documenting china about this exhibition bates college museum of art home introduction from country to city images exhibition checklist resources

Joseph Stiglitz, 2001 Nobel laureate in economics, once said with deep admiration, “China’s growth record since 1978 is nearly unparalleled in human history.”1 But on the same occasion, the guru of development and then senior vice president of the World Bank also maintained that the country faces mounting challenges threatening its basic social fabric. The photography exhibition curated by Gu Zheng, a prominent activist and critic in China’s contemporary documentary movement, draws attention to these challenges.

Jiang Jian
Li Shucai, His Wife, and Grandson,
Xixia County, Henan
, 1999

Without the lofty visions of the World Bank and the analytical finesse of models and theory, Documenting China: Contemporary Photography and Social Change presents in visual terms a poignant story of transformation. The photographs expose both a narrative of exacerbated misery and unpredictable comedies; moreover, they reveal the understated dignity of a people confronting one of the most massive and unforgiving transformations in its long history: urbanization.

As testament to this colossal historical process, these photographs, on one level, complement Stiglitz’s grand pronouncement. In the coming decades nine hundred million rural Chinese will become urbanized. Even today the world is experiencing the economic impact of this movement, one that spreads urban values like an epidemic in the Chinese hinterland and draws millions of peasant youths toward the city’s endless energy, violent expansions, and excessive exploitation.

Yet images are uncannily distant from such global concerns, for they reveal the individuals behind statistics, the citizens of the developing world left behind by development, surrounded by the dull and oppressive urban architecture of third-world China that looks eerily akin to its postmodern counterparts in the industrialized West.

Urbanization, at once an enticing and “dirty” idea in contemporary China, is visualized through peasant figures whose ancestors have for millennia been dedicated to their land. These peasants now live in the squalid quarters of the urban slum with dreams of fulfillment. Urbanization is also apparent in the grease stains on the poster of clean-shaven Andy Lau, the megastar of Cantopop music, an urban cultural movement rejected resolutely by the tidy and old-fashioned Shanghailanders, arguably the most urbane of urban Chinese. Those who have read John Dos Passos’s monumental trilogy, U.S.A., will relate, though at a metaphorical and historical distance, to the powerful, heart-shaking experience of aimlessness.2 Like Dos Passos’s American heroes, the Chinese in these photographs are adrift in vast historical tides, moving toward destinies beyond their control, while they experience the near futility of trying to maintain a clear, moral perspective on a constantly changing world. For audiences, this exhibition does not proffer a transparent window on China; rather, it transcends the visual record to suggest a moment of almost tactile connection between viewer and subject. It offers a lens of intimacy with contemporary China, its people, their changing perspectives, their sense of loss, their lofty dreams interrupted by nightmare, and their mundane lives filled with minute surprises.

A veteran student of the camera trained in China and Japan, Gu Zheng is associate professor of journalism at China’s renowned Fudan University in Shanghai and vice president of the Asian Society of Photographers. Winner of numerous national photography awards in China, including the most prestigious, the Ministry of Culture Gold Medal, he is the author of four books and curator of important photography exhibitions in Asia, including the First Asian Photo Biennale in Seoul (2002) and the Yipin International Photography Festival in Shanghai (2001). The collaboration between Gu Zheng and the Bates College Program in Asian Studies began in early 2002 and Gu began selecting work for the exhibition in the fall of 2002. For the winter semester of 2004, he was resident scholar of Asian studies at Bates College, where he performed curatorial work for this exhibition, was involved with classes, and undertook several projects with students. In recognition of Bates College’s commitment to the study of Asian cultures and societies and with permission of the artists, Gu Zheng arranged for the entire collection of exhibited works to be donated to the Bates College Museum of Art’s permanent collection.

John Yu Zou
Assistant Professor of Chinese
Bates College
Lewiston, Maine

1 Joseph E. Stiglitz: “China: Forging A Third Generation of Reforms,” The World Bank, Beijing, China, July 23, 1999.
2 John Dos Passos: U.S.A. (New York: Penguin, 1996).