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Sweeping view of socio-economic change and continuity in China for a half-century

by Jeff Kingston

HUMANISM IN CHINA: A Contemporary Record of Photography, edited by Wang Huangsheng and Hu Wugong. Guandong: Lingnan Meishu Chubanche, 2003, 488 pp., $40 (paper).

China is a society in the midst of sweeping socio-economic convulsions that are rapidly and drastically altering the lives of its citizens.

The 600-plus documentary photographs by some 250 photographers, reproduced in quality duo-tone for “Humanism in China,” span more than half a tumultuous century (1951-2003). All appeared in an exhibition held at the Guangdong Museum of Art between Dec. 12, 2003, to Jan. 10, 2004.

Most of the images are post-1978 monochromes. They depict just how much has changed while reminding us of lingering continuities. For anyone interested in modern Chinese social history, this is an essential and rewarding resource.

Seventy-three pages of bilingual text consist of 12 essays by the art museum director and the curators and organizers of the exhibition. The essays make for some lost-in-translation moments as the English summaries are quite short compared to the original Chinese text, leaving readers to wonder what they are missing and what has been left out and why. In addition, the English summaries and captions could benefit from better proofreading, but these problems do not significantly detract from the stunning montage of images.

The photographs were chosen from some 100,000 submissions by more than 1,000 photographers. The resulting catalog produces a fascinating and visceral self-portrait of a nation, warts and all. It also reveals how much has changed politically.

Museum director Wang Huangsheng describes the exhibition as a celebration of a more humanized and individualistic China. He writes that “After the Age of Deng Xiaoping,” which ushered in a period of reform that included cultural openings as well as efforts toward economic development and globalization, there erupted a move toward humanization that previously had been impeded.

During this time, the Chinese have moved from political collectives to an existence as individual and social people.

Wang sees “the diversity of daily lives in China and how they have evolved in terms of the four themes — Existence, Relationship, Desire and Time — used to organize this exploration.”

This is not a collection that overlooks the dark underside of social change. We see the faces of the people who are paying for rapid modernization, often in stark circumstances. We meet those displaced by the Three Gorges Dam project, drug addicts, the homeless and jobless, AIDS orphans, and workers engaged in various backbreaking tasks under difficult conditions.

As one curator suggests, “The reality presented in these photographs may force political and social officials and (sic) into feelings of conflict and discomfort.” That’s because these images give a voice to the dispossessed and those left bobbing in the wake of rapid development.

It is an encouraging sign of the times that the museum exhibition could be held in the first place and that the photos will become part of the museum’s permanent collection. As China has not been known as a society willing to face its pathologies in such a public manner, the presentation signals a new self-confidence and sophistication.

The striking moments of everyday life are presented in an effort to highlight the emergence of humanism in contemporary China, but it is difficult to avoid the impression that the manifestations of progress chronicled here have been more catastrophic than inspiring.

Instead of finding expressions of homage to grand skyscrapers, spiffy infrastructure and gleaming factories, we meet the stoic people and their families that are transforming China through their sacrifices. One confronts unimaginably crowded scenes and others of desolation. There are laborers from all walks of life, from steel and coal workers to salt collectors and clam diggers. The cycle of life — birth, child-rearing, child labor, marriage, celebrations and funerals — is richly depicted.

We see the consequences of natural and manmade disasters and discover a queue of farmers trying to make ends meet by selling their blood.

Photos of barefoot children in rags, often at work, provide a grim reminder of how the most vulnerable remain so.

Glimpses of busy bazaars, bustling streets, villagers ignoring a cadre’s speech, elderly women with bound feet, young women selling themselves, musicians, storytellers, the handicapped, rock and rollers, and frenzied speculators all help impart a greater appreciation for where China is coming from, and where it is going, pell-mell.

This is an elegiac tribute to the epic odyssey of the Chinese people as they navigate the turbulent and uncharted waters of the world’s most encompassing upheaval. We see a China of deep contrasts, where the swirling floods of change spill over the embankments while eddies of calm and tradition persist precariously on a threatened periphery.

This is a haunting document created by those in the midst of the maelstrom, where indeed there are too many, as one caption puts it, “outrunning their luck.”