City of Sound is about cities, design, architecture, music, media, politics and more. Written by Dan Hill since 2001.


(Continued from World Design Congress 2009: Day two. Written at the time, last October.)

Based at Tongji University, where he is a professor at the institute of cultural criticism, Zhu Dake might be an example that the public intellectual in China has a little more leeway than is often characterised in the West (see also this interview at His speech centres on the balance, or tension, between authoritarianism and consumerism that China is facing – or encouraging, depending on how you look at it – and features some subtle critique of both aspects of that balancing act. I’ll reproduce it in a bit more detail here (though please excuse any inaccuracies due to my typing or the translation at the time.)

He starts with Mao's legacy; since the second round of reform and the “opening up”, China has been engaged in consumerism and late stage capitalism, he says. So a curious hybrid between consumerism and authoritarianism has led “to a specific spatial logic in China.” These two systems “inconsistent yet they coexist with seeming harmony”.


He then shifts to talking about china (as in porcelain, china-ware), which “can be traced back a long way” and how “china transformed into China”.


Here, he starts to outline the danger of over-use of specific cultural symbols – not only china, but also the overuse of the colour red, which he calls a “visual disaster”. Red, he points out, is “representative of authority, just like the wall of Forbidden City”. It represents “conquer and warning to the general public.” (He shows some photos of the reddish outer wall of the Forbidden City.)


This he contrasts with a design for a pavilion for 2010's Shanghai Expo, which he says is “totally inconsistent with landscape around”. If read symbolically, it looks “like the royal crown covered with blood.” It’s an “inverse pyramid – the pyramid represents eternity – so this design is opposite to eternity, challenging our philosophy of time …”



Perhaps, he says, it’s “consistent with cultural value in Shanghai – which is about spontaneity and improvisation and not necessarily committed to originality or legacy to generations to come.” He says this is “an inadvertent symbol of the values in Shanghai.”

He says today's architectural design is “the opposite to democracy”, given that the “canopy dwarfs general public” (One could also say it protects them, but I see what he means.)

“Tiananman Square has columns/pillars changed in size”, Dake says, -”so that people feel smaller. They look like ants”, he says, pointing to his slides.

(Campanella has a great deal of history about these themes in the development of Beijing in The Concrete Dragon, making the same point about the ‘super-sizing’ of Tiananmen Square in general, as well as Chang’An Avenue and other aspects of Beijing’s urban infrastructure.)

Dake talks about these  “aesthetics of authoritarianism (which are) make you feel small and make official power look big”. He says this is “against the principle that the people are the owners of the state.” (Fascinating.)



Instead, “it gives you impression you are in prison cell; they’re staring at you, like big shackles …”. “In modern China”, he says, “we are overshadowed by the aesthetics of authoritarianism.”

Since the 1990s, however, “some balance has been achieved”. There has been “some compromise between consumerism and authoritarianism.“

He refers now to fashion, or what would come to be described as fashion. During the 1990s, he says,  everyone wore  “thin, figure-hugging" trousers that had been “in fashion for almost 20 years, a kind of pleatless pants.”

“People in China tend to follow the crowd”, he says. “Everyone was copying everyone else. This is a legacy from the Cultural Revolution, where everyone was wearing same jacket.”

These trousers were first ever fashion statement – but then suddenly in the 1990s, you get some “originality amongst the petit-bourgeouis, as some people began to dress themselves differently.” This is “a result of market forces”, he declares.

He now sees the same market-forces responsible for explosions of consumer goods, say in table-ware for shark fin and abelone, with hundreds of different containers for different  markets in  Korea, Singapore, Hong Kong etc. where the orders come from. He sees “more individuality” here and that it is “more democratic”.

The body itself has become a forum for these forces too, and he talks about the “design of the body”, saying that “physiques of Chinese people have changed dramatically.” He shows a photos what looks like some smiling Chinese cheerleaders, describing it wryly as “another version of Great Wall – a Great Wall of human body.”


“China has become part of the global trading system. In this process, we have the same confusion of logics. Our ideology is distant from the global system (and there’s a) strong reluctance on the part of China to have an ideology of universalism. When it was apart, that was fine. (But now) China is playing a role, especially culturally, on global stage.”

Echoing aspects of yesterday’s talks, he says “We were once happy making simple things, at low end. .Now that is not the case.” There is a “decree for developing China's cultural industries. It’s no longer (just) made in China, but also designed in China.”

Yet he says the “Chinese ideology refuses to acknowledge universal values of the human race. If you read the papers, universal values are often rejected. Human rights are not acknowledged in official media.”
So culture “needs to be expressed in distinctively Chinese way, with distinctive symbols and marques.” Expanding on this, he gives an example of four distinct Chinese symbols: chopsticks, bamboo, books, and the yin-yang symbol.

With these, he says, “we should guard against gaudy, cheap” interpretations of such symbols. He says this is what has happened to china, where “Chinese porcelain can be found in the flea markets in Europe etc.”, with what is a “cheap interpretation of China's traditional porcelain culture.” (He shows a painful photo of a white (porcelain?!) grand piano with imitation blue willow patterns, which he says would’ve cost 4000 dollars to make but sold for 40000 dollars.)


Again, he talks of the “visual disaster“ of “cheap interpretation (and) excessive application of traditional Chinese cultural symbols.” Another example is that of an ancient Chinese container called 'fo' (container, instrument). It was originally a very simple thing, he says, containing food and ice, basically an icebox. But it featured heavily in the Olympics opening ceremony, where it was recast as an elaborately decorated drum. He says the Olympics took it and "wrongfully presented it to the world", making it a music instrument. He says it had been used for funerals in ancient times, as well as icebox duties, and so this an inappropriate appropriation. Was Zhang Yimou “trying to pay tribute to Sizchuan earthquake? If so I admire him but I don't think he had this intention …”


I enjoyed his talk thoroughly, and appreciate the insights, and would imagine there’s a lot more to come from him. His blog is here (in Chinese).

World Design Congress 2009, Beijing: Day one
World Design Congress 2009, Beijing, Opening ceremony
World Design Congress 2009, Beijing: Day two
World Design Congress 2009, Beijing: Day three

All Beijing photos [Flickr]



One response to “World Design Congress 2009, Beijing: Zhu Dake: “Consumerism, authoritarianism, inconsistency, harmony and modern China””

  1. daniel erwin Avatar

    Thrilling coverage – thanks for bringing it to us!
    It seems possible that the importance of design is as much a macroeconomic byproduct as a cultural value. If you look at Europe a few hundred years ago, everybody wore the same thing – even the aristocracy had a well-defined wardrobe that changed by the decade, not by the season. The same with clothing in the US 200 years ago, and (as I venture towards the outside of my knowledge) Latin America 50 or 100 years ago. (This is inspired by Roland Barthes, but backed up by my own observations)
    If true, this means that the need for novelty, individualization, and providing alternative forms for popular items are all byproducts of a wealthy society with time and resources to spare (i.e. beyond just getting everybody fed and clothed). I imagine Zhu Dake and his colleagues will do this more/better/different than has happened in the past – but I’m especially interested to know if they can tweak the basic model of “surplus wealth begets a diversity of forms” and use something other than spare capacity to drive design.
    Also, I’m fascinated by this issue of whether the people own the state. Based on my personal discussions, people in the USA side with Rousseau and think of the individual as the beginning and end of power, autonomy, and rights. Is the impression that people in China have a different view merely a distortion of the media (i.e. created by the fact that I mostly know about China through newspapers, which love to focus on how governments and other large organizations are scary/tyrannical)?


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