Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 6, April 23 - 29

He yuehua & his beijing design museum
by Inara Cedrins and Ben Davidson

He Yuehua drove a tank in the army and then worked as a high-level official in the Ministry of Electronics. Now he runs a private museum of design that hosts experimental art shows and rock concerts.

He Yuehua is a plump 40 year-old Chinese man. His grey trousers and a heavy round-collared black shirt almost resemble the dowdy garb of a Chinese government official. But he has a roguish grin, the buttons on his shirt are hand-carved, and he is proudly displaying a psychedelic digital painting of his own creation. This is one groovy ganbu.


Mr. He is the brains and the financial patron behind the Beijing Design Museum. The venue opened on Christmas day 1997 (coincidentally Heís birthday) with the intention of both showcasing commercial graphic art and providing much needed space and funding for exhibitions and performances of non-commercial visual art. The museum started out as a place for He to exhibit and store his personal collection of more than 3,000 graphic posters, but in the last two months alone the museum has also hosted a series of cultural events of the kind that cause foreign pundits to pronounce a blooming of another "Beijing Spring." Recent activities include an art exhibition that was prevented by local authorities from opening in its original venue near Tiantan Park and moved to the Design Museum with only a dayís notice; a concert by Cui Jian, the musical darling of unofficial Mainland culture; a performance work by graffiti artist Zhang Dali and an event by Liu Xinhua in which the artist made prints on calligraphy paper with black ink, using certain seldom-printed parts of his body for a stamp.


All of these events attracted audiences of more than 200 people to the Design Museumís basement cafe where I sit on a weekend afternoon listening to He speak about the role he sees for his project. There is no event organized today but there is a small crowd of young people sitting on Frank Lloyd Wright-looking chairs, drinking tea and talking about the film set they are rigging up in the exhibition space on the ground floor. The cafeís brick walls are hung with artifacts and posters and even the lamps hanging from the ceiling are box frames for posters with little twinkly lights inside. A solitary white dove perched on one of the lamps coos soothingly.


He says his interest in art began as a child when with the encouragement of his mother he attended painting classes at a youth cultural palace. This did not lead to a career in the arts however. Heís teenage years were not the best of times to be an artist: he was 22 when the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) ended. Chinaís educational institutions were in chaos and He decided to join the PLA rather than attempt to go to university. He was posted to the northwest province of Shanxi, where he drove a tank for four years. Emerging from the army he landed an enviable assignment as assistant to the head of the Ministry of Electronics, a government branch that counts Jiang Zemin among its former leaders. This job provided more spare time than driving a tank and He was able to complete a degree in Fine Art by attending night classes at the Central Academy of Arts.

He resigned from government service in 1987 and immediately began to organize design-related events. His first big project was a collaboration with the Goethe Institute in Beijing on a large retrospective of photographs and artifacts chronicling 150 years of German design. This was followed by numerous smaller scale exhibitions of international posters. In 1991 He organized the first Mainland exhibition of design work done on Apple Macintosh computers - the machines that revolutionized the publishing and design industries.

He understood very early how important computers would become. "Even before the internet," he says, "I realized that the language of computers, not English or Chinese or Esperanto, is the true international language." He is still one of the few Chinese artists whose only tool is a computer. His series of vividly colored pictures entitled Soul Images (xin xiang) were created using only an Apple Mac, but the illusion of texture is so convincing that it makes you want to touch the images to check that thereís no paint there.

There are two humming computers with large monitors in Heís office on the second floor of the Design Museum. They are in continuous use for commercial design projects that help fund the museum, designing exhibition catalogues and books, updating the museumís new website ( and for creating Heís own art. Both computers are in use when I enter the office: two people are doing the final proofing of a catalogue for an upcoming exhibition. A constant stream of people comes into the office with questions. He answers everyone with a friendly smile and without a hint of formality. Despite six years in a government ministry, he does not seem to need a status-boosting private office or a large, intimidating desk.


The office also provides temporary storage space for hundreds of posters from all over the world. Like the designers whose work has been shown in the museum, the majority of the posters are from China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, but Europe and America are well-represented also.

Some of these posters are from previous exhibitions and competitions. These events lead to the publication of design books, catalogues and fine art posters. He has close ties with museums in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Macao and Germany; these special relationships have fostered an exchange of art exhibits with America, Japan, Germany, France, Hong Kong, Macao, Thailand and Belize. Like many Chinese intellectuals since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) He thinks China has a lot to learn from other countries, but he doesnít want Chinese culture to disappear. Instead of the ultra-nationalist terms coined by mandarins of the Qing and current dynasties, He speaks with the vocabulary of Marshal Mcluhan: "I like the global village, but we are in the villageís Chinese street (tangrenjie). We canít follow foreign trends blindly because our street has some unique things that should be encouraged to develop on their own."

He arranged the Chinese Poster Contest in 1996 at the International Trade Center in Beijing. The 1998 Chinese Design: 100 Masterpieces show at the Design Museum traveled to Macao. The books published from these exhibits document the development of design in this country, and He remarks that there has been noticeable progress in recent years.

The Design Museum exists to speed up that progress. Although there are now local Chinese designers whose work is up to international standard, He says ordinary Chinese people are still not aware of the possibilities of art and design.

"There is a crisis of belief in China. Most people donít believe in religion any more, nor any of the old ideologies, so what is left but vulgar consumerism? I donít want China to become spiritually empty. I think that art - and that includes good design - can help fill the void left by the loss of the old ideas."


He doesnít see a big difference between fine art and the applied commercial art of the design industry. The museum hosts events of both kinds "because art and design both come from society and affect society."

"So-called avant-garde art," he says with a grin, "is the same as the design of an instant noodle box. Fine art influences the ideas of a very small circle of people, but one of those people might later design an instant noodle box that millions of other people will see."

In addition to exhibition space, the Design Museum provides resources and financial support for artists and designers. Wang Wangwang, who designed the album covers of Cui Jianís last two records, has a studio in the museum and there are other artists and designers working there rent free. He does not charge artists and curators for exhibition space and often gives financial and technical assistance to produce catalogues, an example being the upcoming Departure from China exhibition (see end of article for more information).


I ask how He feels about spending his money on loss-making exhibitions with no official subsidies while his former ministerial colleagues are either in business for themselves or still within a snoutís reach of the government trough. Drawing on his tenth Marlboro of our interview he says:

"China has plenty of talented people but very few people willing to take risks. Itís difficult being the first one to eat a crab, but after you eat it other people see that itís good. I feel that what I am doing has significance and value. If I die tomorrow, at least I am doing something worthwhile today."

The Beijing Design Museum
56 Kunminghu Nanlu, Haidian District
located two kilometers west of the Shangri-La Hotel
Hours: daily 9 am-8 pm, admission free
Telephone: 8843-3585

Future Exhibits:
- Poster art from Japan after World War II
- Danish and Swedish Design: consumer products, furniture and environmental design.
- Design 2000 Project: works by artists from more than 50 countries to celebrate the end of the millennium.

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