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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 s and early s. 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.
Liu Xiaodi Village seriesUntitled no. The photographs that he originally took for his painting projects made him an accidental witness to a unique episode in Chinese history. His technique has an apparent and misleading straightforwardness. He positions peasant Chinese essay grid paper against images on the wall of the main Chinese essay grid paper, 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. 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. Zhang Xinmin Besiege the City by the Country series Guangdong, Through the s, Zhang Xinminfrom Guangdong province, was engaged in a colossal visual project: Besiege the City by the Country: This project consisted of three parts: In a panoramic sweep, Zhang tried to capture the single most significant event in the contemporary transformation of Chinese society: Massive numbers of surplus laborers from rural China flocked to the city in search of work.
Zhang Xinmin Besiege the City by the Country series Yunan, 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. 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.
Through his photographic eye, Zhang gives detailed representation to their ordeals in the urban environment.
Lu Yuanmin Shanghailanders seriesUntitled no. Many social tensions intensified and became highly visible.Paper was invented by the Chinese about A.D. and was kept a secret for quite a number of years.
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