Picture a small Chinese boat as it moves along the Grand Canal in Suzhou. Imagine translating the course of the boat through the current onto a sheet of graph paper. Plot the boat's position at any two points during its movement toward a distant marketplace, and then mark the midpoint between these spots. Then repeat the process, again and again. The boat is near a crowded dock. It is in the weeds. It's passing below a rickety footbridge. Soon you might begin to question the action you just witnessed. Did the boat actually advance from here to there? Or is the whole idea of movement nothing more than an endless collection of fixed locations strung together in time? And if so, how does anything ever advance from one moment to the next?
Like examining the path of that small boat, China: Fifty Years Inside the People's Republic, a traveling collection of photographs on display at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, charts a tiny time span from within China's long history and magnifies isolated images from that continuum. This is not the story of a sweeping trajectory guided by progress, but a set of discrete points in time, a series showing the public mourning of political figures along with ballroom dancing in Ritan Park. Perhaps what makes China: Fifty Years simultaneously challenging and accessible is the equal weight the exhibit lends to political transformations and rites of workaday existence. Through the works of Chinese and foreign photographers Reagan Louie, Lois Conner, Zheng Nong, and Richard Yee, among others, a daily boat trip down the Grand Canal or a photograph of an elderly couple's possessions becomes a juncture between new commerce and old customs.
Likewise, for many recent Chinese immigrants attending the exhibit, a tranquil day at the museum becomes an emotional test of history and memory. We invited people from China and Hong Kong who now live in Minnesota, as well as one Minnesotan who used to live in China, to discuss a photograph from China: Fifty Years that evokes particularly vivid memories of life in the People's Republic. The exhibit stirred strong reactions from these attendees, who often expressed fervent political beliefs or nostalgia in a rushed hybrid of English and Chinese. Here then, like snapshots, are a few of their most illuminating recollections and reactions.
You don't see a lot of pictures that show Chinese people having fun. Chinese culture is supposed to be very serious, and Chinese couples don't really show their intimate side. That's why I like this picture.
Dancing in Shanghai is becoming more and more common. We have parks everywhere in the city, and people go there to exercise in the morning or to dance at night. Even older women in their 40s and 50s dance. If you ask many recent immigrants from China, their parents are usually retired, and they will say that one of the hobbies their parents pick up is to dance with other people in the parks.
Older immigrants don't see that positive attitude because they left China a long time ago. Since I only left a few years ago, I was able to see much more freedom before I came here to the United States. I'm not shocked by this photograph like others might be.
Lois Conner's "Xi Hu, Zhejiang Province, 1984"
[Lois Conner] reminds me of the Chinese scholar painters. According to the Chinese scholars, you can find the true nature of things only in shades of black and white. There are no people in their paintings, and if there are, the people are very small because human beings are in harmony with nature, but are also only a very small part of nature....
That is where there is a huge difference between Eastern and Western photographers. Chinese people want to see pictures of the high-rise buildings in Beijing, but it's my opinion that if you just show the high-rise buildings and the development in Shanghai and Beijing, maybe you can't attract a big audience. People have seen the buildings in New York and Washington, D.C., and they look at Shanghai and say, "Why should I be interested?"
So what attracts the Westerners' attention is something that would be bizarre to the native Chinese. They pick [this kind of subject] out because they think it is very unique. But to the natives, it just doesn't represent China. Then the Chinese think that the Westerners are biased because they refuse to show the progress in China, the fact that the economy is booming. The Westerners only want to show the countryside.
Stuart Franklin's "Students on Hunger Strike, Tiananmen, 1989"
This photograph brings back memories. I was waiting for news about Tiananmen Square every day. It was very hard. We knew a crackdown was coming. And then right before sundown, we were all watching TV and it came. I picked up the phone and called my friends in Hong Kong about what we could do, and I helped the students from the fringes when I was at the University [of Minnesota] writing for the newspaper.