Chinese checkers

The first sign that inner China is as much a part of the economic success story of the People’s Republic as its eastern seaboard is visible right away at Chengdu airport. From the transit buses that take passengers from aircraft to terminal, a gigantic new structure can be seen, the enormous scale of building familiar to those coming in to this central province from Guangzhou, Shanghai or Beijing.

By Rahul Goswami

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Published: Fri 17 Jun 2011, 11:04 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 7:38 AM

A new international airport is being built, and its towering whalebone-shaped arches soar above the flat Chengdu plain, symbolising the importance of this urban centre to China.

Modern Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province — fabled for its historicity and its place in the Three Kingdoms of old — and is the core of the province’s economic and cultural development.

Covering an area of 12,100 square kilometres, the agglomeration welds together nine districts, four county-level cities and six counties under a single jurisdiction which contains a combined population of over 14 million (Greece has 11.3 million). Even by China’s gargantuan standards, this is a large, economically powerful city that anchors the south-western region of the country. For the central planners and administrators of the People’s Republic, Chengdu is a ‘national pilot zone’ in which comprehensive reform is taking place to achieve balanced urban-rural development. That is exactly the context in which Chengdu’s drive as a cultural centre becomes clear, for its helps balance the dominance of Beijing and Shanghai. For a decade, little noticed by the world outside, the city’s administration has pursued its urban reform agenda with zeal and sensitivity. These efforts have brought to Chengdu national awards such as Best Chinese Tourist City and National Model City for Environmental Protection.

It is this focus that has turned historical Chengdu into China’s third largest arts centre. Now, with the Chengdu International Festival of Intangible Cultural Heritage having just concluded its third spectacular edition, the capital of Sichuan is already reckoned as the emerging global centre of intangible cultural heritage studies, exhibitions and academic exchange (see box, China’s Milestone Cultural Law). The city’s new Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) Park is a sprawling landscaped area at the centre of which lies the specially-designed festival centre and exposition halls. Here, troupes and performers, artistes and musicians from all over the world gather once every two years to present their cultural heritage and exchange learning. The ICH Park shows off the city administration’s determination to achieve a difficult synthesis - cultural tourism and established best practices for safeguarding of cultural practices and forms. Older but only relatively so are the Nongyuan International Art Village and five other art centres, which together play an important role in the development of Sichuan’s lively arts culture. Hence the success of the Chengdu Biennale — this year will see its fifth edition (30 September to 30 October). One goal of Biennale 2011 is to create harmony between Chinese and Western cultures and art forms. It is separated into three areas, each with a different theme: contemporary art, international design, and international architecture. The curators of this year’s Biennale plan to invite artists and architects from around the globe. They will be joined by art agencies and studios from Europe, the US and Asian countries.

In 2010, the city administration came up with an industrial growth blueprint for 13 industrial areas under its supervision. This is unremarkable in contemporary China. The difference in Chengdu was that part of its plan was the Eastern Creative New Town (the venue of the Biennale) which is seen as a nucleus for the development of creativity. The new town, which covers a 41-square-kilometre area, is eight kilometres from the downtown area. It contains Qingling Lake, on 107 hectares, and the Dongfeng Canal which serve as the city’s wetlands, and are meant to improve the urban ecology and serve as a link to ancient water management practices and knowledge.

The new town is a place in which culture and creativity integrate, with business, with urban China’s startling modernity, and which encourages green city development. It combines Chengdu style and culture as a city-within-the-city and is gaining some fame outside China. Unofficial estimates are that by attracting top enterprises and carrying out major urban reform, Chengdu’s creative industries will be worth more than 4 billion yuan (about USD 615 million) by 2015, and the new town will be an industry leader.

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