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Liu Heung Shing, ed., China: Portrait of a Country by 88 Chinese Photographers (Köln: Taschen, 2008) 424 pp. ISBN 978-3-8365-0569-7 (hardcover)

For the four and a half years that Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Liu Heung Shing worked on this publication, he met with photographers across China and persuaded them to share with him “dusty negatives” long stored in “shoeboxes under beds.” In the process, he sifted through hundreds, if not thousands, of images. The book, he says, arose from a “visceral impulse” to “use my own contextual understanding of the Chinese people to discover works that may have been buried by Chinese editors fearful of straying too far from the official Party line” (p.11). The book is a handsome coffee-table book that offers English, German and French readers, in a tri-lingual publication, an unprecedented survey of images taken by Chinese photographers from 1949 to 2008. It is Liu’s eye that has shaped this portrait of a China, together with that of his collaborator, Benedikt Taschen, who “directed and produced” the publication.

At the heart of the book are the photographs, presented in six chapters, that take the reader through the six decades from 1949 to the present. The photographs have been carefully chosen to narrate an unfolding history and the choices largely reflect Liu’s own interest as a practising photojournalist. The name of the photographer and the year the photograph was taken appear beside each image and are accompanied by brief interpretive captions. Many of the photographs are printed as full-page and double-page images, enhancing their visual impact. Some are accompanied by quotations from historical and contemporary sources, both Chinese and foreign, such as a comment from Goethe (1827) on China and moderation that is paired with images of massed labourers working on the Red Flag Canal in 1974 (pp. 246-7). The juxtaposition of quotes and images disrupts singular interpretations of images and suggests alternate tangents of response. Essays by Liu Heung Shing, James Kynge on historical context, and Karen Smith on photography and art introduce the book, which ends with a chronology, short biographies of the Chinese photographers and a map of the People’s Republic of China drawn to PRC specifications.

Liu’s choice of images is refreshing and there are many photographs that are remarkable by any standard. For example, there is Du Xiuxian’s photograph of an old man seated in a wicker chair on the beach at Hainan in 1973. The subject is Marshal Ye Jianying, a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo and Vice-Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, captured during an unguarded moment by a trusted in-house photographer (p. 31). He wears nothing more than sunglasses and white draw-string underpants as he gestures at an interlocutor beyond the picture frame. Other photographs that strongly reflect their cultural context include an image by Jiang Xiaowu of four male Red Guards weeping over a portrait poster of Mao Zedong after hearing about his death in 1976 (pp. 262-63); Li Zhensheng’s now familiar but always shocking portraits of individuals being humiliated and executed during the Cultural Revolution (pp. 172, 176-77, 198); and a photograph of the performance artist Rong Rong lying naked atop a section of the Great Wall in Gansu province with a river flowing below and the desert landscape stretching into the distance (p. 355). Such images highlight in different ways the power of photography to catch the transitory fragility of life.

Liu’s own story is compelling. He was born in Hong Kong in 1951 and sent to China (Fujian Province) at a very young age to be raised by his grandmother. He was then sent back to Hong Kong in 1960 to avoid the famine. A decade later he travelled to New York, where he studied political science at Hunter College. His life changed direction after an encounter with Gjon Mili, an Albanian-American photographer renowned for his action images. Mili accepted him as an intern; later, he was an apprentice at Life magazine, which set him on a course to become a photo-journalist. In 1976, Liu was asked to cover the funeral of Mao Zedong for Time magazine, but was prevented from travelling beyond Guangzhou. He returned to China in 1978 as the first foreign correspondent for Time (1978-81) and later worked there for the Associated Press. Among the 28 images by Liu Heung Shing in the book are some superb, warm-hearted images from that time. One is a photograph of three young boys wearing similar reflective sunglasses, military-style caps, crisp white shirts and smart zip-front jackets, the epitome of 1980 Yunnan cool, and in whose glasses we see Liu at work with his cameras reflected back at us (p. 294). Another shows a student on roller-skates with one leg raised behind and his arms outstretched as about to fly, gliding past a statue of Mao Zedong at the Dalian Institute of Technology in 1981(p. 281).

Why are Liu’s images among the most memorable of those taken at a time when China was just beginning to open up again to the outside world? Is it because of his background as both an outsider and insider and what he terms “his own contextual understanding”? Is it because he had a greater understanding of what was happening around him than other photographers, empathy perhaps, or because his training as a photographer in the United States gave him a different aesthetic?

In a recent interview in The Beijinger, Liu comments that Chinese photographers and publishers were brought up with a particular way of seeing, and were conditioned to see photographs “in a certain way” and to “edit them in a certain way.” When asked about subjects that he had difficulty representing in the book he gave the famine as an example. “At that time in China, people don’t just go around photographing that sort of thing.” [http://www.thebeijinger.com/blog/2009/03/10/Interview-Photographer-Liu-Heung-Shing; accessed 1 December 2009]. The question of what we see, and how we are trained or encouraged to interpret images, is central to this fascinating book. Given Liu’s level of access to individual photographers and his understanding as a practitioner, more information concerning seeing and the actual practice of photography would have been welcome.

Among the photographers represented in this book are veteran chroniclers of the activities of Mao Zedong and the inner leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, notably Du Xiuxian (b. 1926) who joined the Xinhua News Agency and in 1960 became chief photographer at Zhongnanhai, where the Chinese Communist Party leaders live; and Hou Bo (b.1924), who was Mao’s personal photographer until 1961. Others were staff photographers at daily newspapers. Many of the images have not been previously published.

It is hard to look at these photographs without wanting to ask how the photographers worked within the state system, what restrictions were placed on them, how material was selected for publication, what post-production work was carried out on images and under whose direction. Was this work done by the photographers themselves or by others? How do the official photographers regard their past work now? Do they see it as propaganda?

In his essay, Liu comments: “Many photographers of the 1950s and 1960s used 35 mm cinematic film in their still cameras” (p. 12). But we are not told why. What was the relationship between still photography and cinematography? Did the co-option of cinefilm happen because it was the only film available? Is it a reflection of the practical ingenuity of Chinese photographers or a comment on the state system, the number of films that were being made, and the ease with which surplus stock could be obtained?

In the early decades of the twentieth century in China, documentary photography, photo-journalism, and art photography jostled for space in the pages of newspaper supplements and pictorial magazines. Perhaps this historical perspective offers a rationale for the inclusion of art photography alongside documentary photography later in the book in the context of the market boom of contemporary Chinese art, though that is a slightly jarring juxtaposition.

The final chapter documents the first eight years of the twenty-first century, where the selection of images appears to have been made on the basis of a familiar check-list: the handshake between Taiwan’s Lien Chan and mainland China’s Hu Jintao; young people partying; the Great Wall of China; SARS, pollution; coal miners, workers on the Yangtze River; Shanghai lifestyles; Chinese astronauts; the launch of Shenzhou 5; and the opening ceremony for the launch of the Olympic logo at the Temple of Heaven. The last double page spread presents three photographs, two of them attributed to “Anonymous”: Chinese riot police protecting themselves against the rock-throwing residents of Lhasa; a troubling image by Guo Tielu of a young man who was crushed to death in the Beichuan earthquake in Sichuan; and Chinese mountain climbers who carried the Olympic torch to the summit of Mount Everest. These photographs are visually less interesting, ending the book on a rather predictable note.

China: Portrait of a Country by 88 Chinese Photographers provides important new material in an emerging field. Despite its shortcomings, the book is a bold and stimulating introduction to Chinese photography from 1949 to 2008.

Reviewed by Claire Roberts, Research Fellow, The Australian National University, Canberra; Research Fellow, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University, 2009-2010; Senior Curator, Asian Decorative Arts and Design, Powerhouse Museum. Roberts is currently working on a book about photography and China that seeks to bring work by Chinese and non-Chinese photographers into dialogue.