Photographs Capture a Disappearing China

With rapid and profound economic and social changes underway in China, many aspects of day-to-day life are being transformed. Several artists have recently made efforts to document the current way of life for Chinese families as a way to preserve a lifestyle that may soon disappear. In Beijing, an exhibit of photographs by Huang Qingjun portray families outside their homes with all their worldly goods. Huang spent ten years traveling to remote areas of China to photograph the country’s poorest residents, but also included members of the wealthy elite. Despite a wide disparity in the amount and worth of the possessions, almost all photographs include a television. From the BBC:

Huang’s project has taken him to 14 of China’s 33 provinces, giving him an unusually broad perspective of how the country is changing. He is optimistic about the process, and where it will lead.

“In lots of Chinese villages, the government has delivered roads and connected them with electricity. This has been a huge change. If you’ve a road, you can move about. If you’ve got electricity you can have TV, you get the news and ideas about what the outside world is thinking.

“The biggest problems in rural areas now are how people can get better education for their children, and healthcare,” he says.

Many photos appear to capture something that is about to be lost. Families camp as if about to move on. They are framed by houses that have just been expensively renovated or are about to be pulled down. The preponderance of cooking utensils, the paucity of clothes and items of leisure suggest a lifestyle that is about to be upended.

See also a previous CDT post on Huang’s work. His exhibit brings to mind a show at New York’s Museum of Modern Art in 2009, in which Chinese artist Song Dong displayed the complete contents of his mother’s home, amassed over 50 years.

In a similar effort to document a disappearing lifestyle, journalist and photographer Howard French has published a book together with writer Qiu Xiaolong of photographs, essays and poems titled, Disappearing Shanghai: Photographs and Poems of an Intimate Way of Life. As Ian Johnson writes on the New York Review of Books blog:

We get no clichéd pictures of a beggar in front of a Louis Vuitton mural, no workers looking uncomprehendingly at a Bentley pulling into a five-star whatever. Instead we are thrust deeply into ordinary people’s lives, into their tiny living rooms with moldy walls and faded curtains. We see them living out on streets of cracked sidewalks and crumbling facades. We watch them sitting and waiting in poses of leisure. The transience and decay tells us that all this is vanishing.

See more of French’s photographs on his website.