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Why China’s art market is evolving from knockoffs to new works

Transcript

Judy Woodruff: For the past week, we have been reporting on China's explosive growth and development as a world power.

Tonight, we look at how Chinese artists are recreating what they call the country's cultural aristocracy by producing original art. That is a shift from recent years, when China produced 75 percent of the world's art knockoffs.

The story is part of our ongoing arts and culture coverage, Canvas, and also part of our series "China: Power & Prosperity," produced with the support of the Pulitzer Center.

Special correspondent Katrina Yu begins her story in the village of Dafen.

Katrina Yu: Artist Zeng Muquan has never set foot outside China, but he knows a lot about the streets of Paris. From his studio in the country's southern Guangdong province, he's painted tens of thousands of European scenes.

The 44-year-old earns a living duplicating paintings, and has copied works by some of the world's most famous artists, including van Gogh.

Zeng Muquan (through translator): You know van Gogh's Starry Night? I used to paint three to five copies per day. Every year, I produced 3,000 to 5,000.

Katrina Yu: Artists here used to produce up to 75 percent of the world's duplicates. These were ordered by a souvenir shop in Amsterdam. Each canvas earns him just $5, though he knows they're sold for much more.

He often spends 14 hours a day, seven days a week painting duplicates.

Zeng Muquan (through translator): People say painters here in Dafen Village are no better than copy machines. We started before things became digital, and the quantity was huge. Every copy was almost the same, as if done by machine. But it's not. It's done by hand. And there's a process. And by this process, we become better artists.

Katrina Yu: He lives in Dafen Village and dreams of making his mark on China's art scene. His timing could be just right. Once notorious for forgeries and fakes, China's art market is now forging ahead.

This isn't a mad dash on Black Friday. It's the race to grab a seat at one of the country's most prestigious auction houses, China Guardian. Last year, the firm says it closed $822 million worth of sales. One-third of all art global sales are now made in China. And the country's new wealthy class are a hungry market.

Here, ink paintings, paper fans and calligraphy can sell for millions. With traditional works commanding such high prices, Chinese buyers are starting to see art as a more reliable investment than the stock market.

China Guardian is the country's oldest auction house, founded with the mission of recreating China's cultural aristocracy.

Zhang Qian (through translator): We are now living in a flourishing age. We see more people visiting exhibitions, museums and collections. This shows that the level of people's artistic appreciation and cultural quality are improving.

Peng Liu (through translator): In China, we say our nation has 5,000 years of history, and we can understand Chinese society and humanity through our art and culture.

Katrina Yu: Beijing-based artist Hao Liang says China is slowly restoring its artistic legacy, something lost during the cultural revolution of the 1960s and '70s, when many artists were condemned as counter-revolutionaries.

Hao Liang (through translator): People have loved to collect art since the olden days, whether it was royal collections or private collections. China was a country which favored art, but we had a break in our history. We are restoring it, this respect for art and culture.

Katrina Yu: The 36-year-old's ink paintings have sold to the likes of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris.

But contemporary paintings such as his aren't as sought after in a Chinese market dominated by traditional art, where some consider more modern work heretical.

Hao Liang (through translator): I think it's fair and normal for people to criticize. After all, I'm doing what I want and don't think too much about cultural tradition or what's popular according to the current climate.

Katrina Yu: But that climate is changing, thanks to younger buyers.

Beijing gallery M Woods is popular with millennial art lovers, and often showcases collections by Western artists, including British artist David Hockney.

Visitors to this gallery represent a new generation of Chinese art enthusiasts, educated abroad and increasingly interested in Western work.

But they are the urban elite minority. The majority of Chinese art buyers are middle-income, middle-aged, and buying their art in places like Dafen Village.

Art dealer Jack Ye serves a man looking to decorate his home. Ten years ago, most of his customers were foreigners looking to buy copies of European paintings. Today, he says they're mostly middle-income Chinese looking to buy original Chinese art. He says the change is thanks in large part to a government push to shed China's copycat label.

Jack Ye (through translator): Highly skilled painters or art school graduates were trained and encouraged to create original work. Artistic taste and education is improving. And, in the future, it will be even better.

Katrina Yu: It's that future that Zeng Muquan looks forward to. When his copies are complete, he works on his own art, a fusion of Western and Chinese styles. Zeng says China's growing art market means it's now more profitable for him to be original.

Zeng Muquan (through translator): These days, when customers are interested in my work, they're more generous in what they're willing to pay. As an artist, I dream of producing excellent art of my own, and leaving behind influential work for the next generation.

Katrina Yu: As China's art market develops, artists like Zeng Muquan are producing art that's more reflective of themselves, and hoping for a life spent copying less and creating more.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Katrina Yu in Dafen Village, Guangdong.

Judy Woodruff: Wonderful report.

And on the "NewsHour" online: China is now expected to surpass the U.S. as the number one film market in the world. We look at how the Chinese government uses film industry stars as a form of influence on their public and what happens when these stars find themselves in the crosshairs of Chinese authorities.

All that and more is on our Web site, PBS.org/NewsHour.

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