Documenting Landscape in Contemporary Chinese Photography: A New Perspective

Essay by Yining He

I. Introduction
In the last ten years, fuelled by international dealers and collectors, the market for contemporary Chinese photography has grown rapidly with a booming economy. Chinese new landscape photographers smartly recreated traditional Chinese landscape paintings by employing a variety of digital photography techniques and aesthetic strategies to acquire the attention of art curators, critics and photography dealers. However, only until relatively recently, a group of young practitioners have taken a different approach to landscape photography, which has set them apart from the majority of their counterparts. For example, we can look at two key figures of this movement, Zhang Jin and Taca Sui, whose work adapted the form of photography in accordance with Chinese philosophical and aesthetic concepts. Despite their contribution to contemporary Chinese photography, little has been written about their issues. Based on the social, historical and contemporary experience, this essay identifies and illustrates the main features of their approach in creating a new vision of Chinese contemporary landscape photography.

The first part of essay offers a brief overview of this new movement by introducing Zhang Jin and Taca Sui’s work. The second part of the essay places an emphasis on their landscape photography practices, basing my research on the differences between Chinese and Western philosophy and culture – although the aim of the essay is not only primarily to show the differences between Chinese and Western landscape art. Finally, this essay examines how Zhang Jin and Taca Sui’s practice suit the niche market of the contemporary photography industry.

II. New Movement of Chinese Landscape Photography

Of all the different practices of Chinese contemporary photography —— fashion, documentary, portraiture and so on —— none is richer and more famous than landscape. Entering the new millennium, as the world’s second largest economy, China has been undergoing the most rapid urbanization. As a result of these emerging challenges and creative energies, contemporary Chinese landscape photography has flourished into one of the most vibrant art forms of our time. Many photographers focus on the urban landscape to express their feelings towards related issues such as construction and deconstruction in the cities, environmental challenges as well as many others.

An inaugural photography exhibition titled Open Frame: New Landscape Photography from China was held in Yavuz Fine Art Gallery in Singapore, 2010. This large-scale landscape photography exhibition featured 43 works that reflected the life and social changes of contemporary China:

… The artists included in Open Frame, though at varying stages of their respective careers, all use facets of the landscape – real, imagined, urban, industrial, pastoral, heavenly or watery – to reveal China today.
(Lenzi, 2010)

In spite of the fact that western curators, critics and photography dealers are seemly obsessed with manipulated or sharply contrasted landscape photographs, frequently coined as “Chinese Aesthetics”, Zhang Jin and Taca Sui are using different approaches to their photography practice. Instead of creating sharply contrasted urban landscapes. They had both trekked to distant landscapes in China and created a series of photographs of landscape using the pleasure of the imagination.

Zhang Jin (b.1978) is a freelance photographer based in Chengdu. In 2012, he was awarded the most prestigious photography award in China initiated by Three Shadows Photography Center, which attracted approximately 358 candidates last year. Zhang Jin traveled through the eastern section of the ancient Silk Road from Xi’an to Yangguan during 2010 to 2013. Whilst he was there, he positioned himself inside the landscapes of his imagination and shot a photo series entitled Another Season during the year. As he mentioned at the beginning of his work statement: ‘it’s the road of Buddhism coming to China, where I find my enthusiasm for the grand desert. Moreover, it has my encounter with the unknown landscape’(Zhang, 2012).

Photography by Zhang Jin, Entrance, from The Other Season series, 2010
Photography by Zhang Jin, Entrance, from The Other Season series, 2010

Taca Sui, another key figure of this movement, currently has a solo exhibition at Chambers New York from 7th March to 19th April 2013. His latest photo series titled Odes is the culmination of seven small projects that were inspired by the Book of Odes (Shi Jing) – the oldest Chinese book of songs, poems and hymns. Taca spent almost three years following an itinerary based on places named in the text and visited them one after another to take thousands of photographs. As the artist said: ‘during the shoot, it was almost as if my emotions and artistic direction were under the influence of some unknown force’ (Sui, 2012).

Photography by Taca Sui, untitled from Odes of Wei series,2012
Photography by Taca Sui, untitled from Odes of Wei series,2012

Although they both came from an American education background, Zhang Jin and Taca Sui’s work is the adaptation of photography to Chinese philosophical and aesthetic concepts – especially through a dialogue with different kinds of representation found in various Chinese poetry and painting. In an artist statement published in Zhang Jin’s personal website:

There are traces from the ancient civilization and the most important is an exploration for a seer. There are also natural creatures, which persistently and simply exist everywhere regardless of the dynasty or nation changes over time, with the primitive strength born from basic instinct (Zhang, 2012).

Yizhong Ruan, was one of the main judges of Three Shadow Photography Award 2012, which included Hilla Becher and Christopher Phillip. Yizhong Ruan commented on Zhang Jin’s photo series Another Season: ‘his pictures of emptiness traces the life of ancient Chinese and involve viewers to make a dialogue with history’ (Ruan, 2012). Meanwhile, in explaining Odes, Taca Sui also emphasized the relation between Chinese philosophy and his project. ‘After several months of textual and geographical research, I was alarmed to find myself falling into the vast artificial construct of annotations and commentaries built by generations of Confucian scholars’ (Sui, 2012).

Both Zhang Jin and Taca’s photographs indicate a trend to resist the manipulation of digital technology. With a soft contrast between landscapes and the pale ground, they evoke the aesthetic of Chinese traditional brush-and-ink painting by using traditional blank and white photography.

The formal austerity and timeless subject matter of Taca Sui’s work sets him apart from the great majority of his contemporaries, relating him to the earlier masters of the medium rather than to current practitioners of manipulated photography (Chamber Fine Art, 2013).

III. From Chinese Cultural Roots
Landmark: A Stroll Through the Fields of Photography takes place at the Somerset House in London. Curated by William A. Ewing, the exhibition featured images by 81 international photographers with a multitude of interests in this field. This included photographers such as Edward Burynsky, Robert Adams, Simon Norfolk, Thomas Struth and Hiroshi Sugimoto, among the many masters featured in the show. Meanwhile, the exhibition showcased a few iconic photographs created by Yao Lu, Yang Yongliang and Liu Xiaofang;three leading contemporary Chinese photographers in the field. Not surprisingly, viewers can see the differences between Chinese and Western landscape photography reflected in the subjects, creative ideas, artistic expressions and so forth. Obviously, cultural differences between Chinese and Western landscape art have manifested in their own form of expression and aesthetic characteristics. Zhang Jin and Taca Sui both carry the practice of ‘Literati-Graphics’ into their photo series and it becomes a defining characteristic of this new moment. Thus, based on research into the differences between Chinese and Western philosophy and culture, the following paragraphs illustrate that Zhang Jin and Taca Sui’s landscape practices find their roots in traditional Chinese culture.

Photography by Yao Lu, Mount Zhong in the Mist, 2006
Photography by Yao Lu, Mount Zhong in the Mist, 2006

First of all, there are differences in subject matter in Western and Chinese landscape art. Western landscape as a genre in art began to emerge at the end of the fifteenth century, covering a variety of subjects. Looking at Sense of Place, one of the most influential contemporary landscape photography exhibitions held in Brussels in 2012, it shows a vast and wide range of subjects that range from abandoned railways to dams; water resorts to amusements parks; forests to cliffs; and costal areas to industrial sites. While in China, according to Dr. Eleanor Consten: ‘The Chinese landscape is a representation of the universe and the spirit that creates and preserves it; both are timeless and boundless ’(Consten). Thus, Shan Shui (mountain and water), symbols of timelessness and the intangible in Chinese culture, have become the perennial theme of Chinese landscape art since the ninth century. There is no wonder why many Chinese contemporary photographers choose Shan Shui as one of the most important themes. The mountains and rivers that appeared in old Chinese poems became Taca Sui’s obsession during his stay in US. Later, he marked all the names of each and planned his first journey in 2010. Thus, broad mountains and rivers, trees and stones became the main subject of his photo series. Meanwhile, Zhang Jin went to the most remote area along the Silk Road, trying to remove traces of time and history by taking photographs of the mountains.

Photography by Taca Sui, from Odes of Ya • Song series, 2011
Photography by Taca Sui, from Odes of Ya • Song series, 2011
Photography by  Zhang Jin, Freezing Cold from The Other Season series, 2013
Photography by Zhang Jin, Freezing Cold from The Other Season series, 2013

Secondly, one the most prominent features of Zhang Jin and Taca Sui’s practice is their response to the traditional Chinese philosophy and literati spirit, which makes them significantly different to their Western contemporaries. Over the centuries, the tradition principles of Confucianism and Taoism have played a crucial role in the practice of Chinese classic literature and traditional painting. According to James Cahill’s study, he drew attention to a school of Taoist poets and painters, ‘who dwelt upon their emotional responses to the sights and sounds of nature and were inspired by them to the creation of works of art’ (Cahill, 1972 P25). As Michael Sullivan says: ‘Celebrated in ink for millennia, the landscape in Chinese art embodies key philosophical and spiritual ideas unmatched by the Western canon’s descriptive approach to nature’ (Sullivan, 1973 P113). In short, traditional landscape art in China is not devoted to nature, but devoted to artist response to nature. While the representation in Western landscape, offers opportunities for extended contemplation of scenes and scenarios (Wells, 2011).

Photography Taca Sui, untitled from Odes of Qi• Cao series, 2012
Photography by Taca Sui, untitled from Odes of Qi• Cao series, 2012

Zhang Jin was born in a small town of Sichuan province and later graduated from Polytechnic Institute of New York University with a Ph.D in Chemical Engineering. Zhang Jin claimed that his art practice was mainly influenced by the artistic spirit of Chinese Wei-Jin in his exploration of ‘the spirituality of the inner self, to embrace ineffable adventures’ (Zhang, 2012). On the other hand, Taca Sui (b.1984) was born in Tsingtao city of Shandong province, which was the home province of Confucius (551-479 BC). Brought up by a literati family, Taca Sui started to study traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy at a very young age, and he was later trained as a photographer in Rochester Institute of Technology after he quit his studies at CAFA (China Central Academy of Fine Arts). Although the New Topographic movement has heavily influenced his art practice, it is the adaptation of photography to Chinese philosophical and aesthetic concepts.

Photography by Zhang Jin, The Dumb Stone, from The Other Season series, 2012
Photography by Zhang Jin, The Dumb Stone, from The Other Season series, 2012
Photography by Taca Sui, Abandoned Temple, from Odes of Ya • Song series, 2011
Photography by Taca Sui, Abandoned Temple, from Odes of Ya • Song series, 2011

Finally, in order to visualize creative ideas, Chinese and Western artists apply different methods of artistic expression. When tracing the English word “landscape” back to its Chinese source, it combines two Chinese characters “Jin Guan”, which means “scenery and see”. The different way of seeing landscapes leads to different results for an art practice. For example, linear perspective has become the means of constructing representation central to the aesthetics of Western landscape since Mediaeval times, while according to Dr. Eleanor Consten: ‘perspective would only spoil the scope of a Chinese landscape; a centralized composition would stop the spirit in its voyage’ (Consten). Nevertheless, the middle format, together with the loose contrast between the soft focus and pale grounds in Taca’s photograph, evokes the aesthetics of Chinese Shan Shui painting. Also, in terms of narrative, when we look at photographs from Another Season, viewers can enter and travel through each part of the picture in turn, going from one to the other – we shall be as little bothered by the lack of a uniform viewpoint as we would be.
IV. Market success
The history of Chinese landscape photography can be traced back to the late 19th century. Tung Hing, a Hong Kong photographer once went to Wuyi Mountain and took photographs of mountains and rivers, bridges and trees, temples and monasteries. Described by Claire Roberts, ‘while the views were most probably the result of an expatriate commission, the locations and captioning suggest an appreciation of the landscape from a Chinese cultural perspective (Roberts, 2013 p45). Early Chinese photographers used a contemporary medium and an aesthetic informed by Chinese literary to created authentic photographs and reach its scale in the 1920s and 1930s. However, until recently, landscape as a genre re-emerged in Chinese contemporary photography after many years of modern transition. Urbanization has accelerated the growth of cities in China to become the most influential force altering China’s metropolitan culture. As mentioned before, Yao Lu and Yang Yongliang, among other Chinese contemporary photographers, both use digital photographic technologies to recreate Chinese landscape painting. Gu Zhen observed: ‘create an entirely new visual effect and evoking a rethinking of urbanization and modernity’ (Gu, 2011 p210).

Photography by Yang Yongliang, Stock World from Viridescence series, 2009
Photography by Yang Yongliang, Stock World from Viridescence series, 2009

Indeed, the photographic practice of Zhang Jin and Taca Sui is not only a continuation of the traditions of Chinese landscape photography, but it also suits the niche market of the Contemporary Chinese photography industry. To admit that photography is a vital part of Chinese contemporary art practice, which only established its own market in the end of the last century. During the last decade, Chinese conceptual photography has played a vital role in the Chinese contemporary photography market, partly because the demand for international buyers has continued to rise. However, the problem lies with the fact that the highly priced Chinese conceptual photographs have no impact on the market, due to lack of an adequate support system. By the end of 2008, there have been many Chinese conceptual photography artists who have shifted their focus towards painting and installation art.

After 2009, Chinese photography critics, buyers and gallery owners began shifting their focus from conceptual art to authentic photography. In order to promote Chinese photography and improve the domestic market, many photographic galleries in China launched different strategies to encourage new talent with different photographic practice.

Taca Sui, whose stylish black & white photo series first appeared in the 2010 Lianzhou International Photography Festival, soon attracted a lot of attention to photography critics and dealers. As Zhuo Can commented on Odes: ‘the most valuable contribution of Odes in Chinese contemporary photography is——interlingual practices and translation of New Topographic texts into contemporary China’ (Zhai, 2011). Meanwhile, authentic black and white photographic prints are highly appreciated in the Chinese photography market. Instead of making hundreds of digital prints, Taca Sui is a true genius of making platinum and silver gelatin prints. He smartly selected grey in the work Odes to acknowledge Chinese traditions of Shan Shui painting by presenting a timeless image in the fast changing Chinese society. While black & white photography has been the obvious medium for Zhang Jin’s photo series, his photograph of the Silk Road is a fascinating syncretic cultural product, reflecting on the connection between past and present in the remote northwest of China.

Recently, Zhang Jin and Taca Sui’s work can be seen in numerous magazines and book publications as well as individual and group exhibitions in China, Japan and US that give viewers a whole new perspective on contemporary Chinese landscape photography.

V. Conclusion
If this essay has any future use, it will form part of my Chinese landscape photography study. Landscape, as a genre, has generally not yet been discussed in the history of Chinese photography. Yet Chinese young photographers persist in exploring areas in terms of histories and geographies, focusing on the interaction of humans, the environment and on Chinese aesthetics. Meanwhile, as a photographer, landscape is very much related to my own practice. It brings together my ideas and research on this issue. Above all, I hope to show my reader the current trends in Chinese landscape photography. I must stress that this essay is just an overview. There are many photographers whose body of work have influenced my thinking, but whose work is not specifically referenced – the range of examples of practices is simply too expensive to be encompassed in a short essay.

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The Challenging Archive: Studying Photographers of the Chinese Communist Party

Essay by GAO Chu and WANG Shuo

Essay originally published at Trans Asia Photography Review

Volume 4Issue 1Archives, Fall 2013


For the past decade, our research has focused on a group of CCP (Chinese Communist Party) photographers whose careers span from the 1930s to the 1980s. Despite their prominence in Mao’s China, neither their careers nor their works have enjoyed in-depth studies that go beyond generalized analysis of “propaganda.” As most of them began their work during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–45), their photography played an important role in mass mobilization, either documenting the war or recording various campaigns in the Communist bases known as the Liberated Areas.

Thanks to training classes launched by the party, the number of the CCP photographers grew steadily and reached a few hundred by 1946, when the domestic war between the Communist Party and the Nationalist Party resumed. After the Communist Party took control of Mainland China and established the People’s Republic of China (PRC), in 1949, this cohort formed the nucleus of the top photography circle of Mao’s China. Their proven loyalty to the party landed them in prestigious positions.

Like the other early PRC political and cultural elite, these photographers suffered persecution during the tumultuous years of anti-rightists campaigns and the Cultural Revolution. Those who survived continued to work after the Cultural Revolution, until their retirement in the 1980s. Through lectures, exhibitions, and publications, their visions and voices continued to influence Chinese visual cultural for the next decades.

The work and lives of the CCP photographers are indispensible to our understanding of the history of twentieth-century Chinese photography. Nevertheless, the condition of collections of their works remains a great challenge. In general, their images are difficult to access, and many have yet to be declassified. The biggest challenge, however, lies in attribution. A large number of their photographs were not signed or were signed under collective authorship, and attributions of photographs taken during the war years of the 1930s and 1940s bear many mistakes. Some are a natural result of the chaos surrounding the production of war photography; others reflect the turbulent history of archives themselves—for example, the merging of those of the three main CCP pictorial magazines: Jinchaji Pictorial, Huabei Pictorial, and The People’s Liberation Army Pictorial. In addition to misattributions caused by circumstance, some photographs were deliberately mislabeled. For instance, photographs of one battle would sometimes be recaptioned to represent a more significant battle that did not have its own photographic records.

Although attribution is not an uncommon challenge, especially in fields such as vernacular photography and survey photography, the archive of CCP photographers requires special scrutiny.

We have approached the photographs—previously treated as mere illustrations of historical texts—as the primary subject of inquiry. Borrowing methods from art history, we have compiled a body of works of individual photographers that can then be used as a frame of reference for further study. Our attributions are based on two efforts.

First, we unearthed the records and negatives from the photo archives of the major CCP pictorials, which often bear the names of photographers, names that were erased or obscured by collective authorship in the subsequent use of the images. As the negatives were developed during hectic military marches, each photographer came up with ingenious methods of making impromptu “darkrooms,” which produced valuable images but imperfect negatives. The marks of deficits turned out to be characteristics that greatly helped our identification.

Second, in the past few years we interviewed more than two hundred people, among them CCP photographers, their colleagues, their relatives, and their friends. The photographers themselves were the most reliable identifiers of their own works.

The rich oral history we have compiled through this project is crucial to the understanding of these photographers’ experience and self-identity.

It is worth noting that our project has heightened our own awareness of the underlying criteria by which photographs were highlighted in previous publications. For example, those editors of newspapers and magazines who wanted to show historical significance and those featuring artistic achievement would select different photographs. When we returned to the negatives and archive record, however, we often encountered photographs that were excluded by those criteria. Considered to be “not that important,” such photographs reveal a great deal about the career and style of individual photographers. In wartime, for example, photographs were chosen based on the particular significance of the war they documented. On the other hand, a series of photographs of a now forgotten battle might bring to light the unique compositional and narrative style of the photographer.

Based on our research, we managed to match to their photographers thousands of images taken during times of war and millions taken after 1949. We developed an archive that is anchored in individual photographers, each with a considerable body of photographs supplemented with textual materials such as their writing, speeches, correspondence, and even confessions and self-criticisms from the anti-rightists campaign and the Cultural Revolution.

Although we began with inspiration from art history, further studies led us to domains such as social history, cultural history, and media studies. Not only have these materials enabled us to conduct in-depth studies that enrich the writings of histories of Mao’s China and challenge the simplified understanding of “propaganda,” but we have also started the process of publishing these materials, despite several obstacles, among them censorship of sensitive materials and a lack of funding.

Our project of building an archive of CCP photographers is ongoing and our research based on this archive is still preliminary, but we would like to introduce a few observations with the examples of photographs of the Liberated Area in northern China taken between 1947 and 1948 by two CCP photographers, Gao Liang (1921–2006) and Wu Qun (1923–1996).

Figs.1.1 and 1.2. Gao Liang, “Peasants had it all out with the landlord, Xi Zhuang village, Wan County.” On the right (fig. 1.2) is an archive record with a handwritten caption.

The handwriting of captions on archive records helps us identify the archivists and provide important clues to be able to date when these photographs entered the archives. The records also contain numbers for the negatives, and these help us reconstruct the original sequence in which the photographs were taken. The negatives next to each other are very likely taken by the same photographer, which we can confirm by the condition of the originals.

The captions on archive records were based on information jotted down by the photographers, but were often altered in subsequent disseminations of the pictures. An original caption that contains the date, location, and content of a photograph was gradually transformed into a vague caption loaded with ideological messages. This phenomenon has contributed to later misidentification, which made these original captions invaluable evidence for our identification and reattribution.

Our research shows that about twenty percent of the photographs were misattributed or misidentified. We strove to correct these mistakes by meticulous comparison between archive records and other resources, as well as detail-oriented interviews with photographers.

Figs. 1.3–6. Gao Liang, “The people who got land,” June 1948.
Figs. 2.1 and 2.2. Wu Qun, “PLA were marching across the Yang River, advancing on Yuguan,” May 1947.


Figs. 2.3 and 2.4. Wu Qun, “One scene of Land Reform in Fuping: Exposing and criticizing the sheriffs who had bullied and oppressed the people.”
Figs. 2.5 and 2.6. Wu Qun, “Liu Shaoqi was giving a speech on Land Reform,” 1947.

The majority of CCP photography in the late 1940s focused on the war. The small amount that reflected economic, political, and social aspects of life usually centered on specific themes, such as land reform. These images, despite their small number in relation to those relating to the war, are significant, as they established the visual paradigm for the vast amount of propaganda photographs after 1949. The photographs of land reform demonstrate striking similarities, both in subject matter and in modes of expression. Two themes stand out: peasants beaming with delight and landlords dispirited by their doomed future. Whereas the first theme confirms the legitimacy of the redistribution of land and visualizes the concept of “the people,” the second echoes the converging discourses of class antagonism and patriotism that justified the confiscation of land from landowners, with the dual accusation of exploitation and treachery.

This approach of the CCP photographers becomes even more evident when their works are compared to those taken during the same period by two members of the British Communist Party: David Crook and Isabel Crook. In late 1947, David and Isabel Crook arrived at the village known as the Ten Mile Inn (Shilidian), in the Jinjiluyu Liberated Area. Trained in sociology and anthropology, the couple came with the purpose of observing, recording, and even participating in China’s revolution. Their eight-month stay led to some seven hundred photographs and two publications about the village.

Although their photographs were used only sporadically in their publications, over a period of twenty-two months we repaired and meticulously cataloged the entire lot. These photographs not only record a series of historical events including land reform and CCP rectification, but also capture the village’s everyday life, including ceremonial activities such as festivals, rituals of ancestor worship, weddings, and funerals, thus revealing the traditional economic structure and cultural system in rural northern China through skilled anthropological observation.


Fig. 3.1. David Crook, “Women working together.”
Fig. 3.2. David Crook, “Working in the fields.”
Fig. 3.3. David Crook, “Cultural activities in the street during the Lantern Festival.”
Fig. 3.4. David Crook, “Cultural activities in the street during the Lantern Festival.”
Fig. 3.5. David Crook, “The inauguration meeting of the peasant association.”
Fig. 3.6. David Crook, “The gate of Li Ancestry Hall.”
Fig. 3.7. David Crook, “The funeral of village head Wang Xitang’s mother.”
Fig. 3.8. David Crook, “Acrobatic performance.”

The goal of the photographs by the Crooks was to capture various aspects of rural life—an approach reflecting their identities as scholarly Western Communists and continuing the documentary tradition of photography as social survey. The CCP photographers, on the other hand, aspired to interpret and validate the reality of the Liberated Areas. The approach of the CCP photographers should be understood within the context of the collective imagination of the Chinese Communist revolution. Their production of images, just like literary production of the same period, helped to generate and consolidate a new understanding of justice, class, and the “people.”

The way by which the photographers interacted with their subjects, along with the mechanics of photographic production, continued after 1949. Their wartime photography, however, which could rarely be posed or staged, was transformed into reports of daily life loaded with ideological messages. The idiosyncratic methods individual photographers developed during the war also became deliberate pursuits of a personal style. Bravery, the once highly valued quality of war photographers, was replaced by political sensibilities as the new criteria for evaluation and promotion in the genre.

We also want to highlight the distinctive condition of the archives of CCP photographers and the challenges it posed to scholarship. The study of the work of Wu Qun and Gao Liang could not be advanced without the development of a much larger project that investigates the CCP photographers as a group. In other words, if we approach the archives with the intention of doing case studies of individual photographers, we would not be able to define a reliable set of core materials that would lead to meaningful discussion. The current stage of the study of CCP photographers requires researchers to clarify the general conditions of their production and conduct basic attribution and identification of photographs before they can advance.


About the Author: GAO Chu is a graduate student in the Communication University of China (CUC). His research focuses on Chinese photographic history, primarily from the 1930s to the 1980s. He has spent more than ten years interviewing senior photographers of this period, and helped them to edit their negatives, photos, and diaries and to finish a series of case studies. He is also an editor and curator. He is now conducting fieldwork in the Ten Mile Inn for a book that will use texts, oral history, and photographic materials to describe the vicissitudes of a village. WANG Shuo, an independent scholar of Chinese classical literature, is also interested in Chinese photography. She has participated in the project of collecting, sorting, and exploring the photos taken in rural northern China; is a core member of David and Isabel Crook’s photography project; and serves as co‐curator of the exhibition “North Rural China: 1947–1948.”





1976, A Year in Chinese Photography ‘s History

Essay by YINING He


The talk of China as unique, and to describe it as the world’s oldest and most distinctive continuous civilization, is to impose synthetic cultural cum racial wholeness upon a highly factionalized entity. This tense and uncertain society, riven by a hotchpotch of warring groups and cabals seething with envy and ambition, struggling for power, was held together by force of will, by military strength, and by the propaganda of ideas, beliefs and codes of behavior which evolved into a highly acute sense of Chinese civilization (Hodder, 2000, pp19-20).

Photography reached China as soon as Britain broke its door during the First Opium War (1839 – 42). It has played an important role in different socio-culture and historical aspects over the last 150 years. Once led by Empress Dowager Cixi, the first amateur photography club was established in China in the late 1900s. Soon after the declining of the Qing Empire, a group of intellectuals, educators and social reformers realized the power and image from the 1920s onwards. Then during the Sino-Japanese War, the true power of photography to document the state of the nation and its society was fully demonstrated (Gentz, 2008, p20). However, after Chairman Mao founded the PRC in 1949, photography played an important role in the party’s propaganda in order to win minds and hearts across China. It wasn’t until 1976, the year when Mao passed away, “the individualized and self-conscious form of documentary photography found its way to being accepted as a legitimate form of photographic expression” (Gentz, 2008, p20).

While many books have referenced Chinese photography in 1976, there is no integrated available research that emphasizes the cultural and political contexts of such topic. Although the aim of the research is primarily to illustrate China documentary photography in the year 1976, the first chapter gives the reader a basic idea of photography under Mao, ‘a propaganda tool for recording news of great political significance that one is duty bound to report’, according to Sha Fei, one of the most famous photojournalists in Mao’s time. For that same reason, I will extend the research from 1976 to 1986, which I will present at the end of the article.

Propaganda: Photography under Mao

Propaganda, according to Harold Lasswell, a leading American political scientist and communications theorist: “is the manipulation of collective attitudes by the use of significant symbols (words, pictures, thinks) rather than violence, bribery or boycott.” Propaganda, Power and Persuasion is the latest exhibition to take place at The British Library in London St Pancras. Co-curated by Jude England and Ian Cooke, this is the first exhibition to explore international state propaganda from the 20th and 21st centuries. Governments control education, currency, national symbols and sometimes mass media and can use these powerful tools to shape national identity. At times, a leader may come to personify a nation both at home and abroad (British Library, 2013). Mao Zedong’s portrait, one of the most extraordinary world known images is hanging at the exhibition hall along with Lenin and Stalin.

After Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, the concept of reality dictating purpose permeated all aspects of the arts (Gentz, 2008). Writers, photographers, filmmakers and people from all propaganda departments work together to create the arts that served to promulgate the image of Maoism, of New China, of revolution and modernization. There is a photograph taken by Hou Bo in 1959, a female photographer in charge of photography at Zhongnaihai (the central headquarters for the Communist Party of China and Central government of the PRC since 1949). This photograph, with Mao Zedong smiling standing at the center of a group of foreign delegates, was labeled “We have friends all over the world”.  Hou Bo used a flash to make the photograph lighter and ensuring that Mao’s smile stands out from the center of the image, appearing larger, and more prominent than the others. In spite of that, the photo was actually taken during China’s great famine, believed to have killed between 15 million and 43 million people. As Art Historian, Claire Roberts noticed:  “Photography gives us the appearance of truth, and yet what we see in a photograph can never be the truth.”

Documentary photography was reduced to presenting a simplified version of life: the happiness of peasants and the working people; the development of national industry; the people’s love for the Party; and the unhappy fate of former exploiters and class enemies. Instead of documenting social situations, most of the images produced worked to create romantic myths about a socialist paradise: people tempering steel, cotton pickers dancing gracefully between the cotton bushes, etc. In short, the subjects in front of the cameras had become actors and performers (Gentz, 2008).

For those assigned to take photographs – they were trained to use either medium format or 135 mm camera to produce the same type of photographs. Even though there were a few successful photographers standing out from the crowd, photographs are often difficult to distinguish from one another. As Karen Smith criticized Hou Bo’s photography career, “There were no concept of the ‘I’ behind the lens, they did not seek to present their own vision but to give vision to the reinvention of China”. (Smith, 2004)

Journalistic photography, taken during the Cultural Revolution, was increasingly paralyzed by ongoing battles between rival political factions. “China Pictorial was one of the few illustrated magazines to publish continuously during these years, its covers graced by artfully doctored portraits of a vivacious and rosy-cheeked Mao,” according to Christopher Phillips, curator at International Center of Photography.

During the years of Cultural Revolution (1966 -76), there was an    environment in which all visual materials, especially the photographic output of the propaganda bureaus attached to work units and state organs across China, were entirely formulaic: without exception, everything followed the exacting standards of an absolute proscription concerning gesture, expression, and vision that left little room for individual interpretation. (Smith, 2004, p14)

Many photographs were left mysterious to outsiders and even the Chinese themselves. Thousands of photographs and negatives were destroyed during the catastrophe. Nevertheless, Li Zhensheng, who was a press photographer from Heilongjiang Daily, hid thousands of negatives under the floor of his house. Lately Zhensheng has published his extraordinary book Red-color news soldier: a Chinese photographer’s odyssey through the Cultural Revolution, which includes the only complete set of surviving photographs to document the entire period.

Despite the highly censored press environment during that period, “the ordinary person had as little awareness of the métier of a “photographer” as they had exposure to what photography was or the role it played in other, developed nations, in terms of art, life, and furthering human understanding” (Smith, 2004).

As the Chinese always say, “man proposes but god disposes’, 1976, a dramatic year in the history of PRC, witnessed the fall of the Gang of Four and an end of “The Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”. It was a year that changed the history of modern China, and also marked the beginning of ‘the people’s photography.’


1976: Beginning of People’s Photography

 China has had a sorrowful year, staring with the death of Premier Chou Enlai on 8 January. A meteorite shower was followed by the violence of the Tiananmen Incident. A massive earthquake devastated Tangshan in Hebei province that resulted in 655,000 deaths. Tremors continued as Chairman Mao died on September 9, which brought the fall of the Gang of Four and an end to the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution.

The year that witnessed China’s social transition, 1976, also saw the beginning of the People’s Photography. It was a year that most incredible historical photographs were made in order to record the memories of modern China by both official and individual photographers.

First of all, official photographers, who all had good access, courtesy of their work unit, captured some of the historical moments in 1976. Du Xiuxian was in born 1926, he studied photography in the People’s Liberation Army’s Art Troupe headed by the photographer Wu Yinxian. He joined the Xinhua News Agency in 1956, where he was appointed chief photographer of the team that covered Zhongnanhai, the headquarters of the Chinese leaders in 1960. Du, who produced hundreds of thousands of photographs during his career, captured the most sorrowful moment of China in 1976 among other authorized photographers. Du and his camera covers all the big events in 1976, which include the meeting of former U.S President Richard Nixon and Chairman Mao, the Tangshan earthquake, the death of Mao and so.

Although Du’s photographs served strict propagandist purposes, it gives a spectacular view of the most stunning moments in Chinese history. A photograph taken by Du at the funeral of Mao, captured the sorrow of thousands who attended the funeral and it became a symbol of collective memories. Undoubtedly, images taken by official photographers form a large part of archive in the history of Chinese photography. Liu Heung Shing is a Pulitzer Prize winning photojournalist who was born in Hong Kong originally. In 2008, he completed a comprehensive book China, Portrait of a Country, which presents China as seen by 88 leading Chinese photographers. Many of Du’s fantastic photographs, which are layed out as a double page in this book, express its deep grief of China over 1976.

Secondly, 1976 marked the beginning of ‘people’s photography’, photography by individuals – many of them from families of political or cultural influence – who had experienced the trauma of the Cultural Revolution and, no longer content merely to witness history, wanted to record their own perspectives and life experience (Roberts, 2013). Those individual photographers, who took personal risk to record the mass demonstration for posterity, captured the images that would not appear in official archives.

Despite the heavy political censorship followed by all sorts of disasters during the Cultural Revolution, there were individuals who started to learn western theories in art, literature and other fields secretly. Underground poetry groups, such as a nation-wide Enlightenment Society with branches in Beijing, Guangzhou and Guiyang, played a very important role during that time. Unlike poetry, photography was not a domain for the amateur or non-specialist. Chinese made camera were not cheap and develop services were not readily available during that time. Take the Seagull 4A camera for example, a Shanghai made twin lens reflex camera cost 250 RMB (£25) in the early 70s, when the average income of the Chinese was 40 RMB per month. Nevertheless, people who lived in big city still got the chance to buy a camera in large department stores at incredibly high prices. Since 1976, amateur photographers began using cameras to capture moments that they believed should be engraved in history.

In April 1976, after the death of Zhou Enlai, hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Tiananmen Square to memorize him and soon the first demonstrations were took place. A symbolic photograph taken by Luo Xiaoyun, photographed Li Tiehua, a director at the Beijing Red Flag Peking Opera troupe, giving a speech to the crowd. Luo Xiaoyun was born in 1953, she took this photograph at grave personal risk on the day when the authorities suppress the crowds, beating and arresting people.

Li was later arrested for his criticism of the Gang of Four and Luo Xiaoyun hid many negatives in the next few years. Meanwhile, Wu Peng, a railway worker and a self-taught photographer is among those who recorded the mass outpouring of emotion. Wu Peng’s ironic image of the power of the people, which was given the caption ‘Unity is Strength that will Lead us to Tomorrow’ shows a group of young people marching arm in arm from the east side of the National People’s Congress towards the center of Tiananmen Square. Working individually, each of them took hundreds of photos in the square throughout the April Fifth Movement and preserved the negatives during the subsequent political persecution (Wu, 2004, p15).

Chinese documentary photography, thus stands on the threshold of an exciting historical moment, begins to extricate itself from cultural and political opposition. Those unauthorized photographers, distinct for being independent of any official photography bureau are the exception to the rule in becoming a photographer of both their own volition and means. Some of them, such as Li Xiaobin, Wang Wenlan, Wang Zhiping, would later become the leaders of the New Wave Movement in the 1980s.

Last but not least, a few photographic groups, which were formed in order to share the knowledge and art of photography, marked the beginning of a “Cultural Renaissance” in the history of Chinese photography. “Chinese artists, who were effectively isolated from the Western art world from 1949-1979, have felt compelled to assimilate as rapidly as possible the key lessons of international modern and contemporary art, as Christopher Phillips discussed in Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China (Philips, 2004, p41).

During 1976 to 1979, two individual photography groups in Beijing formed, latterly became the core of the April Photo Society. One group, which known as “Friday Salon”, formed as early as the winter of 1976, and had thirty to forty members who gathered every Friday evening in the dorm of the young photographer, Chi Xiaoning in the western part of the city. Meanwhile, another group met regularly in Wang Zhiping’s small apartment in the eastern part of the city.

Organized by the April Photo Society, the Nature, Society, and Man exhibition opened in Beijing on April 1st, 1976, which exhibited 280 works by 52 photographers. As Claire Robert noted in her latest book Photography and China: “the exhibition was the first such event staged by an independent community arts organization since 1949 and attracted large crowds (Roberts, 2013, pp129). The appearance of the first unofficial photo club and exhibition in Beijing in 1979 turned away from reportage and explored forms of photography.

As Wang Zhiping wrote for the exhibition preface, the focus was Natural, Society, and Man.

News photos cannot replace the art of photography. Content cannot be equaled with form. Photograph, as an art should have its own language. It is now time to explore art with the language of art, just as economic matters should be dealt with by using the methods of economics. The beauty of photography lies not necessarily in “important subject matter” or in official ideology, but should be found in nature’s rhythms, in social reality, and in emotions and ideas (Wang, 1979).

To conclude, it is no exaggeration to say that 1976 has played a vital part in the history of Chinese photography. The Chinese experience of photography in 1976 stands apart from the West, followed by a documentary turn. Documentary photography came to dominate the new wave moment in a decade’s time, which went on to influence many generations.

Ten Years in a Moment: A Radical Shift

The photography exhibition Ten Years in a Moment from which images were exhibited at the National Art Museum of China on April 5th, 1986, a decade after the Tiananmen Incident, presented an unparalleled look at changing lifestyles in China through the lens of Chinese photographers.  The exhibition’s preface, made the focus of Ten Years in a Moment explicit:

A decade ago, we used our camera for shooting April Fifth Movement.  During the last ten years, we still use cameras to memorize, to know and understand the great transition of our society. We are approach to discovering truth from a new angle and using new methods…

After Mao died and the Gang of Four fell from power, the April demonstration was “rehabilitated” as a positive event, and the photos by Luo Xiaoyun and others were exhibited and published in a book designed to promote the new regime. “Photographs that were dissident reportage were co-opted as official images of commemoration,” said by Claire Roberts.

As China started opening up economically from 1978, it also opened up intellectually. By the late 1980s, the process of reform had also begun to influence and change the media. As time passed, there were more and more magazines, and there were more and more magazines and there were also increasing opportunities to publish photographs in the public arena – and as an aesthetic rather than a visual missive (Smith, 2004, p15).

At last, as Mark Riboud wrote for his book Vision of China: “In 1980, the last image of China I took away with me: in the heart of   the Forbidden City, the Chinese no longer pose in front of Mao’s portrait but beside a car, symbol of the consumer society’s ideal all over the world. This is a stunning turn. “


Research Report

British Library (2013) Propaganda, Power and Persuasion. London: British Library

Fessler, L. (1976) China 1976: Year of Sorrow. American Universities Field staff Reports. Vol. XXIII, no. 4.

Gentz, N. (2008) Documentary Photography in China. Edinburgh Review. Vol. 124, pp20-21.

Hodder, R (2000) In China’s Image: Chinese Self-Perception in Western Thought. New York: St. Martin’s Press

Liu, H.S (2008) China: Portrait of a Country. London: Thames and Hudson

Li, Z (2003) Red-color news soldier: a Chinese photographer’s odyssey through the Cultural Revolution. London: Phaidon

Riboud, M. (1981) Vision of China: Photography by Marc Riboud, 1957 -1980.  London: Traveling Light.

Roberts, C (2013) Photography and ChinaThe True Record. London: Reaktion Books

Smith, K (2004) Photography in China from 1949 to the Present. In: Kohler, S., Lutgens A. & Westermann, A. The Chinese: Photography and Video from China.  Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz.

 Wu, H. Phillips, C (2004) Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China. Göttingen: Steidl Publishers