What Shanghai’s dynamic art scene reveals about the city’s middle class

As of 2019, Shanghai had 770 art galleries, more than Tokyo, London, Rome, Brussels, and Los Angeles.

In a Brookings photo essay adapted from his new book, Cheng Li explores Shanghai’s art scene and explains how it reflects the evolving cultural dynamics and aesthetic interests of the city’s growing middle class.

Among the many forces shaping China’s domestic transformation and its role on the world stage, none may prove more significant than the rapid emergence and explosive growth of the Chinese middle class. At the center of this story in China is the city of Shanghai.

Any comprehensive study of the middle class in Shanghai must include an exploration of the cultural discourse and dynamic activity of its artistic community. Shanghai historically has been a cradle for Chinese contemporary art, and the city’s art scene has enjoyed longstanding exposure to Western culture.

This does not just stem from Shanghai’s colo­nial legacy or the interaction and influence of the throngs of foreign visitors to the city; it also relates to the large proportion of students from Shanghai who have studied Western and foreign art abroad. Artists from Shanghai were among the first group of Chinese students to study abroad in the 1980s, and most of them later returned to live and work in Shanghai.

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