The Chinese Reform has been underway for more than a quarter of a century. This historical social transformation is one in which all of Chinese society is moving toward urbanization. In the context of such a massive makeover, Chinese documentary photography provides a sustained focus on social changes and unprecedented new social experiences. With support from Bates College, I organized this exhibition of photographs with works by seven contemporary Chinese photographers to illuminate the path that China has traveled in the past twenty-five years. The exhibition is intended to illustrate changes in Chinese society to an American audience.
The photographs by the painter Liu Xiaodi were taken in the late 1970s and early 1980s. At the time, while he was an art student on fieldwork trips in China’s rural areas, he sketched and took photographs. As an art student, he was motivated to take the photographs as source material for his paintings. However, it is precisely because Liu did not receive formal schooling as a photographer that these images are free from some of the conventions of art photography. Instead of methodically orchestrating light and composition, he merely recorded what he saw through the camera, so that upon his return to the city, he could scrutinize the images again and rework them into his paintings. Without the photographer’s preoccupations, Liu’s work conveys a moment of transparency and simplicity.
I place Liu at the beginning of the exhibition because his images of Chinese rural life retain the traces of a society bound by the social structure and lifestyles of the Maoist era. Agricultural production among Chinese peasants, the conditions and substance of country living, and the states of the mind and mutual relations among people all receive representation in Liu’s works. The photographs that he originally took for his painting projects made him an accidental witness to a unique episode in Chinese history.
Compared with Liu Xiaodi’s non-conceptual approach, Jiang Jian projects a distinctive formal and conceptual awareness in his portraits taken in Henan province during the 1990s. His technique has an apparent and misleading straightforwardness. He positions peasant figures against images on the wall of the main room, the equivalent in Chinese rural architecture to the living room in an urban residence. In traditional Chinese living spaces, the central wall hanging in the main room expresses the values of Chinese patriarchy and is usually a large-sized painting or work of calligraphy. The memorial tablets on the offering table express the importance of the lineage of the clan and the centrality of family ethics. Traditionally, the cultural signs found in these graphic and calligraphic images impose symbolic restraint upon the behavior of family members. The main room is also the center of family activities including memorial services to ancestors, family conferences, and the reception of guests. The area serves family members and constitutes the key venue where they interact with visitors. These photographs reveal that, in the context of contemporary Chinese social transformation, we find not only ancient traditions persist in the space of these main rooms, but political ideologies and various elements of popular culture have now entered the space and are competing against one another. Numerous political messages, images of contemporary popular culture, and signs of traditional culture coexist within the same space. Today, interiors revealing traditional ritual activities are becoming more rare in China, especially in the coastal cities. They are being replaced by décor evoking Western-style living rooms. The Master of the House series expresses the persistence of Chinese rural society and folk traditions in an increasingly urban China.
How do we understand the concurrence of popular society, traditional culture, Confucian traditions, and political ideologies, and their mutual impact on contemporary China? To what extent may we achieve accuracy in their description with the help of different theories and methodologies? Many of us are facing these questions. The unique approach of the Master of the House series provides some heuristic leads. Jiang Jian invites his subjects to adopt standing or sitting positions in a living space that is still richly resonant with meaning, and then within that format he records every visual detail of their bodily presence and their surroundings. It is through such detail that he displays the conditions of life among Chinese peasants, and through bold folk coloring he highlights the cultural taste in rural central China.
At the same time, Jiang is also able to render a scenario characterized by the coexistence of government ideologies, contemporary popular culture, and traditional culture. Of course, what we may further learn from the photographs is that the process of urbanization is also one in which the values of urban living begin to be widely circulated and to take root in rural areas. Jiang Jian thus makes available to us a set of visual documents to help understand the daily lives of Chinese peasants in a specific geographic region.
Through the 1990s, Zhang
Xinmin, from Guangdong province, was engaged in a colossal visual project:
Besiege the City by the Country: The Long March of Chinese Peasants to
the City. This project consisted of three
parts: Village and Small Town Life, To the City, and The City. In a panoramic sweep, Zhang tried to capture the single most significant event in the contemporary transformation of Chinese society: peasants’ departure
from their land and their integration into city life. Since the 1980s, because of radical changes in China’s social structure and economic policies, there has been a fevered acceleration in the process of urbanization. Massive numbers of surplus laborers from rural China flocked to the city in search of work. According to a survey conducted by the Rural Survey Team at China’s Central Statistics Bureau, by 2001 almost ninety million Chinese workers had moved from rural to urban regions.
However, for peasant workers, the prospects for life and work in the city have not been good. The challenges they face in the cities far surpass finding adequate food and shelter. Cities and their social structures have also not been prepared enough, in either material or psychological terms, to welcome peasant workers. Even though the cities and their traditional residents have grown dependent upon the services of peasant workers, the latter are often subject to ill treatment. Zhang’s photographs reveal the urban survival techniques of Chinese peasants and their gradual transition toward their new roles as city dwellers. The moments he captures forcefully convey the details of peasant life in the city, whether it is the taking of pictures for identification cards, which is the first step toward finding a job in the city, or the pin-ups of voluptuous women and the blown-up images of a Chinese banknote decorating their mosquito-netted bunks.
Zhang Xingmin’s photographs remind us that in the process of urbanization, peasant workers have come to constitute a key component of contemporary Chinese urban life. Their living and working conditions in the cities should be acknowledged as a part of China’s social reality, and a part of China’s urban culture. Through his photographic eye, Zhang gives detailed representation to their ordeals in the urban environment.
In the 1990s, urbanization in China grew at an extraordinary pace. Many social tensions intensified and became highly visible. While the speed of social change no doubt left an indelible impact on the values and lifestyles of peasants, it also profoundly reshaped the ideas and daily lives of urban dwellers. Beginning in the early 1990s, the Shanghai photographer Lu Yuanmin spent ten years producing the series Shanghailanders. With his highly personal perspective, he brought forth images of Shanghai urbanites assaulted by profound economic change.
At the center of Lu Yuanmin’s photographs is a cohort of Shanghai residents who maintained their habitual ways of living on the eve of radical upheavals in Chinese society. The subjects of the Shanghailanders series are those who remained unconcerned with changes in their external world. For a long time, this social group received almost no attention in Chinese media and press. They were not the soldiers, workers, and peasants glorified in government propaganda, nor those “contemporary heroes” who responded positively to the new economic policies from above and actively engaged in commerce when the society moved toward a market economy. These were instead the people left behind by their own times. Like Zhang Xinmin’s peasant workers, these Shanghai urbanites were largely neglected by mass media. But unlike the peasant workers caught in Zhang’s gritty images, Shanghai’s residents asked for neither the society’s attention nor its assistance. They were a self-sufficient lot. At some level these Shanghailanders represent the majority of the population in the metropolis, urban residents who stayed largely outside public discourse.
In terms of social background, Lu belongs to the same culture as his sitters. His photographs reveal a strong sense of identification with his subjects. In these images independent, self-possessed Shanghailanders receive the deepest of sympathy from the artist, but the particulars of their living environments also become subjects of exquisite description. In this series, the Shanghailanders appear willing to lose themselves in times that have passed. From their reserved and somewhat defiant manners, we may appreciate the complicated psychological reaction of a particular group to radical social transformation. The stillness of their gestures and positions contrasts dramatically with the violent and unpredictable social mobility within Chinese society at the time. Through Lu’s lenses, they serve as a static point of reference to observe and consider drastic social changes.
early works, The Last Day of No. 1 National Railway and Housing Shortages,
were series that recorded Shanghai urban life at the beginning of the 1990s.
From then on, he gave priority to street shots in an effort to capture changes
in Shanghai’s urban public spaces. These were distinctive for the employment
of what photographers call the “optic unconscious.” Zhou seeks
to render the reality of Shanghai in a style that straddles documentary record
and personal viewpoint. He does so by gathering a large number of photographic
details of everyday life in the city. He also juxtaposes graphic symbols of
very different significance within the
same frame to provoke associations regarding the passage of time.
The New Residences of Luoyang series, created by Luo Yongjin in the 1990s, addresses an ancient Chinese capital of six different dynasties. Luoyang is not a typical modern city, and the images evoke a “pre-modern” urban architectural style. Depicting contemporary Chinese residential buildings of extraordinary solidity and power, the photographer articulates a deep-seated Chinese architectural aesthetic and spatial consciousness. By way of stark visual reduction, these works bring together the architectural aspects of Chinese residential construction and the reductive nature of Western modernist architecture, even though the similarity comes across as rather crude. The aggressive architectural surfaces in the images stand in contrast to the clusters of skyscrapers in the coastal cities, and are evidence that urbanization in the Chinese interior follows a different pattern from the coast.
Such works by Luo provide a meaningful point of departure for an understanding of the relationship between architecture and urban life and development in interior Chinese cities, as well as the limited aesthetic resources of Chinese city dwellers in these areas. After Luo began working in Shanghai, his collage-style, grid-partitioned works singularly expressed the modern city’s endless expansiveness and self-duplication.
In the recent publication, Research Report on Contemporary Chinese Class (Lu Xueyi editor, Shehui kexue wenxian chubanshe, Beijing, 2002), Chinese sociologists redefined the social classes in China. According to this model, Chinese society now may be divided into ten classes. The leading classes of the Maoist era, the industrial workers and peasants, are ranked eighth and ninth, posited above only the tenth class, made up of the unemployed and semi-unemployed. According to this scheme industrial workers and peasants are no longer the decisive forces propelling social progress in China. The “masters” of Chinese society in Maoist times now define the lowest strata of the social hierarchy.
At a time when working-class existence is increasingly marginalized and workers’ images appear with ever decreasing frequency in China, Zhou Hai’s Heaviness of Industry project refocuses our attention on the life and working conditions of industrial workers who have been irretrievably remade into the society’s “silent majority.”
Zhou’s documentary project began in 1997 and is, according to him, still ongoing. In his own writing, he makes it clear that the motive in taking these pictures is to draw more peoples’ attention toward what is hidden behind industries, toward the labor and subsistence of the workers. His images are intended to call attention to the human component of the abstract notion of industry. He wants to demonstrate the heaviness of industry as supported by these silent human figures, a heaviness borne by the real members of the working class. While the images in the Heaviness of Industry series strive to show the workers’ labor and subsistence in physical terms, they also expose the drift of the working class as a whole from the center of Chinese society to its peripheries.
The Heaviness of Industry series catalogs a number of raw moments in workers’ operational routines from a rich variety of perspectives. Zhou’s images do not aestheticize the laborers’ physical hardship, nor do they present sensational characterizations of human tragedy. Neither singing praise to modernization nor reflecting upon the negative consequences of the process may be as important as providing a site for an extensive social appreciation of the material experiences of “industry,” of the persons who are engaged in industrial production, of the relationship between the human body and work, of the value of work to the entire society.
Because of the special conditions of social development and historical coincidences, modernization in China is following a unique trajectory. Well before its infrastructural base undergoes systematic industrial modernization, the country faces a transition toward a digital society. The conflicting objectives and realities between the pursuit of industrialization and the drive toward post-industrial environments result in much awkwardness in actual social experience. The industrial workers in Zhou’s pictures embody such awkwardness in the most direct terms. These works do not excessively elaborate upon the experience itself. Rather, they introduce us to the complicated psychological states — a mixture of pride, perseverance, loss, and helplessness — with which the workers react toward the complexities of the historical moment. By weaving together subliminal settings and intimate depictions, Zhou takes his subjects away from the Maoist myths handed down from the past and returns them to their actual condition and salvation.
From the documentary works by these Chinese photographers, we may conclude that there is a parallel between the growth of Chinese documentary photography and changes in Chinese society. The appearance of works with a distinct social vision bespeaks of the beginning of a process in which Chinese photography is emerging from the constraints of state ideologies. Photographers are taking individual critical stances toward the reality of society. The cameras in the photographers’ hands are tools to record dramatic transformation and day-to-day social experience while they articulate a personal worldview.