When thinking of China, what first comes to my mind is the semester I spent in Fujian Province as an English teacher in 2002 and the Olympics of 2008 when Chinese officials felt compelled to have a nine-year-old girl lip-synch "Ode to the Motherland" during the Olympic Opening Ceremonies because the seven-year-old girl who actually sang the song wasn’t considered cute enough. I had many discussions with students about the Asian concept of "face," which basically translates into "what your neighbor thinks of you is most important."
"China, Portrait of a Country" (Taschen 2008) is a huge and heavy tome that reveals China from 1949 to the present day. Editing was completed by photographer Liu Heung Shin who, with his AP Moscow colleagues, won the Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography in 1992 as a result of their reportage documenting the collapse of the Soviet Union. As I first glanced through, I was expecting a fair amount of propaganda-material on display (and I found it, but some of it was also documented as having been used as propaganda). Ultimately, there is much more to this book and it makes for an interesting reading of the last 60 years of Chinese history.
The variety of scenes displayed is impressive – from Mao relaxing on the beach at Beidaibe with his daugther in the company of other leaders’ children in 1954 to senior party leaders of Liaoning province being humiliated in a public denunciation rally in 1966; from peasants in rural Hebei province outside Beijing who power a manual water pump to Pu Jie to the younger brother of the last Qing emperor, Pu Yi, who sat for a portrait at his former residence in the Forbidden City in Beijing in 1980. Below this last photo one reads this formidable quote by the writer, philosopher, and inventor of the Chinese tywriter, Lin Yutang (1895-1976): "In China one does not have to learn to become a realist: here one is born as a realist."
Thankfully, the book comes with illuminating texts. In other words, this is not a picture book, but a good documentary of Chinese reality, explaining what we look at, providing historical context and helping us to put what we see into perspective.
Liu Heung Shing was born in 1951 in Hong Kong (then under British rule) and went to New York in 1970 to study. Says the editor of his education, "In the final year of my studies, I took a course in photography with famed Life magazine photographer Gjon Mili. This one semester was to shape the rest of my life: upon graduation, I followed Mili and took an internship at Life magazine. Wholesale Loose Diamonds . This put me in the right place, at the right time, for following the normalization of Sino-American diplomatic relations in 1979. Then I was given an assignment in China, which made me the first Chinese foreign correspondent to be sent to Beijing by Time magazine, and later joined the Associated Press." In other words, Liu has the dual perspective of a Chinese national who lived abroad.
Liu saw an opportunity to present China more precisely. "Since 1976, a number of photography books about the People’s Republic have been published by both foreign and domestic publishers. The paradoxes of China do not seem obvious in these books. China has been an elusive subject for editors in New York, London, or Paris. Editors well-versed in the language of photography nevertheless encountered a "Chinese wall" when dealing with official institutions in China, and with its myriad socialist doctrines," he explains.
By including the contributions of 88 different Chinese photographers, Liu more accurately reflected the depth of China in his collection. This in itself is remarkable and likewise are the pictures. I personally look forward to a book showing photos of China taken by both Chinese and non-Chinese photographers.
Spending time with this book is a lesson in history and a learning experience. Here are some of the things that I found particularly interesting:
• Photography was introduced to China in the 19th century by European explorers. The first Chinese photographers were interested primarily in landscapes and portraits. Why? "For thousands of years the Chinese aesthetic was molded by Taoist principles of man in harmony with nature: an aesthetic that was honed in particular in brush paintings and landscapes," explains Liu.
• Mao himself acted as photo editor "in deciding which photographs of the historic handshake in 1972 between Nixon and Zhou were to be released to the press."
• "As the 1990s unfolded, a preference for investigative photography emerged." In other words, this was the beginning of Chinese documentary photography. "Jiang Jian portrayed ordinary people from small communities in rural areas or small towns. Wu Jialin looked at life in the provinces, in mountain regions, and outlying towns, and Yang Yankang traveled the length and breadth of the country seeking out religious communities in rural areas."
• "In the year 1996, photography found itself commandeered by the contemporary-art scene … By 1998, the art world had become obsessed with photography."
The photos in this book appear in chronological order; they show scenes from the spectacular to the mundane, from Shanghai’s famed Xiangyang market to victims of a traffic accident using their mobile phones ("to report the accident" the caption says, but who knows?). A very impressive shot shows the aftermath of a flood in the city of Wuzhou (most of the Chinese teachers in Fujian, where I taught, came from Wuzhou – it feels strange to look at a picture of their devasted city and to learn that such floods occur every year).
For most of the last 150 years (since photography came to China, that is), Western photographers, anthropologists, travelers etc. who took photos of China "tended to see China as an exotic, oriental Muse," writes Karen Smith, an art critic based in Beijing. Her statement is certainly true, for outsiders often see exoticism where locals do not. Anyway, is there something wrong with that?