganda officials) are well aware of this Eurocentric expectation about the factory and leverage it to develop their own narratives. Hence journalists can easily be told that there are “factories,” but deeper examination of the work taking place at these sites calls that term into question.
A book of consummate research and narrative force, Winnie Won Yin Wong’s Van Gogh on Demand: China and the Readymade explores China’s Dafen village, located just outside the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone and well-known today as the world’s largest production center for hand-painted oil paintings, sometimes replicas of Western masterpieces, sold by Western retailers like Wal-Mart and available on the streets of Paris, Amsterdam, and New York. Such an investigation into the global industry of painting for mass, “democratic” consumption requires challenging the deep-seated preconceptions about fine art, craft, and industry, the widespread contempt for copy and kitsch, and the firm belief in originality, the avant-garde, and individual genius on which the art market thrives and the Eurocentric narratives of modern and contemporary art still rely, even a hundred years after Marcel Duchamp’s first readymades. Firmly grounded in ethnographic accounts of Dafen’s painters, bosses, low-level party bureaucrats, and patrons/customers, Wong’s tour-de-force study complicates current debates about conceptual art, migrant labor, copyright, and creative industry.
Wong provides a multifaceted analysis of how Dafen’s manifestation of “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is intertwined with the global economy of fine art and labor, while never simplifying the kernel questions at issue: Is Chinese modernity simply a derivative of the West, or does it provide an alternative—perhaps even an embodiment of unfulfilled universal modernism? What does a Van Gogh painting completed in less than two hours by a Dafen painter tell us about postsocialist China? Is it an instantiation of the “true” avant-garde or merely a copy? Questioning the presumed inequality between the avant-garde and kitsch (per Clement Greenberg’s infamous essay from 1939),4“Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” Partisan Review 6, no. 5 (1939): 34–49, http://www.sharecom.ca/greenberg/kitsch.html. Wong convincingly argues that the categorical options for defining Dafen paintings are never mutually exclusive.
To a contemporary art historian with research interests in East Asia like myself, Van Gogh on Demand is a welcome if not indispensable addition to the existing literature on contemporary Asian art, which at present mostly consists of exhibition catalogs, profiles of famous artists, and surveys of national art history that sometimes have a categorical focus (e.g., Chinese performance art or Chinese women artists), and more often than not the literature relies on existing Eurocentric theoretical structures rather than provoking them. In questioning the very definition of art—and non-art—this book pointedly stimulates and articulates the problem of the field. That Wong’s book moves away from Beijing-based historiography of contemporary Chinese art is not only refreshing but also illuminating, especially when star artists like Zhang Huan, Song Dong, and Liu Ding are featured here only as part of a larger, complex narrative of translation, mutation, and exchange that makes up Chinese and global art production. But Wong’s scholarship is decidedly interdisciplinary in approach and transnational in scope, as the site of her research, Dafen, evades easy classification in existing disciplines or within regional and local boundaries. Her command of aesthetic and critical theories puts Derrida, Goethe, Kant, Marx, and Sartre in dynamic conversation with Pierre Bourdieu, Benjamin Buchloh, Thierry de Duve, Caroline Jones, and Wang Hui.
In analyzing the production structure of Dafen’s art workshops, including the piece-rate commission and other compensation methods, Wong traces the thirty-year history of Dafen’s largest firms, which drew domestic migrant workers from other provinces, and lays out the shifts in their production methods, from small-scale workshop to “assembly line” production center. Wong’s multiyear on-site research and repeated interviews with painters and bosses reveal the fictionality of what she calls the “factory imaginary”—the notion that the paintings are produced in a Fordist assembly line—a myth circulated in the Western media, touted by a Dafen boss, and even utilized as a core concept by a Beijing-based conceptual artist.
Just as Dafen defies assumptions about the Chinese factory, Wong overturns those about Dafen paintings being inferior copies of existing Western masterworks through attentive observation and analysis of the painters’ stories. For Wong, the term gao (“draft”), which Dafen painters use to refer to a printed or electronic image of the model painting, reveals that the painters are engaged less in forgery than in fair use. As an example, one of the painters, a Van Gogh specialist, adds the signature “Van Gogh” to his versions of one of the artist’s sunflower paintings, even though the original lacks one. He also demonstrates flexibility by skipping this last step when a client—Wong—prefers the painting without it. His paintings are more vibrant in color than those by Van Gogh, and he discourages his apprentices from looking at the gao while working.
Wong describes how, as Dafen’s global reputation began to rise around 2005, the local government produced a television documentary and a drama series to promote the village. In the documentary, the government projects the romanticization of individual creativity onto heterosexual romance stories of women painters, which Wong criticizes as promulgating unequal gender relations while reflecting the return to idealism in depictions of creative artists and bohemian art colonies. The most fascinating chapter for me is the final one, about the interactions between Dafen painters and non-Dafen conceptual artists (Chinese and Western) who, starting in 2005, have commissioned paintings from Dafen painters and claimed authorship, as well as ownership, of the resultant works.
Throughout the book, Wong pays utmost attention to the situations in which Dafen painters exercise their agency for negotiation, collaboration, and commission, despite the fact that their migrant worker status always already renders them unequal if not powerless. From the book’s beginning, Wong explains how because of the Chinese urban household registration system, hukou, millions of rural-born migrant workers lead precarious lives and can neither legally settle nor send their children to school in the city where they live and work. If existing studies of Chinese migrant workers can inform the analysis of Dafen painters, I would like to know how we might reconcile the difference between Chinese migrant “workers” and Dafen “painters.” Is the designation Dafen painters reserved exclusively for those workers who eventually accumulate sufficient social capital to become artists and bosses of Dafen workshops, exercising and further propelling the factory imaginary? Even if not—and Wong is careful to present the wives and unnamed assistants as playing a significant role in any Dafen workshop led by a male painter—I wonder if and how this nuanced study of Chinese labor in a global consumerist market can contribute to our understanding of those millions of other migrant workers in China without privileging the medium of painting over other products.
Winnie Won Yin Wong Responds:
Sohl Lee’s incisive questions about the generalizability of Dafen painters to China’s migrant workers get to the heart of the aims of this book, aims that, it turns out, could only be partially fulfilled by focusing on Dafen village as a case study. To explain why, it’s important to first emphasize that I did indeed find in Dafen village a success story of China’s reform period, and that the painters described in my study (who are also migrant workers) represent one positive aspect of urban China’s impressive economic transformation. The Dafen painters in my book represent hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals who are rural-born and whose opportunities for formal art education were thus severely restricted, and who have, over the course of ten or twenty years, reinvented themselves as urban, professional, and independent painters entirely outside the institutional framework of Chinese art. Though art critics and the public in intellectual property–holding nations might bear contempt for them, within their own milieu Dafen’s painters, whether or not they accumulate sufficient capital to operate in a wider market or culture beyond Dafen, are rightly proud of their achievements as modest “art workers.”
The unique characteristic of Dafen painters is that they produce a product—oil painting—that can, in extreme cases, be valued far above all other commodities in the world. Hence Van Gogh on Demand implicitly asks why Dafen painters are different from other kinds of painters while also acknowledging their own recognition of that problematic. Pointing to the powerlessness of China’s roughly 166 million migrant workers,5National Bureau of Statistics of China, “Statistical Communiqué of the People’s Republic of China on the 2013 National Economic and Social Development ,” National Bureau of Statistics, February 24, 2014, http://www.stats.gov.cn/english/PressRelease/201402/t20140224_515103.html. Lee asks whether there are any elements of this success story that may apply to China’s vast migrant worker population. In comparing Dafen’s painters to the situations of Chinese migrant workers at large, I think it is important to note two points that are particular to the history of post-Mao China.
First, Dafen is a site where the government has made uniquely visible the agency and achievements of male migrant workers, rather than the female workers who make up the majority of migrant labor in the region. To focus on Dafen village as success story is, in effect, to celebrate the success of its mainly male painters while ignoring the gendered division of labor that runs deeply through the migrant worker experience, as it runs equally through the international art world. It turns out that the presumption of artistic agency as the province of the male is as normative in Chinese propaganda as it is in the capitals of international art. Thus, we should recognize that this continued forgetting of women’s labor is what makes the Dafen story (the story of contemporary art’s new cultural capital) so visible and valorizable in the first place.
Second, Dafen is a unique success story itself situated in the new city of Shenzhen, China’s first special economic zone and a site of exceptional political and economic experimentation since 1978. With Shenzhen ethnographer Mary Ann O’Donnell and the political economist Jonathan Bach, I am currently editing a multiauthor volume on the history of Shenzhen, entitled Learning from Shenzhen, that will offer an account of this complex history. The volume shows how, in the 2000s, Shenzhen’s success (like Dafen’s success) was appropriated by a revamped socialist rhetoric at every level of the Chinese party-state. Shenzhen went from being a questionable experiment to the model city that brought forth the model village and the model worker, as though all that had happened were the product of forethought, planning, and policy execution. In fact, the development of both Dafen and Shenzhen relied on illicit if not outright illegal experiments in property, labor, and production far “beyond the plan” and outside of technocratic imagination. Hence, although Dafen and Shenzhen have been promoted around China as models to be imitated, they are far from analogous to other conditions in urbanizing China, and we should therefore approach the promotion of this “model” with care.
These particularities of the Dafen situation begin to suggest how and why we require more study of China’s migrant workers in order to fully answer Lee’s questions. We need to understand a great deal more about Chinese migrant workers’ aspirations and conditions before we can begin to describe the politics and theoretical models that urbanization in post-Mao China engenders. In focusing on oil-on-canvas painters (and comparing them to Vincent van Gogh), my study of Dafen village is intended to demonstrate how contrived our expectations of creativity and worker agency are. What we need are deeper understandings of the situations in which migrant workers find themselves, and of the forms of artistic and cultural expression they take on, without predetermining their value from the standpoint of one or another political legacy.