The Long March
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.
Stuart Franklin's "Ballroom dancing in Ritan Park, Beijing, 1998"
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.
--Haoying Chen, electrical
engineer, from Liaoning Province
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.
My roommate had brought a tiny fax machine that fit into a briefcase with her to the United States, and we used it to communicate with students in China, to help them translate all of their protest letters and help them have access to the media. I could do that because being from Hong Kong gave me protection. I wasn't exactly from China, so it was all right for me to write whatever I wanted without fear of reprisal.
Before, I had always felt so much guilt about my role in Chinese history because I was from Hong Kong and I "wasn't supposed to be Chinese." China always calls people from Hong Kong "our adopted children" or "our island cousins," as if we were illegitimate children, and that hurt me. But seeing this photograph, I remember what I saw on television, and I remember how hard it was to be over here [in the United States]. I also realize that organizing is about getting all sides into the protest.
--Sophie Liu, artist/actor/writer,
from Hong Kong
Xiao-Ming Li's untitled photograph of women praying at a Catholic temple, 1994
A lot of times when Chinese people go to temple, they don't believe in Buddha. They're atheists. When people pray, they're not praying for salvation. They're praying to be rich. When I was teaching in China, so many of the foreigners were missionaries, which was disturbing in itself, and they would talk about their Chinese friends and how they would say, "I have been praying and going to church and I still haven't gone to America and I still haven't gotten rich. I don't know what's wrong."
I remember we went to a Catholic Church in Chongqing and a week before we had been to this Buddhist temple and heard these Buddhist chants. They were these unbelievable chants that I had never heard before. I was totally blown away by them, by the rhythms. Then a week later we were in a church in Chongqing and there were these two women sitting and reading these Catholic prayers in the rhythm of the Buddhist prayers. It really showed me that for a lot of people there, both religions are the same. There were the American missionaries who would count the Chinese people they converted. They would say, "Yeah, I got four people to go to church today!" or, "I got one person to accept Christ!" It's bullshit. They're not accepting Christ. Religion was a way to get a sense of community...
I used to see women praying, like the ones in this picture. I remember watching this woman go through a long ceremony with incense and bowing and she looked so devout. And then when she was through she turned to me and said, "You know, I don't really believe in all this stuff. I just do it for tradition."
--Matt Russell, journalist,
former American resident of Sichuan Province
Xiao-Ming Li's "Chapel in a Tibetan village, Yunnan Province, 1994"
When I saw this photograph, I called my friend and asked him if he knew [Xiao-Ming Li] and he said, yes, that he was there with him while he was taking these photographs. Then my friend told me that [Xiao-Ming Li] is not his real name; it is a pen name. We wanted to contact him and bring him here to the exhibit to give a lecture, but we could not contact him. We did not have his phone number. We called everywhere, but we could not contact him.
So I called my friend. My friend said, "Yes, I know him very well, but the issue is that he is in trouble with the government because of the subject matter of his photography, so he does not want anyone to know his phone number. But he will call me sometime, and if he calls me, I will tell him your plan. He travels around and takes photographs, and you never know where he is. But he will always call from somewhere."
The problem for Xiao-Ming Li is that...it is very difficult for him to get a passport and he does not want to leave the country. So eventually we thought it was probably impossible to bring him to the States....
Later on, I found this photograph in a computer magazine; it was an ad for computer software. It said, "If you believe in God, if you believe in truth" or something like that, promoting the software. And that's when I thought, Wow, that really tells you something about the connection between photojournalism and commercialism.
--Jamason Chen, photojournalist, from Shanghai Province
Brian Palmer's "Mourners at Deng Xiaoping Memorial, Beijing, 1997"
I like the pictures of [the people mourning] Deng Xiaoping. They show that he was the real hero, not Mao. He was really the one who modernized China. Mao believed that he had a Communist Party, but I don't believe that it was really Communist. Communism is supposed to mean that everybody shares property, but Mao got some assets from the party, and the higher government officials kept a lot of property for themselves.
Deng Xiaoping was different. He changed everything so that Chinese people could have a better life, a better education, a better job. Because of him, China got a lot of ties to the U.S., and once you have ties to the U.S., you can create better jobs. Once you have better jobs, you create a better standard of living and can afford things that you couldn't afford before. Hong Kong is a very Western city, so people in Hong Kong were satisfied under Deng Xiaoping, but the Asian market collapsed a few years ago and now the job opportunities are difficult.
This picture was taken right between those two time periods. After this picture was taken, when Deng Xiaoping had passed away, China became different, less modern.
--John Choy, medical interpreter,
from Hong Kong
An unknown photographer's "Mao Zedong with members of the Chinese Communist Youth League at swimming party in Lushan, Jiangxi Province, late 1950s"
I love the faces of the youth. They are so idealistic, so pure. And also, I love that they show Mao's flabby breasts, because you never see that. I was brought up always seeing him radiating this pink glow of agelessness and power. Here he is actually shown as a human being. He looks kind of vulnerable in this picture, old and fat. But even though he looks that way, you know he's not. He was really preying on a lot of these young girls.
But these photos of Mao make me nostalgic because they show him in his everyday life. The other black-and-white pictures [in this exhibit] can be too removed, too artistic. We can't have Mao again. But we still long for the ideals and the passion of those times. It's hard to demythologize history when the longing for the past is so strong.
--Wang Ping, author of Aching for Beauty, from the island of Dinghai
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