Everyday creativity of ordinary people

PUBLISHED : Monday, 30 June, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 30 June, 2008, 12:00am

South Beauty restaurants have it, Beijing's Dashanzi art district has it and President Hu Jintao called for more of it. 'It' is creativity, which along with its relation, innovation, is a big theme on the mainland.

Mr Hu told a national gathering of hundreds of scientists and engineers in Beijing last week: 'Creativity builds the core to national competitiveness.'

The mainland is determined to be - as one researcher put it - more than a maker of 'shirts and boots'. To move up the value chain the country needs to be more inventive and thoughtful in its use of resources, thinking outside the lo-tech, energy-hungry manufacturing box.

The mainland has a reputation as a source of little more than cheap copies produced by straitjacketed workers, but Kunal Sinha writes in his book China's Creative Imperative that this characterisation misses the nation's history as a well-spring of ingenuity, and the creativity which is transforming mainland society and business today - from property development to paper swans.

Sinha starts with two chapters, covering Chinese inventiveness through the ages, and the social upheavals of the 20th century.

He then goes on to look at developments in the last few decades in music, visual arts, the small and the big screen, fashion and design. Rocker Cui Jian, pianist Lang Lang and artist Zhang Dali get a mention, as do lesser knowns such as some Zhejiang University design students with their take on the microwave oven.

And Sinha gives examples of everyday creativity displayed by ordinary people. This throws up a wedding album, personalised T-shirts and a bouquet of teddy bears. 'Indeed, for contemporary China, creativity is the reform that is driving social progress,' he says.

He wraps up by pulling apart a few myths about creativity in the country. One of his ideas that stands out is that individualism is not a prerequisite for creativity.

Another is that self-expression is increasingly being played out in the digital world, where access to cheap, quality technology, including blog templates and digital video, is giving people more informal outlets. 'Literate and opinionated ... blogs are the most widely available form of free expression that China has ever seen,' he says.

Sinha describes China's Creative Imperative as the 'result of a year-long journey through the creative landscape', but he does not always succeed in carrying the reader with him.

Some of the ways people describe the creative process sound generic; and readers can be forgiven for drifting off in jargon-filled passages: the thing about creativity is that you know it when you see it.

And the thought of children all over the world practising on the 250,000 violins churned out by the mainland each year is somehow a bit chilling. But Sinha's enthusiasm is infectious, and his magpie approach results in a lot of evidence that China is a mother of invention.