When Will We See True Chinese Creativity?

A New Era Has Started, Based on an Exploration of China's History Says P.T. Black

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SHANGHAI (AdAgeChina.com) -- When will we see true Chinese creativity? That's the billion RMB question, with implications for everyone from agencies to marketers and manufacturers.

The Chinese government itself is interested to move China beyond manufacturing and into design and innovation. In our new world, creativity will be the engine of economic growth. Where can we see it in China? At times, the search has been depressing.

The mind-bending architecture of new Beijing is mainly the work of foreign architects.

Chinese fashion designers who showed promise five years ago haven't done much recently. When they do, it suffers from either low production quality or a complete lack of user-friendliness.
P.T. Black
P.T. Black
Forget the Chinese movie industry. It's a lost cause entirely, bogged down in government bureaucracy and crippled by domestic piracy.

Of course, it's not fair to put all the blame on the creatives. Economic incentives have barely lined up for them, as copycat culture makes any success short-lived.

The sheer speed at which China's growth has occurred comes with a downside as well. Untested talents have been forced into the limelight too early, before any reasonable period of stretching and learning. It's hard to buckle down for that long apprenticeship in Tokyo when Nike wants your designs now now now.

But all hope is not lost. In fact, I am more hopeful for the future of Chinese design now than I have ever been, because China is moving out of its adolescence and growing up.

On the surface, it seems insane for me to call China adolescent. The country has 5,000 years of history! On top of that, looking at the recent behavior of the rest of the world's institutions, it's clear that China has been very adult indeed. (I'm looking at you, AIG.)

But I am not talking about institutions or governments. I am talking about consumer mentality in a market that is just 30 years old.

Unsurprisingly, it acts like a 30-year-old. When the market was in its infancy in the 1980s, it was grabbing everything it could and fascinated by anything new.

Then it went through adolescence, characterized by an obsession for what everyone else had. You have Starbucks? We want Starbucks! And we want Hello Kitty and Chivas and McDonald's and Louis Vuitton and IKEA and everything else the West has. During this period, the best way to launch something in China was telling Chinese that it is popular elsewhere.

Now, attention is shifting back to China's unique inheritance. This is not a jingoistic screed against the rest of the world. Instead, it is a new cultural confidence that encourages an exploration of China's unique heritage.

A few weeks ago, I sat across from a high school student who brought this mentality to life for me. Hou Xiaoming had just come back from traveling in Henan province where she met a villager who had dedicated his life to making traditional paintings on cornhusks. His works are beautiful, but they are ignored by his villagers. Even his son rejects them, angry with his father for not making more money for the family.

To Ms. Hou, this old man is a national treasure whose stubborn refusal to abandon his tradition is a call to arms. He represents the China that she wants to revitalize and save from the homogenization that economic growth has brought.

Ms. Hou's personal experiences have sensitized her to the old villager's situation. During a year abroad in Pennsylvania she participated in a suburban high school's talent show. Sandwiched between cheerleading displays and hip-hop dances, she played a traditional Chinese musical instrument called the guzheng, which belongs to the zither family of string instruments.

Her audience's enthusiastic welcome of the music inspired her. She now plans to go to an American university and mix her Chinese studies with a more global curriculum. She wants to explore Chinese traditions from all sides, and thinks the western education system is her best bet for applying critical thinking, research, and yes creativity to her distinctly Chinese passions.

Hou Xiaoming is at the leading edge of a trend that is taking root across China. Guzheng classes are increasingly popular, as are Chinese calligraphy and watercolor painting. Creative people are looking at the massive inheritance of Chinese artistry for inspiration. They have stepped out into the world, and have come back inspired to explore their own heritage.

People like Ms. Hou have made me more optimistic about Chinese creativity than I have been in years. The development has been slow, and I don't pretend that we will see sustained creative output coming in the next few years.

But that slowness feels right. It takes time to explore 5,000 years of history and bring it into the modern world. It couldn't happen overnight, but it is happening.

From the ground up, China is starting to examine what it means to be Chinese. And with the chaos in the rest of the world, I for one think it is about time.

P.T. Black is a partner at Jigsaw International, a boutique lifestyle research agency in Shanghai that looks at the direction of change in China, particularly among young adults.

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