two figures stand at a dark intersection, framed by smoke
Courtesy of Marvin Girbig

How Berlin Became an Unlikely Home for China’s Artists

The German capital not only offers freedom, but also invites people to provoke and challenge orthodoxy.

BERLIN—We were packed, about 50 of us, a collection of Germans, Chinese, even a prim-looking, older university lecturer, into a converted storefront in a working-class neighborhood of northwest Berlin. I glanced nervously out the giant street-level windows at the people walking by, concerned that some passing child might peek in and see what was projected on the wall.

On-screen, two women were having sex with gusto. Titled The Hutong Vibe, the short film is regarded as the first feminist queer porn made in China—lesbian sex not produced and marketed for heterosexual men, but an art-house project made for lesbians. Made by Fan Popo, a 34-year-old Chinese LGBTQ activist, it was part of a series of short films he curated.

The film also had added significance: Fan could not have shown it publicly back home. In fact, none of the films in the series will be available in China anytime soon. Fan titled the evening “F*ck the Censorship: Welcome to China, Where Censorship Is Happening All the Time, but Meanwhile People Are Still Doing Naughty Stuff,” an intentionally unwieldy headline, a lexical bludgeon against Beijing’s restrictions.

Fan Popo, an LGBTQ activist, could not have shown his film back home in China. (Courtesy of Marvin Girbig)

Since taking power in 2012, Chinese President Xi Jinping has tightened the Communist Party’s grip on all aspects of life and society, including the arts. He believes that art should serve a nationalist purpose, that nudity is bad, and that contemporary art and architecture are “weird.” Under his leadership, the censorship-review process that all creatives must submit their works to, whether for an art exhibition or a film’s release, has become even more conservative and unpredictable. That has not just had a chilling effect on the country’s artistic community; it has encouraged many to pursue their passion overseas—Fan among them.

Since moving here almost two years ago, Fan has been prolific, writing three scripts, directing two projects, and sitting on the jury for the queer-film prize at the Berlin Film Festival. He’s far from alone, though. I moved here at about the same time as Fan and have come across an array of Chinese artists and writers, performers and filmmakers—all up to no good by the standards of Beijing’s morality police—hungrily taking in the many crazy, dissolute subcultures Berlin has to offer. The city’s affordable housing, the country’s special visa for freelancers and artists, and German-government support for a few of China’s best-known creatives have meant that some of the most interesting developments in modern Chinese culture are happening as much in Berlin as in Beijing.

The artist and activist Ai Weiwei decamped here in 2015, taking his studio—and many of his bright, young Chinese staff—with him. The writer Chun Sue, who once wowed and shocked China with her rebel youth novel, lives here now too. Badiucao, a political cartoonist and activist, also spent time in Berlin. They remind me of earlier generations of immigrant intellectuals, Americans in Paris or European Jews in New York City.

Something similar happened, albeit under different circumstances, in the 1980s following the death of Mao Zedong and the country’s political liberalization. China then permitted a small group of creatives to head overseas. That generation ended up playing a huge role in determining what Chinese contemporary art and culture would look like, both at home and abroad. As their country grew freer, many returned. Now, as its sociopolitical space contracts once again, another wave of creatives is leaving, set to reshape Chinese arts anew.

During my years in Beijing—I was Al Jazeera’s China correspondent from 2007 to 2012—the creative scene exploded, with an exhilarating exchange of ideas between Chinese and foreigners. I fondly recall dinner parties hosted by two foreign correspondents that became, unintentionally and quite organically, something of a regular salon, and the Chinese who showed up, intellectuals and artists among them, were often people who didn’t seem to quite fit into mainstream society there. At the time, I wondered to what extent I was witnessing the kind of snapshot one would recall decades later, once people had achieved fame, and then I could say: “I was there!”

Beijing remains vibrant, of course, but a place such as Berlin not only promises freedom, but actually wants and invites people to provoke and challenge orthodoxy. Some of the excitement I witnessed in Beijing has now been transported here.

A diverse crowd including Germans and Chinese attend Fan Popo’s film night. (Courtesy of Marvin Girbig)

The screening of The Hutong Vibe was part of a double bill alongside Block and Censor, a movie about Fan, who once sued China’s media regulator for yanking another one of his works, a documentary about LGBTQ children and their parents, off the internet. The film, produced by his best friend, the 29-year-old filmmaker Mo Sun, charts Fan’s legal battle to get the documentary shown in his own country, and his early naïveté about just how far he could push the limits. The other films in the series all deal with queer Chinese identity, free expression, and displacement.

“Maybe you can’t show these films in China right at this moment,” Sun told me. “But that doesn’t mean it might not be shown in the future.” It was important, Sun said, to make and showcase these films “for the record.”

Fan and Sun first met at the Beijing LGBT Center, a small nonprofit working on rights and health education. Both were from working-class families elsewhere in China; Beijing was where they came out and where they found many others like them. The studio Sun worked for offered to transfer him to Berlin the same week Fan received a German fellowship. The pair of friends never seriously considered other cultural hubs such as New York or Paris—they were too expensive. The timing was serendipitous; both were sent to Germany at the same time. To some extent, some artists such as Fan and Sun will inevitably move abroad. Still, considerations of their country’s narrowing creative space played a role.

“If you’re a young artist,” says Angie Baecker, a former Beijing-based art critic who is now studying for a doctorate in Chinese culture at the University of Michigan, “your choice is: Do I work with this system in China, or do I find spaces outside of it?”

Xiaoer Liu, 25, is another example. Since moving here three years ago, she’s done everything from wrapping herself up like a mummy in Scotch tape—a literal performance of the restrictions imposed on women—to cubist paintings that she tears to shreds. “I can’t say that the stuff I create here is better than the stuff I create in China,” she told me. But “Chinese society isn’t free right now.”

Berlin has long been something of a hub for artists of all nationalities, not just Chinese, living up to what its former mayor, Klaus Wowereit, once billed as its “poor but sexy” reputation. Though residents complain about the rising cost of living, the German capital is still far cheaper than other major cities, even those in China. At the same time, the German government, a steadfast supporter of human rights and freedom of expression, has played an instrumental role in bringing some of the best-known Chinese over.

Ai Weiwei chose the city in part because of the country’s commitment to his cause: German diplomats frequently checked on him during his years of house arrest and harassment in Beijing, and pressured for his release. When he finally got his passport back, Ai bailed for Berlin. The writer and poet Liao Yiwu moved here after fleeing China and trekking across the border into Vietnam. Most recently, there is Liu Xia. Chancellor Angela Merkel herself pushed for the release of Liu, the wife of the deceased writer and Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo. When freed, Liu headed to Berlin, and while she has opted for a quieter life than some of her compatriots here, an exhibition of her photography opened this month in Germany. After years of house arrest, and frequently in the shadow of her more famous husband, Liu has finally resumed her professional life as an artist.

Decades separate these older exiles from the young Chinese creatives running around town, some of whom might not even relate to the strong dissident identities of Ai, Liao, and Liu—though they certainly know what the Chinese state thinks of them. All these Chinese artists also don’t congregate in the same deliberate manner that Gertrude Stein and others did in Paris in the early 20th century—yet. Shen Han, a visual artist, began hosting events, from dinner parties to studio visits, when he noticed more Chinese like him arriving in Berlin, and built a network that culminated recently in an exhibition composed of works by Chinese living in Europe, titled Yellow Reflection.

As the creative condition worsens in China, artists like Fan have continued to find ways to work, undeterred. Like the Chinese creatives of the 1980s and wanderers in Europe of the 1920s, he and others have found the right place to express themselves, here in Berlin. Still, Fan plans to return home at some point.

“Do we give up? Of course not,” he told me. “Young Chinese want to be the change, even if the political environment is tough. I still have hope.”

Even if he does, veterans such as Ai worry about the negative impact on Chinese culture when the country’s artists are forced abroad, for seemingly indefinite periods of quasi-exile.

“If someone like me faces this kind of dramatic situation, think about the young artist,” Ai told me. He worried that China might lose something greater than just individual films, photographs, or exhibitions. Was it, he wondered, set to “lose a whole generation’s imagination, courage, and their passion for art”?