Poets profit in a cultural revolution

John Garnaut Asia Economics Correspondent in Beijing
November 20, 2007

LIANG XIAOBIN is most famous for his poem China, I've Lost My Key. It was about how much fun it was to "run wildly" and "cheer" during the Cultural Revolution - and how little sense it all makes looking back.

Last month Liang auctioned the poem's original manuscript for 80,000 yuan ($12,100). If the Cultural Revolution was difficult to understand, he says, then today's Chinese art market is insane.

"People don't know anything about the value of art," he says. "They don't even talk about it, or know what is good or bad."

And yet China's new rich are snapping up paintings, sculptures and, most recently, poetry manuscripts, in an insatiable investment frenzy. Earlier this month a Chinese buyer forked out a record 80 million yuan for a Ming Dynasty painting called The Red Cliff Handscroll, by the artist Qiu Ying.

Liang, voted China's best poet by China Central Television in 2004, sold a second poem for 70,000 yuan.

Ye Kuangzheng, a young poet and critic, has sold the early scribblings for one of his poems for 110,000 yuan. "I didn't know these things were worth any money," he says, holding up a fistful of poem drafts which he plans to put on the market soon.

And by the end of China's first major poetry auction, at the Kerry Centre in central Beijing, those five- and six-figure price tags looked like bargains.

The Sichuan poet Li Yawei sold the manuscript for his poem The Chinese Department for 1.1 million yuan.

Zhu Wei, a well-known painter and sculptor who specialises in political satire, says he is so disgusted with the tasteless investment debauchery that he has gone on strike. "I don't want people to think my work is just opportunistic," he says.

In Zhu's view, "artists" with little time and less talent are churning out what they know investors will buy. "At parties these days artists don't talk about art - they ask if you've bought a house, or what kind of car you drive, or your latest auction result," he says.

As with many of China's frothing asset markets, the art bubble is attracting protests of foul play. One Hong Kong art buyer says her well-known gallery refuses to buy in the current environment because traders are routinely buying their own works at inflated prices to create an impression of hot demand.

The poet Liang says he is still waiting to be paid. He won't be surprised if the money doesn't come, nor will he be too worried. Poets aren't accustomed to receiving money, he says.

"Twenty years ago we were paid one yuan a word, and we're still being paid one yuan per word," he says. "Being a poet is not even a real profession in this society."