XI’AN, JUNE ‌2022

This is the eighth city newsletter.  We shall now take a break to research and write a book.
– Philip Dodd and Enrica Costamagna
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The past is not dead; it is not even past, as the novelist William Faulkner famously said. Of nowhere is this truer than the city of Xi’an in the North-west of China, once probably the most populous city in the world.
It was the heart of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907AD), famed for its cosmopolitan character and technological innovations.
The past strides through the present in Xi’an in various guises – one is edutainment. Like Rome, another heritage laden city, Xi’an offers its residents and visitors an opportunity to step back into the past through an immersive experience of the Tang Dynasty, filtered through an extraordinarily popular television series entitled The Longest Day in Chang’an (the ancient name for Xi’an). Visitors enter a 24000 sqm former textile plant – where there is a market with dining, food merchants, cafés, vintage shops, design studios, creative bazaars and concerts. In the city there are 80 Hanfu-related experience shops where it is possible to rent Hanfu clothes and walk in ‘Chang’an’. In short, Xi’an is a city where at times there seems to be no contradiction between past and present.
Not surprisingly, Xi’an is a huge tourist draw (it is the home of the Terracotta Warriors among much else) and at least until Covid tourism constituted around 12% of Xi’an’s GDP; in 2019 trips to the city exceeded 300 million. Of course the instability of present times has produced problems for this part of Xi’an’s economy. The absence of foreign tourists has been a blow but Chinese staycationers may have made up for the missing foreigners – or may have done so until the recent two months lockdown in the city paused domestic tourism.
At a different level, Xi’an’s past can easily be recruited for present purposes. When India’s president Modi went to China in 2015, long before the recent border skirmishes, or before today’s BRICS summit, he began his visit in Xi’an, invited there by President Xi for various reasons. One was to show India that the two countries share a Buddhist heritage through the figure of the Tang Dynasty Buddhist monk, Xuanzang. Second, he was reminded that Xi’an was historically the eastern most point of the Silk Road, important when President Xi was pushing the Belt and Road Initiative, the modern-day version of the ancient road. There is much less talk now of the Belt and Road initiative, in China generally and in Xi’an in particular. It turns out that road transportation links between Xi’an and Central Asia are more difficult to navigate than foreseen.
More generally, as the capital of the technologically innovative and regionally cosmopolitan Tang Dynasty, Xi’an is a good model for the China that President Xi wants to promote, in initiatives such as the Global Security Initiative and the Global Development Initiative.
A Shanghai friend who has worked in Xi’an for ten years told us that she thinks Xi’an is the ‘real’ China. Even if that makes Shanghai and Beijing somehow ‘unreal’ (much like Trump claimed Washington was not the real America), there may be some truth in the claim that one can learn about wider Chinese trends more easily in Xi’an than in Beijing or Shanghai.
It was the English novelist Thomas Hardy who in the late nineteenth century declared that when the poor have the choice between culture and luxury, they always choose luxury first. This is not necessarily a comfortable observation for those wedded to culture, but it looks to be a general historical truth – and it is certainly the case in Xi’an. The city is in Shaanxi province, one of the homes of the coal industry and it was the ‘coal bosses’ who initially fuelled luxury spending in the city, with stories, legendary or otherwise, of bags full of cash being brought into luxury goods shops. It is certainly the case that there are Rolls Royce and Bentley outlets in Xi’an and the SKP mall in Xi’an, a very high level one, is the only SKP outside Beijing.
More recently, luxury goods spending has been driven by the Xi’an middle class whose disposal income is larger than that of the citizens of first tier cities such as Shanghai. A Xi’an entrepreneur told us that living costs in Xi’an were 50% lower than in Shanghai or Beijing (costs have escalated recently – with house prices rising 46% between 2016 and 2019, according to Sweethome Hurun Global Price Index).
Not far from where we write in central London is a cluster of Xi’an restaurants (good ones as it happens) – and the ‘restaurant experience’ is an important arena in Xi’an’s commercial and cultural economy. It is not surprising that the most popular blogger in Xi’an is ‘Xiaobei is Hungry’ (小贝饿了), a food blogger whose focus is on restaurants and cuisine. Her followers number 1.7 million on Little Red Book and 18.07 million on Douyin.
If the 90s, at least in the West, was the decade of Sex and the City, it now seems to be the time of Food and the City – with a city’s food economy the route to understand social class, demographic distribution and wealth. That old US brand Coca-Cola certainly understands this. As a 44 years old Xi’an friend told us, she remembers drinking her first coke. Now, a younger generation, she argues, needs to be reminded of coke’s pre-eminence and the brand is happy to oblige. Just before the recent lockdown, Coca-Cola staged a pop-up event with an exhibition of its own history in Xi’an; it also sponsors the city stadium, primarily a football stadium. International as much as local f&b brands grasp Xi’an’s potential.
The restaurant sector in Xi’an is particularly distinctive because Xi’an’s cosmopolitan history brought to the city a Muslim population (the Hui), with their own culinary traditions. There is a Muslim food street in the city called Xi’an Huimin Jie, a huge draw for locals and visitors alike. 
Two or three years ago there were articles suggesting that the conflict in Xinjiang might spill over to Xi’an (which has a Muslim population of 50000); that the dual language signs in Huimin Jie had been removed – and only Chinese signs visible. Despite our network, we have been unable to find out in what ways if any the situation has changed during the Covid years. People are more and more careful with sharing ’sensitive’ information on WeChat or email.

‘2018: Xi’an Polytechnich University takes you to see the world!’
Xi’an sees itself as the sister city of Shenzhen – both are cities of technology and innovation – which increases its importance at a moment when technological self-sufficiency is becoming ever-more important to the government. Maybe that is one explanation for the fact that until Covid returned, Xi’an was the fastest growing major city in China.
It was attracting both domestic and international technology company investment, including from Samsung which has invested US$10 billion in the city and the US chip provider Micron.
The city’s tech sector ought to thrive, because unlike Shenzhen, Xi’an is a university city, with more than 50 universities,  depending on what counts – which means lots of tech and engineering graduates.
The big issue for Xi’an is: can it retain its tech talent and also attract talent from elsewhere, whether domestic or foreign? This is a key issue, not least because as the nationalist Global Times acknowledges, ‘the core of the technology competition between the two countries [China and the US] is talent’.
One of our Xi’an friends who should know, says that the issue of young talent leaving Xi’an is still a problem. Other tech entrepreneurs say that immediately after university in Xi’an bright graduates are pulled to the lights of Beijing and Shanghai but later they do return, not closing down their Beijing or Shanghai operation but adding one in Xi’an.
It is true, of course, that with anti-Chinese sentiment in the US and in Europe rising (a London based Chinese entrepreneur has just upped sticks and moved her business to Switzerland post the Ukraine war), then Chinese tech people educated abroad may well be attracted to cities such as Xi’an – where living costs, as we mentioned above, are so much lower than in Shanghai and Beijing.

The prized headgear at the newly opened Shaanxi Archaeological Museum
Talent acquisition is important not only for the tech sector (and where tech begins and culture ends is an increasingly complex matter) but also for the museum sector. Almost everyone knows of the Xi’an Terracotta Warriors which have been on an extended world tour for much of the last ten years – and their home city is marinated in archaeological marvels and antiquities. One of the explanations for why the subway system is not yet complete (it was begun in 2011) is because work has had to be halted whenever excavations reveal – and they do repeatedly – archaeological treasures.
It is not surprising that with such a history Xi’an is rich in museums – 134 registered ones in total. A new Shaanxi Archaeological Museum opened at the end of April and its centrepiece is a Tang Dynasty headgear decorated with gold, silver, jade and pearls. Its restoration has been made possible by laboratory microscopic technologies.
In keeping with President Xi’s passion for Chinese traditions, the Xi’an museums devoted to the past are innovative and inventive – but to continue to be so, they need talent, often educated abroad (museum education in the UK is strong and attractive to Chinese students).
Will the changing landscape between China and the West mean that there will be fewer foreign educated museum professionals – which a city such as Xi’an desperately needs?  It is a pity, as one of our Xi’an friends said, that too many Western museum professionals are inflexible when it comes to providing the help Xi’an museum professionals need rather than what the Westerners think they need.
As is perhaps inevitable in a city loaded with history, the contemporary art scene is much less developed – even though such a scene may be one of the draws for graduates either to stay in Xi’an or to move to the city.
The single star is OCAT (a contemporary art terminal) set up in 2013, showcasing Chinese and foreign art; the first one was founded in Shenzhen in 2005.  Pre-Covid, OCAT Xi’an moved further away from the centre to anchor a new quarter. But that has not diminished its popularity. One of the issues it faces is the gap that exists between the citizens’ understanding of art and that of the museum professionals – which remains, however imaginative OCAT is. As more people come, the issue intensifies. (Alice Wang exhibition at OCAT Xi’an, above.)
In China museum education is critical, given the development of a museum ecology. In the UK, the BBC and television more generally has been the primary educator about contemporary art – helping to broaden the audiences for contemporary art. With the constraints on CCTV, it is not as easy to think of television as the forum for contemporary art understanding – and apps are all very well but they are often quite niche, targeting ‘true believers’ rather than ‘agnostics’.
There have been attempts to nurture an art district in Xi’an, analogous to that of M50 in Shanghai or 798 in Beijing. Our friends tell us that this has not quite worked. One of the issues is that the moment an art district looks as it might be successful, the government steps in to help, appoints an agent – rents rise… and artists have to go elsewhere.
It remains the abiding question in culture whether the Chinese (or any) government can engineer cultural development or whether it has to develop organically. If the latter is the case, then Xi’an’s contemporary art ecology will take some time to develop.
Xi’an does have an art academy but for numerous reasons, including Xi’an’s identification with the President whose father was a key Shaanxi official, it is a conservative or left-leaning academy (not a paradox in China). This means that contemporary art experimentation is not its order of the day. Hanfu clothing and the Tang Dynasty are splendid vacations in the past – but culture isn’t a preserved fruit. It is a developing and unpredictable business. 
CNCC Newsletter will return in August after a summer holiday
Additional research: Gao Jingyi

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