Commercial break

Contemporary Chinese design imitates western styles and avoids any reference to communism. 

The first time I saw the cast of Michelangelo's David at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, I was shocked by its size - six metres high. At that time, I hadn't yet been to Florence, and I was dumbfounded at seeing the world's most amazing male body. Then some museum guide pointed at a sculpture of a huge fig leaf. "What is that leaf about? Is it also by Michelangelo?" I asked. People in the museum started to laugh. I was told it had been made in London soon after David's arrival, as Queen Victoria had decided that it should be attached to his genitals to spare visiting female dignitaries' blushes. This logic is not obvious to a Chinese brain such as mine - in my country, either we ban the artworks, or we make millions of pirate copies of them for the mass market.

Last week, I wanted to say hello again to my six-metre-high hero, as I had missed the original when I finally visited Florence. I got to the V&A, but somehow I got lost, and found myself in the new exhibition "China Design Now" instead. Under mysterious pink and blue neon lighting, the first picture shows Two Legs Walking, a design by Chen Shaohua. Here is how the curator introduces it:

This is the poster for the first graphic design exhibition held in China (1992). The two legs - one in a modern business suit, the other in a traditional Peking opera costume - are completely entwined. Referring to the ancient legend about Fuxi and Nuwa, the "man and woman" who gave birth to Chinese civilisation, the poster sums up the traditional status of China's design pioneers.

After reading this, I studied the poster again; indeed, there are two legs, symbolising the mixed state of contemporary Chinese culture. But if the modern business suit stands for capitalism and the opera costume for our past, where has our famous socialist revolutionary history gone? Has the communist ideology inherited from Mao not been the main influence on Chinese society over the past 70 years? Even if the west now preoccupies China economically, recent Chinese society was nonetheless born from communist ideology. There definitely are three legs walking in contemporary China. The two-legs analogy could arguably be used for Japan, or even South Korea, countries that did not go through the turmoil of a communist revolution. But how can a contemporary Chinese artist ignore this fundamental period in our history and collective memory? This grey zone of the communist era is very rarely discussed nowadays when Chinese culture is mentioned.

With a third leg walking in my brain, I drifted around an exhibition hall lit solely by colourful neon-art pieces that leave you as blind as if you were in some trendy East End bar. One of my favourite pieces was Ma Liang's Days on the Cotton Candy. The artist is a famous photographer working in advertising in China. In his David Lynch-style photos, girls dressed like fairies stand in an apartment crammed with washing machines, toilet basins, toys and all kinds of home items, their heads covered in cotton wool or some sort of white bubble wrap. I read it as a comic reference to consumption: the bubbly spirit and empty soul of Chinese youth today. I'm not sure the artist really meant to convey this, though. Under the photos, the caption reads: "A presentation of the feeling of being a young person in China." The "feeling"? What sort of feeling? I suspect the uneasy wording is trying to translate the Chinese idea of gan jue. Or is it an indirect way of criticising consumerist China? Is the cotton wool the money - the dollars - covering youthful heads and blinding young eyes? That's it: a youth without head and eyes.

It is perhaps not fair to compare China's modern design world with other, much stronger art forms: Chinese independent cinema, for example (with directors such as Jia Zhangke, Lou Ye, Zhang Yuan), or literature (Zhu Wen, Ma Jian, Su Tong), or conceptual art (Liu Jian Hua, Han Bing). But still, it seems rather obvious that the general trend in current "Chinese" design strives to imitate its western counterpart; Chinese socialist propaganda is not presented here.

The sadness for me is discovering how these artists' approaches are based on a whole nation's eagerness to consume, and how impossible it is for past Chinese culture to transform itself into a practice with its own, individual voice. Another sadness is the unspoken political dilemma: while contemporary Chinese artists try to avoid communist idioms, they fall into a much deeper whirlpool of capitalist styles, and those styles have very few links with China.

At this point, we need to consider China's new middle-class culture. The exhibition booklet to "China Design Now" states:

The middle class in China consists of three categories... The first comprises business people who were self-employed during the 1980s, when self-employment was first allowed and encouraged through the economic reform policy... the second category – employees working in foreign-invested enterprises... The third category comprises administrators of state-owned units, whose official rank entitles them to perks such as newly built apartment blocks under the government's welfare-housing allocation system.

The photo series Great Family Aspirations by Weng Peijun parodies the successful middle-class life in the new China. A young couple with their single child are shown in four different kinds of dress: in graduation robes, with their academic degrees; in wedding costumes for the family photograph; in sportswear for going to the gym; and in business suits for their white-collar life.

The concept of a "middle class" is new in China, and is linked to city culture. I would like to mention a few facts and figures here about China's urbanisation. Since the 1970s, 450 million "peasants" have migrated to China's cities and towns. In the 1980s, one-fifth of the Chinese population lived in cities; by 2000, it was already more than one-third. And it is likely that by 2020 over half of the Chinese population - more than 700 million people - will have settled in the cities. Contrast this figure with the current population of the UK: roughly 60 million people.

The Chinese love to organise everything according to numbers: "five-year plan", "four modernisations", "three disciplines", and so on. So let's have a look at how the "Four Great Things" (Si Da Jian) that everybody should aim for have evolved over the years. In the 1960s, the Four Great Things were: bicycle, watch, sewing machine and radio. From the 1970s to the 1980s, dreams improved, and the Four Great Things became: fridge, TV, tape recorder and electric fan. Since the 1990s, the four status-defining objects are: mobile phone, laptop, car and apartment.

After communist forces came to power in the late 1940s, collective dreams replaced the individual ones. I do believe that these Four Great Things, for all their apparent individualism, still represent the collective dream of a whole nation. However, I think there is an urgent need to debate how Chinese people will continue to live and what they can aim for when they have reached the state of possessing all the material goods they might need.

"Innocent" people always argue that art can and should be immune from political and historical shadows, and that is also how we Chinese used to value a good piece of art. But when I stood in front of the video clips from Wong Kar-wai's In the Mood for Love (also on display at the V&A exhibition), I understood the main point as being Maggie Cheung's exotic qipao dress. As I walked away from the melancholy soundtrack of the film, I wondered: in this day and age, can commercial advertising become the main art form of a whole nation? If so, then China is that nation.

It was getting dark outside, the garden was desolate and the lemon trees were shivering in the English wind. I quickly walked past the plastic pandas and made my way towards Gallery 46, the one where hundreds of Renaissance sculptures are sleeping. I wanted to say hello to the six-metre-high David, and to make contact with Mr Michelangelo.

"China Design Now" is at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London SW7, until 13 July. For more details log on to:

Xiaolu Guo's novels "A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers" and "20 Fragments of a Ravenous Youth" (both published by Chatto & Windus) are available in all good bookshops

This article first appeared in the 31 March 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Is Boris a fake?