Workshop of the world, fine arts division

Maybe this is the reason I ended up as a reporter: unless I've seen something with my own eyes, it's hard for me to think of it as real. Yes, of course, everyone is like this to some degree. And yes, of course, I believe in the Straits of Gibraltar and Antarctica, even though I haven't seen either of them. But I think there are people who can sketch out realms in their minds without personally having visited them. This would be a convenient skill for, say, a novelist. I understood, in concept, what the Panama Canal was like, or Cape Horn, or an electronics factory in China. But it was only after I actually saw them that I was able to think, Ah! Now I get what people have been talking about.

For later discussion: whether a relative weakness of imaginative function is a feature or a bug in a journalist.

Which brings us to the Dafen "art factory village" outside Shenzhen, in southern China. I had heard a lot about Dafen, including in a very good story by Evan Osnos of the Chicago Tribune early this year. (The story seems no longer to be on the Tribune's site. For reference, it was published on February 13, 2007. Update: now on line here.) But only this weekend did I see it, guided by Liam Casey, the Irish "Mr. China" I described a few months ago in an article about Shenzhen's more conventional factories. Now that I've seen it -- my lord!

The main point is: in one sprawling area are many hundreds of individual art factories, in which teams of artists crank out hand-painted replicas of any sort of picture you can imagine. European old masters. Andy Warhol. Gustav Klimt. Classic Chinese landscapes. Manet. Audubon. Botero. The super-hot and faddish contemporary Chinese artist Yue Minjun, whose paintings and sculptures all feature people wearing enormous grins. Thomas Kinkade, the "Painter of Light." Walter Keane, the "Painter of Mawkish Big-Eyed Kids."

This and more is on sale, priced more or less by the square meter. We saw suppliers delivering huge rolls of canvas, to be converted into "commodity art" -- which is what the English sign on one store said. A few pictures below (click for larger versions.) But if you're anything like me, you'll need to go see it for yourself.

Typical street scene in Dafen:

Reassuring information about the supply chain:

Warhol; wildlife kitsch; Buddhist art:

One artist, many genres:


Buddha, Venus, Hu Jintao:

Great Leaders series, including: Deng Xiaoping, Hu Jintao, Stalin, Ho Chi Minh (I assume)(no - see below)*, the young Mao, and two of my fellow Americans.
Update: *Reader Ernest Chan points out that the picture is not of Ho Chi Minh; it's actually of the Chinese painter Qi Baishi. Thanks for the correction, and I'm glad I said "I assume." Also, in context, you can understand the mistake!

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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