Beijing Backpacking, Day 20: Metro Art, Signs of the Times

One of the murals that has made its way on to Line 2 is a fresh break of tradition.
One of the murals that has made its way on to Line 2 is a fresh break of tradition.

THE SUBWAY SEEMS to be one of the most mundane parts of everyday life for city dwellers. But put yourself in the mindset of a traveller and the subway could be one of the most overlooked parts of a city’s history.

Although it has rapidly expanded in the past 10 years and in the wake of the Beijing Olympics, the Beijing Subway’s origins date back to the Mao era – interestingly enough, the first line opened during the Cultural Revolution (which I found out today is referred to in official documents as the ‘Ten Years of Turmoil’). As such, the earliest stations built have mosaics on the walls carrying revolutionary motifs. Interestingly enough, the two stations serving Tian’anmen Square don’t have murals – but a series of tunnels with security checkpoints linking them to the Square, mostly where visitors camp and take refuge from the scorching sun.

Line 2 offers a slightly different perspective, mostly being constructed during the Reform and Opening Up era. It seems that the government at the time wanted to institute the subway as an opportunity for throwback to tradition after so long. Murals and mosaic depicting various facets of Chinese tradition, history and art are a welcome break from the billboards on the walls at stations.

A notably more bare addition is Line 10: a far more utilitarian look with no art and instead those projector screens displaying ads on the sides of the tunnel for a line that was built at a much faster pace. The only trace of history is the marking on some train carriages of ‘Beijing 2008’ – the event which created such a strict deadline for the line’s completion.

But looking beyond, the metro has brought tradition back in its newest lines. The concourses are designed with multi-coloured archways and high ceilings to give a sense of depth. In locations such as Nanluoguxiang and Yonghegong, one or two walls will bear inscriptions of art. These artworks are no longer merely murals, but also contain writing engraved on stone, or sculptures extending from the walls.

Of course for the everyday routine, no one is bound to have a look at these things. But for those with a keen sense of observation, it’s a subtle way to keep the art alive in places that are so public.

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