Closed, canceled, downsized: Coronavirus hits Chinese culture | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 13.02.2020
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Closed, canceled, downsized: Coronavirus hits Chinese culture

The Forbidden City is closed, Art Basel Hong Kong is canceled: The coronavirus outbreak has shuttered tourist sites and nixed cultural events, both within China and beyond. In artistic circles, talk is of little else.

The coronavirus epidemic has continued to spread, and China's culture and tourism industries have not been spared. While the central state of Hubei and its capital city, Wuhan, have been hardest hit, the entire country remains on edge, and its cultural activities have slowed to a trickle.

A "sense of crisis has been growing dramatically," Du Xiyun says, a 42-year-old artist, curator, art critic and vice director of a museum in Shanghai, told DW in an email from Beijing. "People believe that there will be significant negative consequences," he added.

There isn't much people can do in the fight against "the plague," he says, referring to the virus. Everything depends on medical resources, he adds. 

Art on hold

Coronavirus fears have shuttered much of China's gallery scene, even beyond the mainland. The Art Basel Hong Kong fair planned for mid-March, one of the world's most renowned art fairs and the most important hub for modern art in Asia, has been canceled and postponed until next year.

In the east of China's capital Beijing lies the vibrant Dashanzi art district, also known as 798 Art Zone. Small craft shops line the streets, and galleries show exhibitions at an old factory site. Some of the China's hottest artists show contemporary art and multimedia installations here, from photography and video recordings to paintings and sculptures.

Huang Min, a Chinese artist who has already shown her works at a Berlin gallery, has plans for a July solo exhibition in the district. "I hope that life will be back to normal by then," says the painter. "At the moment, life is standing still here as if someone had pressed the pause button!"

Huang Min in front of large painting (Huangmin)

Huang Min hopes to present her art in the Dashanzi district soon

Effects go beyond China's borders

The cultural paralysis also affects events outside of China. The Chinese National Opera's "National Treasures" New Year's Concert, scheduled to take place February 19 in Berlin, was canceled because the musicians and performers are not allowed to leave the country due to the coronavirus crisis. China has also scaled down its participation in the 70th Berlin International Film Festival, which starts February 20.

Dan Xu (Daniel Biskup)

Dan Xu has family in Shanghai and Beijing

Dan Xu, a curator at the Bonn Foundation for Art and Culture, is well-connected in Chinese arts circles. She stays in touch with family and friends in China via the messaging app WeChat. Conversations revolve around the virus: "The corona epidemic is naturally a big topic there," she says, referring to her chats with colleagues and friends. "90% of all posts are about the virus."

A bleak outlook for tourism

Many of China's major tourist sites, including Disneyland Shanghai, parts of the Great Wall, the Ming tombs and the Yinshan Pagoda Forest, have closed their doors to the public.

In 2018 China's tourism industry generated a turnover of $900 billion (€829 billion; 6.8 trillian Chinese yuan), which contributed 11% to overall economic growth, according to Germany's Handelsblatt newspaper. Some 63 million foreign tourists visited the country the same year.

With the coronavirus epidemic claiming more victims daily, and strict travel requirements and mandatory quarantines in force, this year could be disastrous. The epidemic's effects were already felt as restrictions took force during the start of Chinese New Year celebrations, a time of travel to and within China that features many cultural events.

people wearing protective gear pushing shopping carts (Getty Images)

People try to protect themselves when going grocery shopping in Wuhan

Socializing in the grocery stores

Christian Y. Schmidt, a German journalist who has lived in Beijing since 2005, has been keeping a diary for the German newspaper Der Freitag on how life has come to a standstill in the capital.

Cultural events have been canceled, theaters and museums are closed, and the cinema premieres that are typically a part of the New Year festivities are not taking place, he says. He and his wife leave the apartment wearing a mask, gloves and glasses. "The only place you meet people is in the supermarkets," Schmidt says.

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