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Home>>China >> China Society
10:53, December 22, 2008

New China, the big picture

What happens when China's most prominent photographers put their signature works together for a single grand event? Visitors to a new exhibition, China, Portrait of a Country, can decide for themselves.

Running at the Today Art Museum in southern Beijing, until Dec 21, it displays more than 50 photos by 44 award-winning photographers aged from 26 to 90.

Arranged in more or less chronological order, the exhibition retraces the major events that have shaped New China since 1949, says curator Liu Heung Shing, an American photo-journalist-turned cultural entrepreneur.

Many of the pictures are on display for the first time, not because they had been hidden before but because "only a limited number of people had reason to be aware of their existence," says Liu.

1981, Beijng women get their hair permed at a new salon. (Photo: China Daily)

1981, a student at the Dalian Institute of Technology skates past a statue of Chairman Mao Zedong, once a popular monument found in virtually every Chinese city and town. Western media used this image as symbolic of the dawn of a new era in China. (Photo: China Daily)

Liu insists his perspective is far removed from the usual Western stereotype of China.

The most eye-catching photos are those shot by veteran "red-color news soldiers" (propaganda photographers) like Meng Zhaorui, Li Zhensheng and Weng Naiqiang, depicting people's fervent admiration for late Chinese leader Mao Zedong; those by Hou Bo that reveal the private lives of Mao and his family; and Du Xiuxian's photos of Mao and other Chinese leaders at grand and solemn occasions.

Noteworthy in another way are Xiao Zhuang's photos showing everyday folk at key times in the history of New China; Jiang Shaowu's disturbing photos of chaotic and cruel scenes during the "cultural revolution" (1966-76); and Liu Heung Shing's photos capturing the emergence of non-official artists like the Stars Painting Group in the late 1980s; and photos by younger artists on a wide range of social topics, including migrant workers in manufacturing plants, the staging of the Beijing Olympics, the launch of the Shenzhou spacecrafts, the boom towns and the consequences of industrial pollution.

"It is a very impressive exhibition and shows a great variety of Chinese society's latest history," says the CEO of Mercedes-Benz China, Klaus Maier, who has lived here for several years.

1981, a youth brandishes a bottle of Coca-Cola in the Forbidden City. Ever since Deng Xiaoping's reform and opening-up policy, China has been riding an economic boom, attracting huge investment from abroad. Coca-Cola, which was first sold in China in the 1920s, set up its first plant in Beijing in 1980. (Photo: China Daily)

"This single exhibition gave me an insight into China and its people in a broad context."

Young Chinese visitors like Xie Nan, in her early 20s, also found the exhibition inspiring.

"It looks like a vivid visual history textbook, brief but informative," she says.

As Xie was born in the 1980s "so many pages in the history of our motherland appear so faraway and strange to me," she admits. Having a new understanding of the country's turbulent past may give youngsters like her "a clearer understanding of how China has come to be what it is today".

Curator Liu invited most of the participating photographers to an opening ceremony of the exhibition that coincided with the 30th anniversary of China's opening up and reform.

"I sincerely hope this revealing exhibition may open a new discussion among Chinese about how our country has come to be where it is today," says Xiao Zhuang, a 74-year-old photographer from Nanjing, Jiangsu province, who has several photos on display.

1985, Beijing's main parks have long been a huge draw for local residents, who amuse themselves dancing, singing and engaging in a wide variety or exercise programs. (Photo: China Daily)

Xiao is compiling a book that aims to "tell the moving stories of ordinary Chinese" behind old photos she has taken in various provinces from the 1950s to 1980s.

"The photos show how China has developed so dramatically," says 72-year-old Weng Naiqiang, whose color photo depicting Mao greeting millions of Red Guards at Tian'anmen Rostrum in the 1960s fetched more than 30,000 yuan ($4,412) at an auction in 2005.

The Beijing-based photographer says: "I am so happy that young photographers today enjoy much more freedom in what to shoot and how to shoot as Chinese people's mindset has become more open and tolerant."

But Weng insists that a "photo's primary function is to record reality" and this should not be forgotten while most young photographers take photography as an art form.

Liu says he is trying to "offer viewers an insight into the country's physical, emotional and spiritual infrastructures".

The exhibition will tour the world next year, the 60th anniversary of New China.

1989, textile workers feed themselves from a communal, bamboo-made rice bowl at a factory in Sichuan. Under the planned economy, jobs at State-owned enterprises and collectives were known as "iron rice bowls" as they provided employees with all they needed to live, including their food. Today, privately owned factories provide job opportunities for much of the population. (Photo: China Daily)

1991, China's main cities Shanghai (pictured here) and Beijing were bicycle Kingdoms. Since then, however, the car has become an increasingly popular mode of transport, putting mounting pressure on public traffic and air quality. (Photo: China Daily)

1995, actress Gong Li gives director Zhang Yimou a massage on a film set in Shanghai. At the time the two were an item - their relationship shaped Chinese cinema for the next decade and made Gong famous around the world. (Photo: China Daily)

2007, young couples take part in a kissing contest in Sichuan. The media read it as "a sign of the changing times". (Photo: China Daily)

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