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Europe's capital studies China

For the next few months Brussels will teem with Chinese art and culture, with a tea house to boot.

Europalia organizers say the participation of several critical artists in the festival illustrates a more relaxed approach to culture by Chinese authorities.

“It’s a change, an opening,” said leading Belgian painter Luc Tuymans. “It’s a miracle this show happened.”

Tuymans pointed to the cooperation of Chinese authorities in organizing “The State of Things,” which brings together contemporary Belgian artists with some of the most controversial works from the Beijing and Shanghai art scenes.

Tuymans co-organized the show in an unlikely collaboration with a pillar of the Chinese cultural establishment, National Art Museum Director Fan Di’an and Ai Weiwei, a dissident superstar of the Chinese art world who has frequently clashed with the authorities.

Ai, who co-designed Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium, went on to denounce the 2008 games as a public relations sham by the China's communist government.

Ai's blog has become a platform for social criticism and just two months ago he was arrested and, he said, beaten by police while campaigning for an investigation into shoddy building work he blames for the high death toll in last year’s Sichuan earthquake.

However, in Brussels Ai thanked the authorities for “great help” in organizing the exhibition, which contains images of cheerful self mutilation, bubbling black liquids and pastiches of the Socialist Realism style favored in the days of Chairman Mao Zedong.

“This is very important for China and for contemporary art in China,” Ai told reporters, expressing excitement that the show is scheduled to move to the National Museum of Art in Beijing next year.

Novelist Mo Yan, a perennial tip for the Nobel Prize for Literature, is described by his English translator as “the bane of China’s official establishment.” His 1996 historical epic, “Big Breasts and Wide Hips,” was initially banned in his homeland before becoming a much pirated best-seller. Yet he was invited to be part of the official delegation to the Frankfurt fair.

“I agree that it’s strange, but it is also a sign of progress,” Mo said in an interview before starting a Belgian speaking tour as part of Europalia.

“In the 1960s and the 1970s, if I’d written ‘Big Breasts and Wide Hips,’ I would end up in prison or sent into exile in Inner Mongolia. Since the 1980s, things have changed a lot, they criticize my work, but they don’t persecute the person who writes those books. That book may be banned, but I can continue writing.”