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Palace concert in the Song era
The Chinese arts have traditionally been linked with scholarship. In imperial China, courtiers and scholars were supposed to be skilled in poetry, music, calligraphy, and painting as well as literature and philosophy. Chinese artists and poets were mostly amateurs who made their living doing something else, namely working in the civil service.

Serenity and tranquil beauty have traditionally been valued in Chinese culture and aesthetics. Fei Bo, a Chinese choreographer, told The Times: “Our culture is more about spiritual things, and nature is much more important to us. In our traditional painting the strokes are very simple but they leave a big space for your imagination.” Unfortunately many works that illustrated these virtues have been lost. Chinese emperors had the habit of destroying the art and literature created by their predecessors. During the Cultural Revolution, the Communists continued this tradition by destroying much of what was left from an Imperial Age that had lasted for thousands of years.

Thousands of years ago, Chinese intellectuals were already essential figures in assisting their emperors in multiple ways, including providing policy suggestions as well as educating the general public. Shanghai was the undisputed capital of Chinese culture before World War II. After the Communists came to power in 1949 there wasn’t much culture. After things started loosening up after the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s the center of Chinese culture shifted to Beijing.

China’s intellectual scene is now among the most vibrant in the world, bringing together competing ideas both foreign and domestic, and producing thought-provoking works of literature, memorable films, edgy works of modern art and a lively indie music scene. Culture and art are now big business in China too. David Barboza wrote in the New York Times, “China’s Cultural landscape is now filled with big-budget historical dramas, multimillion dollar art auctions, government-backed opera and dance extravaganzas and bold new state-financed entertainment venues that suggest a melding of art, culture and power and national pride.”

Zhang Xianmin, Professor of Beijing Film Academy, wrote: “Cultural resources are clustered in big cities; the rest of China are cultural deserts... On the one hand, the cultural development of China lags behind its economic development because the former developed under various kinds of restraints and unhealthy favoritism. On the other, Chinese culture does not have any real power in society; what it has are money-making industries and politically driven propaganda (in the name of spiritual development). The differences between China and other culturally more developed countries are both the lack of investment by big corporations and the lack of tax incentives for individual cultural workers.” [Source: Zhang Xianmin, translated by Isabella Tianzi Cai, dGenerate films, September 29, 2010]

Acupuncture and Peking Opera have been selected as candidates for UNESCO intangible cultural heritage status. Chinese printing with wooden movable type, the technique for leak-proof partitions of Chinese junks and the Uyghur folk performance Meshrep were also proposed for intangible cultural heritage status as they are in need of urgent safeguarding.

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Gathering of poets and scholars
Today kitsch and cute arguably hold a higher place in hearts of Chinese than traditional fine arts. Silly television game shows, NBA basketball, pictures of kittens playing with balls of yarn and sentimental ballad music seem to be more popular than Peking Opera, silk scroll paintings or traditional erhu music.

Among the government bodies that monitor, oversee and fund the arts are the Ministry of Culture, the Ministry of Radio, Film and the Ministry of Truth and Propaganda of the Central Committee.

Good Websites and Sources: Cultural China (site with nice photos ; China ; China Culture Online ;Chinatown Connection ; Transnational China Culture Project China Research Paper Search ; Book: The Culture and Civilization, a massive multi-volume series on Chinese culture (Yale University Press).


Nature in Chinese Culture

According to the Metropolitan Museum of Art: “In no other cultural tradition has nature played a more important role in the arts than in that of China. Since China's earliest dynastic period, real and imagined creatures of the earth—serpents, bovines, cicadas, and dragons—were endowed with special attributes, as revealed by their depiction on ritual bronze vessels. In the Chinese imagination, mountains were also imbued since ancient times with sacred power as manifestations of nature's vital energy (qi). They not only attracted the rain clouds that watered the farmer's crops, they also concealed medicinal herbs, magical fruits, and alchemical minerals that held the promise of longevity. Mountains pierced by caves and grottoes were viewed as gateways to other realms—"cave heavens" (dongtian) leading to Daoist paradises where aging is arrested and inhabitants live in harmony. [Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art \^/]

“From the early centuries of the Common Era, men wandered in the mountains not only in quest of immortality but to purify the spirit and find renewal. Daoist and Buddhist holy men gravitated to sacred mountains to build meditation huts and establish temples. They were followed by pilgrims, travelers, and sightseers: poets who celebrated nature's beauty, city dwellers who built country estates to escape the dust and pestilence of crowded urban centers, and, during periods of political turmoil, officials and courtiers who retreated to the mountains as places of refuge.\^/

“Early Chinese philosophical and historical texts contain sophisticated conceptions of the nature of the cosmos. These ideas predate the formal development of the native belief systems of Daoism and Confucianism, and, as part of the foundation of Chinese culture, they were incorporated into the fundamental tenets of these two philosophies. Similarly, these ideas strongly influenced Buddhism when it arrived in China around the first century A.D. Therefore, the ideas about nature described below, as well as their manifestation in Chinese gardens, are consistent with all three belief systems.\^/

“The natural world has long been conceived in Chinese thought as a self-generating, complex arrangement of elements that are continuously changing and interacting. Uniting these disparate elements is the Dao, or the Way. Dao is the dominant principle by which all things exist, but it is not understood as a causal or governing force. Chinese philosophy tends to focus on the relationships between the various elements in nature rather than on what makes or controls them. According to Daoist beliefs, man is a crucial component of the natural world and is advised to follow the flow of nature's rhythms. Daoism also teaches that people should maintain a close relationship with nature for optimal moral and physical health.\^/

“Within this structure, each part of the universe is made up of complementary aspects known as yin and yang. Yin, which can be described as passive, dark, secretive, negative, weak, feminine, and cool, and yang, which is active, bright, revealed, positive, masculine, and hot, constantly interact and shift from one extreme to the other, giving rise to the rhythm of nature and unending change.\^/

“As early as the Han dynasty, mountains figured prominently in the arts. Han incense burners typically resemble mountain peaks, with perforations concealed amid the clefts to emit incense, like grottoes disgorging magical vapors. Han mirrors are often decorated with either a diagram of the cosmos featuring a large central boss that recalls Mount Kunlun, the mythical abode of the Queen Mother of the West and the axis of the cosmos, or an image of the Queen Mother of the West enthroned on a mountain. While they never lost their cosmic symbolism or association with paradises inhabited by numinous beings, mountains gradually became a more familiar part of the scenery in depictions of hunting parks, ritual processions, temples, palaces, and gardens. By the late Tang dynasty, landscape painting had evolved into an independent genre that embodied the universal longing of cultivated men to escape their quotidian world to commune with nature. The prominence of landscape imagery in Chinese art has continued for more than a millennium and still inspires contemporary artists.” \^/

Culture, Confucianism and Politics

Culture and politics in China have traditionally been closely associated with one another in China. As far back as the 6th century B.C., Confucius said that music and dance were such important elements of political life they should not be squandered on entertainment. According to one story, Confucius found himself at a festival with singers and jesters and declared, "Commoners who beguile their lords deserve to die. Let them be punished!" The party was immediately stopped and the performers were killed.

In the Ming dynasty the only forms of entertainment that were tolerated were those about "righteous men and chaste women, filial sons and obedient grandsons, and those who encourage the people to do good." The Yongle emperor declared that anyone found with banned works "should be killed, together with their entire families." The Qianlong Emperor continued this tradition in the Qing Dynasty. He collected 1,000 dramas and novels from around the country and then banned or censored the one he deemed to be morally or politically unfit.

Yiyin, or “lingering sound,” is an important concept not only in music but in all the Chinese arts. It was described in Confucius-era The Book of Rites as one string plucked on the zither “and three others will reverberate so there is lingering sound.”

Into the 20th century, drama and the arts were judged by Confucian values. Performers were regarded as the scum of the earth and even bought and sold like slaves. Reformers and Communists associated these ideas with backwardness and feudalism and elevated the status of performers.

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Mao with writers and artists in Yannan in 1942

Culture in China Under the Communists

Culture under the Communists has been governed by censorship, ideological controls and the production of works to meet the needs of the state. Since Mao’s time the government has controlled movies, fine arts and books, carefully selecting what people have been exposed to. Mao once said, "There is no such thing as art for art's sake, art that stands above the classes or art that is detached from or independent of politics."

The Communist wanted art, literature and the media to promote Communism, Socialist thought and party goals. Works of art that didn't fit this criteria were often destroyed. Even today, Bibles, skin magazines and novels by controversial writers are confiscated at the borders.

A Ministry of Culture was established by the Communists and it was given far reaching powers to monitor and oversee all art forms and media---literature, music, art, film, television, radio, newspapers, magazines. Entertainers were trained in state schools rather than through apprenticeship as was the norm in the past.

Traditional Chinese arts have suffered under Communist rule. For a long time arts organizations, orchestras and opera companies were essentially run the same way as steel factories with the government paying for everything and controlling everything. Salaries for everybody from the directors to the janitors was paid by the government. Ticket sales didn’t matter from a financial point of view because everything was subsidized. One orchestra director told the New York Times, “There as no such thing as marketing, The government gave us a performance plan and we did it."

Mao once said, “there is no such thing as art for art’s sake.” It is now ironic then that he is the object of so much modernist art and kitsch.

Book: The Party and the Art in China by Richard Krause

UNESCO and Culture Grabs by China?

right Andrew Higgins wrote in the Washington Post, “In 2009 and 2010, more than a quarter of all items inscribed by Paris-based UNESCO on its cultural heritage roster were from China. Many of the items under China’s name are clearly Chinese, such as Peking Opera, acupuncture, dragon boat festivals and Chinese calligraphy. But also listed as Chinese are the epic of Manas, a poem that Kyrgyzstan considers the cornerstone of its national culture, as well as Tibetan Opera, and a Korean farmers dance. [Source: Andrew Higgins, Washington Post, August 10, 2011]

Cecile Duvelle, head of UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage section, said in response to written questions by the Washington Post that a listing does not mean an item “belongs to the state” or that China’s cultural heritage “has more or less value,” but she added that the organization “is nevertheless discussing this unbalanced situation.”

Exactly which “practices, expressions, knowledge and skills” are put on UNESCO’s list gets decided by a U.N. committee made up of officials from 24 member states. And no country has been more active than China in nominating entries---to the chagrin of Mongolians, Kyrgyz, Tibetans and others whose culture is in part now registered as being from China.

When the United Nations first adopted a Convention for the Safeguarding of Intangible Cultural Heritage in 2003, the idea was to promote diversity and help indigenous peoples protect their heritage. Higgins wrote, ‘scholars with no dog in the fight also have been taken aback by a system they complain is driven by bureaucratic process and power politics as much as concerns for cultural authenticity.”

Government Support of the Arts in China

“Although China’s government is pushing for a more market-oriented approach to performing arts, many theaters and arenas rely heavily on the China Arts and Entertainment Group, which is essentially a state-owned company that finances many foreign productions coming to the country, helps send Chinese performers abroad and organizes events like the Beijing Music Festival.” [Source: Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, New York Times, July 9, 2010]

The group was formed in 2005 by merging two government agencies, and is overseen by the Culture Ministry. It is financed by China’s cabinet, called the State Council, but also recently arranged a credit line of as much as 1 billion renminbi ($147 million), from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China. But China Arts and Entertainment is not giving out its money liberally. Some venues have an operating budget from the government but has to rely on sponsorships and ticket sales for programming. [Ibid]

Sponsorship to support the performing arts is still in its infancy in China. Western multinational companies, which often sponsor arts programs in their home nations, are more likely to offer money than are Chinese companies. China Merchants Bank and China Construction Bank are among Chinese companies that have started to sponsor performances and more are showing interest. [Ibid]

In August 2010, the Chinese government said it was considering dropping the death penalty for smuggling cultural relics out of the country. [Source: AP]

Artists and Writers in China Under the Communists

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Old version of
Red Detachment of Women
Mao persecuted intellectuals or tolerated them depending on his mood and political goals. Deng tolerated them as long as they towed the party line. In recent years the arts remain under tight government control but at the same time they have also opened up a lot, especially art.

Artists, writers, scientists and intellectuals who towed the party line have been endorsed and supported by the government. To gain membership to special unions and organizations they had to study at certain approved schools and create works which fit into parameters set by the government. Without government endorsement they were nobodies.

According to Communist theory, the duty of the Communist party when it comes to the arts is to maintain that there is a correct number of artists and writers for society's needs and follow the party line. Artists, musicians and writers are required to submit their work to censors before it was allowed to be presented to the public.

Artists and writers recognized by the government receive a salary, supplies, comfortable private homes or apartments, spacious offices or working space, other perks and markets for their works. Unofficial artists have to support themselves by other means. Boiler room supervisory jobs have traditionally been sought after because they worked 24 hours straight and then had three days off.

The Party and the Arty in China

The Party and the Arty in China: The New Politics of Culture By Richard Curt Kraus is a book that examines the relationship of politics and the arts in the Mao and Deng eras and today. In his review of the book, Oxford’s Matthew D. Johnson wrote: “ The Party and the Arty in China is bursting with insights that are at odds with nearly all conventional (read: journalistic) wisdom concerning cultural and artistic life in the People's Republic.” [Source: Matthew D. Johnson, University of Oxford MCLC Resource Center]

“As Kraus himself states, one goal of this new work is to counteract “idealist myths ... of the artist as a heroic figure, locked in constant struggle against repressed and repressive authority” . Using perspectives from political science, sociology, and history, he draws together observations accumulated during extended academic residences in Fujian and Jiangsu to demonstrate how “politics” has sustained cultural production from 1949 onward. Indeed, one key argument is that politicization of the cultural realm has created an immense community of artists whose livelihoods are now threatened by Dengist economic reforms. Another is that state institutions continue to shape artistry in ways unappreciated by most Western observers.” [Ibid]

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Old version of
Red Detachment of Women
“In its conception, The Party and the Arty is concerned with artists' evolving relationships to two massive and intertwined structures--the cultural bureaucracy and the cultural marketplace...His methodological focus is on institutions of patronage; that is, the state and non-state forces that define, disseminate, and compensate creative labor... While some artists may buck the system, many are, unsurprisingly, deeply involved in personal quests for social status. Kraus argues that although intellectual suffering was undeniably a consequence of Maoist populism and paranoia, state patronage of the arts was far more widespread than under Deng. Forced to turn to the marketplace for economic support, post-Mao artists are thus far more likely to turn their talents to other pursuits, which may also be inimical to state orthodoxy. The result is a fundamental transformation of China's political system. Once “possessing an important dimension that is essentially aesthetic” (p. 4), state power must now compete for cultural hegemony with the very commercial forces its reforms have unleashed.” [Ibid]

“Normalizing Nudity” (Ch. 3) provides an important case study of post-Maoist ambiguity in the regulations governing individual self-expression. By tracking state responses to nude art and depictions of nude human figures, Kraus argues that local responses to national campaigns betray a perfunctory conformism first observed by Daniel C. Lynch in After the Propaganda State (1999). Reassertion of patriarchy has accompanied the gradual creep of a “bread and circus public culture” (p. 98), with the state allowing artists and intellectuals to satisfy their erotic interests in exchange for political quiescence. “The Chinese Censorship Game: New Rules for the Prevention of Art” (Ch. 4) advances Kraus' claim that markets have further encouraged this moderate risqué sensibility by reducing the penalties for sexual or obliquely transgressive references. [Ibid]

“Kraus rejects what he calls the “Godzilla model” of the Chinese arts scene, which portrays artists as free-spirited idealists and state power as brutally malevolent. Instead, he suggests that both sides are motivated by the pursuit of professional and economic security. “Artists as Professionals” (Ch. 5) and “The Price of Beauty” (Ch. 6) address these two themes in full. How have artists attempted to maintain their institutional privileges in the post-Mao era? How do they make money? In answer to both questions, Kraus suggests that researchers must begin from the premise that Chinese artists, taken as a class, have few inherent qualms about mixing art with politics. Market and media change, however, have created a climate in which “all artists feel they must often hustle in ways that are corrosive and demeaning of their artistic integrity.”[Ibid]

“Although income data is sketchy, Kraus seems to be suggesting that economic inequalities are a far more galling reality under Deng than under Mao. Certainly anecdotal evidence and slashed budgets for state cultural institutions suggest as much. Yet if Kraus' analysis belies nostalgia for any particular period, it is (p. 195). The perception of China's arts scene as impoverished by the growing cultural marketplace is a familiar one.” [Ibid]

Book: The Party and the Arty in China: The New Politics of Culture By Richard Curt Kraus (Rowman and Littlefield, 2004).

Propaganda in China

Control of the media and culture is essential for leaders to get their message and agendas across. Mao Zedong once said that control of information and control of the gun are the two pillars of Communist Party power.

In the old days, Communist propaganda had a strong influences on the masses. A single word of phrase from Mao Zedong could mobilize millions. These days propaganda is largely greeted with shrug. Few people tale it seriously anymore.

New policies are still sometimes introduced with old fashioned Communist marketing. Jiang Zemin’s “three represents” policy was inaugurated with a play called the Vanguard of an Era, featuring the stories of six heroes that personify the virtues of the theory. After seeing it a member of a “selected audience” told the People Daily “an audience of hundreds felt their souls fiercely shaken, and or eyes flowed with tears.

The Propaganda Department is headed by the Central leading Group on Propaganda and Ideological Work, whose leader is often a member of the powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo and whose deputy leader is a member of the Politburo. The new The Propaganda Department headquarters is located next to the Zhongnanhai leadership compound.

See Mao, Propaganda, History; Reading Between the Lines, See Media; Censorship in China, See Media, Film, Literature

China’s Cultural Expansion Abroad

Beijing has created almost 300 Confucius institutes around the world, teaching Chinese language and culture, and spent a reported £4bn on expanding state media. It has created a new English language newspaper, Russian and Arabic TV channels and a 24-hour English news station run by the Xinhua state news agency. In a sign of how far the Chinese media reaches, you can buy the European edition of the English-language China Daily in a Sheffield and read Xinhua's Kenyan "mobile newspaper" on your phone in Nairobi. [Source: Tania Branigan, The Guardian, December 8, 2011]

In Boston, China Radio International has claimed the frequency previously owned by WILD-AM "home for classic soul and R&B" to the surprise of listeners. Beijing has also attempted to harness the credibility of established western media, distributing 2.5m copies of China Daily's China Watch supplement in the Washington Post, New York Times, and Daily Telegraph.

Western Culture in China

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Han Han
These days, young Chinese are more interested in money, motorcycles, fashion, sex, rock music, pop art, the NBA, hip hop, karaoke bars, runway models, and black leather miniskirts than either Confucianism or Communism. In Shanghai you can find Wild West bars with waitresses in cowboy outfits and Filipino bands covering Kenny Rogers tunes. At the Golden Age Club half-naked Russian dancers entertain guest while waiters in tuxedos serve them $2,300 bottles of Remy Martin Louis XVII in $1,000-a-night private rooms.

Referring to the introduction of Western culture, Deng once said "when you open the window, flies and mosquitoes come in." Ads for Japanese cars and detergent have been placed over Mao slogans; worker's union halls that once showed anti-imperialist propaganda films now show Rambo movies and sponsor aerobics and ballroom dancing classes; and more people read body building magazines and movie tabloids like World Screen than the Little Red Book.

Attitudes toward Western culture rise and fall. Chinese government allowed the pop groups Wham and Jan and Dean to perform in the 1980s but later closed down discos as a form of "spiritual decay." In 1994 the government allowed the showing of current foreign films but after The Fugitive, with Harrison Ford, played to packed movie houses, the Propaganda Department closed down the film and condemned the circulation of “decadent music and films."

Upset by the dominance of Japanese and Disney characters on television and in comic books, one commentator wrote in the Worker's Daily in 1996, "People cannot but worry about the 'malnutrition' resulting from 'children's one-sided diet' of cultural goods: Watching cartoons has become the most important entertainment for children, but the contents are almost all foreign, which includes monsters, devils and sorcerers." In the popular book China Can Say No, the authors suggested that Hollywood be burned and advised Chinese not to fly Boeing 777 planes.

Westernization, its critics claim, promotes too much individualism and has broken down bonds that unite Chinese.

Culture, Communism and the West in China

Francesco Sisci wrote in Asian Times , “In more than one way, the success of communism in China also derived from the uncritical arrival of Western culture. Many Chinese intellectuals saw communism as the most advanced form of Westernization, and thus China, wishing to catch up with the West, took on the most advanced stage of the culture, skipping other “lesser systems”. It is clear now, after decades of contact with Western culture, that this perception was faulty, and it has caused huge trouble in China.” [Source: Francesco Sisci, Asian Times, April 1, 2010]

‘so in pursuit of “Western cultural models”, China ran like a bulldozer over its culture and its tradition. However, traditions, part of a child's upbringing, are hard to suppress and eliminate. When officially quashed in one area, they reappear elsewhere, possibly in the most backward and conservative form. [Ibid]

“During the 1960s and the Cultural Revolution, inspired by foreign thinkers like Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin, Mao Zedong's Red Guards took revenge on anything foreign: Western music, Western paintings and contacts with “foreign spies” along with destroying “relics” of China's past. The two went hand-in-hand.” [Ibid]

Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist
and his take on the treatment of artists

Foreign Performing Artists in China

Foreigners in the performing arts are increasingly making their presence known in China. On its opening night in May 2010, the Guangzhou Opera House featured Puccini’s Turandot, directed by the Chinese filmmaker Chen Kaige, with Lorin Maazel conducting. The Swedish soprano Irene Theorin and the Canadian tenor Richard Margison sang the lead roles. The Opera House, designed by Zaha Hadid, then was host to Ballet Preljocaj, a French dance company performing the contemporary Snow White with costumes by Jean-Paul Gaultier. That was followed with a concert by Michael Bolton, the American soft-rock singer.[Source: Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop, New York Times, July 9, 2010]

“Tracking the number of foreign performing arts troupes that visit China is difficult. According to data from the Ministry of Culture, the number of state-sponsored cultural exchanges seems to be declining; China’s government invited 44 overseas artistic troupes to perform in 2009, half the number it sought in 2008. But 600 to 700 commercial performances from abroad were staged in 2009, a slight increase from 2008.” [Ibid]

“In June 2010, the China Arts and Entertainment Group and Littlestar Services---the London-based producer of the Abba-inspired musical Mamma Mia!---announced plans to produce a Mandarin-language version of the show. It is scheduled to open in Beijing next June, then travel to Shanghai and Guangzhou before touring elsewhere in Asia.” [Ibid]

“Promoters still think the Chinese business will probably take 10 years to be really significant because the audience that can afford tickets to such shows is still small. Average ticket prices have increased in recent years---seats for the 2006 Phantom in Shanghai averaged about 20 percent less than those on Broadway, but a similar show now would cost only 5 to 10 percent less than in New York.” [Ibid]

There are other obstacles to overcome. “Navigating the Chinese bureaucracy, including censors, and obtaining permits to put on shows can also be daunting for promoters. For instance, a planned production of The Vagina Monologues was scrapped in 2004 by wary officials, but the play made it to China in 2009.” [Ibid]

Some foreign promoters are finding it easier and quicker to make progress by forming joint venturers and managing Chinese entertainment companies. The Nederlander group formed a joint venture with Beijing Time New Century Entertainment in China in 2005 and has since produced four musicals in the country, including 42nd Street and Fame. It also entered into a joint venture with the Eastern Shanghai International Culture, Film and Television Group to manage and operate performance theaters in Shanghai. [Ibid]

Copyright Laws in China

The copyrights laws in China are weak and poorly enforced. Foreign companies want to see them shored up as a way of protecting their interests and combating counterfeiting and piracy

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Jasmine Revolution “Protest” on Wangfujing Street in Beijing

As China has developed its own products and property---intellectual and otherwise---it is more interested in protecting them. In January 2007 a Chinese newspaper---The Beijing News’sued an Internet copyright infringement.

Image Sources: 1, 2 and 4) University of Washington; 3) Ohio State University ; 5) Poster, Landsberger Posters ; Wiki Commons, Red Detachment by Asia Obscura; Liu Bolin, China’s Invisible Man artist, Global Times Chinese: ; Asia Weekly (Han Han)

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2016

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