This article originally appeared on ChinaFile’s multimedia section.
If you’re not dead yet and you were never very famous, can you still get a street named after you in Beijing? You can if you’re 27-year-old artist Ge Yulu. Open Google Maps, enter his name, and there you will find a 1,476-foot-long street that stretches a few blocks, east of the Third Ring Road, in Beijing’s affluent Chaoyang district.
All it took was an official-looking, self-made street sign. Ge, whose three-character Chinese name conveniently ends with the character 路, “road,” put up the sign with his name on it as an art project in 2013, intending, he explains, to explore the relationship “between self-identification and public space.” He looked for nameless roads in Beijing, where his graduate school, the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, is located, where he could post homemade street signs bearing his name.
In 2014, to his surprise, he discovered that one street he had christened now appeared under his name in AutoNavi maps, an app that is used by both the public and for geographical name searches on the website of China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs. By the end of 2016, one could use “Ge Yu Lu” to locate the street on all major map apps. As part of his evolving project, he also collected receipts showing him taking taxis and picking up deliveries on “Ge Yu Lu.”
The “error” captured something quintessential about the friction between China’s tight state controls and the looser, improvisational, often frontier-like side of daily life in its rapidly growing cities. People began to debate Ge Yu Road’s significance online. On July 9, 2017, a user on Zhihu, China’s Quora-like Q&A website, wrote about the story of “Ge Yu Road” as an answer to the question “What are skills that don’t seem easy but actually everyone can acquire?” The story soon went viral. Some argued “Ge Yu Lu” remedied a deficiency in city management and made life in the neighborhood more convenient, while others criticized Ge for his transgression.
On July 12, the Beijing Municipal Commission of Urban Planning posted on its official Weibo account that the street actually had had an official name since 2005. Later, the local street office further explained that because the street had been under temporary management of a property developer it didn’t have a street sign yet.
Despite voices calling for the street to remain Ge Yu Lu, city authorities removed Ge’s sign on July 13. Chinese maps followed suit, and the street resumed its decade-long “anonymity” for another 10 days, until on July 23 a new sign appeared for “Baiziwannanyi Road,” and the road had a name again, this time officially.