Inside an artist’s studio in Dafen (All images via Mitch Altman/Flickr)

There was a time not long ago when the Chinese village of Dafen became infamous for cornering the market on oil painting reproductions. Formerly home to some 300 rice growers, Reuters reports the Shenzhen suburb of southern China hosts approximately 8,000 painters and 1,200 galleries devoted to creating imperceptible reproductions of European masters like Van Gogh and Leonardo Da Vinci. Lined with tens of thousands of these canvases drying on clotheslines, the town became the focus of the 2016 documentary China’s Van Goghs, which profiled Zhao Xiaoyong, one of the many artists in the painting district responsible for creating reproductions sold at tourist shops, galleries, and museums.

What was once pejoratively described as something akin to a citadel of copycats is now trying to rebrand itself as an incubator of original art, thanks to a 100 million yuan (~$14.5 million) investment from the local Chinese government that will go toward an art museum and 268 apartments for painters.

But why should China invest millions in a village that produced 4.15 billion yuan (~$601 million) worth of paintings in 2017? Because even that large number pales in comparison to Dafen’s heyday when it was reportedly responsible for 75% of the world’s oil painting reproductions.

Van Goghs air drying in a studio

Indeed, the village has seen its fortunes diminish in the past decade. According to Reuters, artists attribute the slump to the 2008 financial crisis, which quashed foreign demand for reproductions. Additionally, the shift in tastes toward midcentury modern décor with minimalist aesthetics has likely contributed to the general decline of oil painting sales.

Currently, there are only 300 artists living in Dafen who focus on original works, and at least one is highly skeptical that any rebranding push will be effective. Artist Chen Jingyang has worked in Dafen for 12 years. He tells Reuters that “the big buyers know that the market here used to be famous for copies, and it was a low-end market, so not many are coming for the original paintings.”

Yesterday, December 18, marks the 40th anniversary of China’s Open Door Policy, which Deng Xiaoping used to spur foreign investment and industrialization in the country after decades of Mao Zedong’s closed system of community economic development. In 1980, Deng established China’s first Special Economic Zones (SEZ) in the Guangdong and Fujian provinces to attract substantial capital with favorable tax regimes and substantially low wages.

A hallway within Dafen’s oil painting village.

Shenzhen was the first and most effective SEZ, sporting an extremely high growth rate of 40% per annum for a 12 year period between 1981 and 1993 — a rate that was more than 30% higher than the national average at the time.

If the speedy expansion in industrial production helped boost China’s economy, it also marshaled strange social praxis and community engineering centered around the economics of comparative advantage. Like Dafen, there are many other Chinese cities that have longstanding niche specialties. For example, there’s a town five hours south of Shanghai called Qiaotou that manufactures more than 60% of all the world’s buttons.

Zachary Small was a writer at Hyperallergic.