China is the theme for FotoFest 2008 — The Twelfth International Biennial of Photography and Photo-Related Work. This year, there are 135 participating exhibitions and truckloads of contemporary photography from China on view. But the historical underpinnings of contemporary Chinese photography can be seen in the official FotoFest section "Ethnography, Photojournalism and Propaganda: 1934-1975." Most of these images have never been shown outside the country. And while this section is not necessarily the flashiest or most spectacular — it's shown in office buildings at Allen Center — it provides fascinating background and a palpable sense of history. Of course, this being FotoFest, every section has to have subsections, and "Ethnography, Photojournalism and Propaganda" is divided into three parts.
In the 1930s, Zhuang Xueben traveled by camel, by canoe and on foot to the remote reaches of far western China and the Tibetan regions. A photographer and ethnographer, Zhuang's epic project captured the tribal peoples of these distant areas. Imagine Native American chronicler Edward Curtis in Tibet. While Zhuang probably wasn't a Curtis aficionado, there was something in the early 20th-century zeitgeist that fueled these photographers' impulses to record remote and vanishing cultures. But unlike Curtis's photographs, Zhuang's images have been blown up large-scale on HP printers for this exhibition. A level of intimacy and historical context has been lost, as well as some image quality.
But the stark regions, their people and the unforgiving climate are all beautifully recorded by Zhuang. Snow-covered houses nestle in a bleak Shangri-La valley. You can feel the harshness of this environment. A lovely young girl of the Naxi people looks weathered, in spite of her youth. Zhuang captured images that were for him — and are for us — exotic. A Tibetan nomad sports one big earring and a broad-rimmed hat with what looks like yak hair trailing out of the top. Men carry squat leather boats, and monks carry an ornately clad Buddha crafted from yak cheese. People gather around a communal pot of barley wine, drinking from long straws.
One of the most haunting images was taken at a funeral. Buddhist monks are shot in profile sitting on a mountainside. In the foreground is a buzzard. The image is identified as a funeral, but judging from the buzzard, it is probably a "sky burial." In sky burials, the body is taken to the mountains, cut up and fed to carrion birds. The monks are staring out, bidding farewell. The buzzard is staring out, waiting for dinner.
Rather than as a means to explore and record distant cultures, Sha Fei saw photography as a political tool. He was integral in establishing propaganda photography in China, and trained and influenced a generation of Chinese photographers.
Sha Fei recorded the political and social-service activities of the nascent Communist Party and the 8th Route Army as it fought the invading Japanese army. You see these early Communists as they saw themselves and wished to be seen. In Sha Fei's images, a field inspection delegation teaches women and children how to read and write next to a cornfield, and a circle of people sitting outdoors in a rustic village discuss policy for democratically electing the head of a village board. Other images depict the Chinese people uniting against the Japanese invaders; an International Women's Day shooting competition with militia girls posing with rifles; troops massing in a town, some armed with rifles, some only with long bamboo poles; village children standing on sentry duty; and women holding babies in their laps as they make shoes for the troops.
Sha Fei's photographs capture families fleeing their occupied hometowns with their children on their backs and stunned occupants standing in the rubble of their bombed-out homes. They show Japanese-installed "puppet mayors" being led to execution. The images on view do not record the widespread Japanese massacre of civilians (an estimated 100,000 to 300,000 in Nanjing alone) or the systematic rape of women and girls. The level of the Nanjing atrocities even horrified a Nazi businessman who sent documentation back to Hitler.
Doubtless, Sha Fei was well aware of these things, whether he witnessed and photographed them or not. The photographer's own story is a tragic one, and this work has only recently been rediscovered. Sha Fei, fevered and disoriented, was hospitalized early in the war and treated by a sympathetic Japanese doctor working in a Chinese hospital. In his delirium, Sha Fei thought the doctor was an enemy soldier and shot him.
In 1950, after the war, when the Chinese government was seeking closer relations with Japan and access to American reconstruction dollars, the Japanese government demanded that Sha Fei be executed for his "crime." The general who gave the order for his execution was one of Sha Fei's closest friends. An unlikely coalition of people — including the general who ordered his death, Sha Fei's widow and the Japanese family of the doctor Sha Fei killed — have led an effort to rehabilitate the photographer's name and promote his work. This is the first time his photographs have been shown outside of China.
Trained or influenced by Sha Fei, the following generation of photographers went on to record China's Cultural Revolution. Mao's Cultural Revolution, a supposed campaign to rid the country of the "liberal bourgeoisie," destroyed national treasures and persecuted and killed academics and artists as well as religious and revolutionary figures. But Weng Naiqiang, Ziao Zhuang and Weihong Shilong, photojournalists working for state newspapers, didn't photograph any of those things. What they did capture was the intoxicating drama and grandeur of the Revolution's enormous mass rallies and the charisma of those leading them.
Twenty years after Sha Fei, the Communist Party's control of its image was much more sophisticated. Anyone who has read an account of the horrors of the Cultural Revolution will experience cognitive dissonance in looking at these images. Everyone looks so joyous and idealistic in these photos. Mao's Little Red Book is everywhere. It is held aloft in mass rallies of thousands, and even enthusiastic foreigners march through Chinese streets with copies of it. Young women hold their books as they perform a "dance of loyalty" for an assembled crowd. Red Guards strike comically dramatic lunge poses and raise their books into the air. You can't escape it — people read aloud from it to train passengers, a group of small children study it, and families read it before dinner, surrounded by posters of Mao. The sheer ubiquitousness of the book is frightening.
You see the effects of his programs. Smiling college students are sent to be reeducated by poor farmers (I'm thinking they stopped smiling pretty quickly). Manual labor was a tool of redemption. In one photo, a massive dam is dug by hundreds of people using hand shovels, and in another (ridiculously staged) photograph, a couple dozen people are poised to attack enormous boulders with tiny hammers to build another dam. In these images, you almost believe that their zeal will make anything possible.
One image is especially ominous: A 1966 photograph records one small manifestation of the "Break the Four Olds Movement" — Old Custom, Old Culture, Old Habits, and Old Ideas. People are shown gathered around a bonfire, where, according to the caption for the photograph, "traditional objects" are burned. Just imagine the devastating impact of the Cultural Revolution agenda in a country with 5,000 years of culture.
What these exhibitions do better than any history book is create a tangible sense of loss. Next week, we'll look at photography after the Cultural Revolution in this space.