Eliza Ho, Art, Documentary, and Propaganda in Wartime China: The Photography of Sha Fei [exhibition catalog] (Columbus: East Asian Studies Center, The Ohio State University, 2009) 92 pp. ISBN 978-098247152-4

Sha Fei, 1912-1950, (born Situ Chuan) was one of the most admired Leftist photographers in China during the wartime years of 1937-1949. During those dark days photography was a powerful tool to publicize the plight of the Chinese people in their struggle against the Japanese invasion and, later, during the Chinese civil war. Sha Fei’s richly textured and dynamic images of social and military struggles preserve the immediacy of the documentary snapshot while conveying a persuasive Leftist empathy. Now the subject of a major exhibition at The Ohio State University (January 19 - March 27, 2010), Sha Fei is getting renewed attention as one of the most influential photographers of his generation. Despite his early demise (gravely ill and perhaps suffering from combat fatigue, he killed a pro-China Japanese doctor and was executed by the Communists), he was a crucial shaper of political opinion during the war, and his warm, dramatic, and ideologically-charged photographic presentations were emulated for decades thereafter. We still know far too little about Chinese photographers and their contributions to the development of modern media and politics. This exhibit brilliantly expands our understanding of the inter-reliance of image and ideology in modern China.

The exhibition Art, Documentary, and Propaganda in Wartime China: The Photography of Sha Fei, of which this book is the catalog, is curated by Eliza Ho, a doctoral candidate in art history at The Ohio State University who has gained enviable access to Sha Fei’s archives. With rich biographical material and probing essays that ably unpack the composition and political valence of Sha Fei’s images, Ho’s catalog is a highly useful and stimulating introduction to the photographer. The catalog begins with examples of Sha Fei’s early work when he aspired to become an art photographer. But Ho argues that even his early soft-focus landscapes were imbued with nationalist sprit, because Sha Fei’s goal was to celebrate terrain already under threat from Japanese incursion. By the mid-1930’s, Sha Fei’s sympathy with Leftist causes informed images of blind beggars, impoverished children, and gaunt (yet stalwart) peasants. Making his name in art circles, he scored the ultimate coup with unauthorized snapshots of the adored writer Lu Xun (1879-1936) at a woodcut exhibition. When Lu Xun died a little over a week later, Sha Fei’s photographs proved to be the final images of the writer and became wildly popular. They later served as the template for the cover of Lu Xun’s collected works and for posthumous editions of his short stories.

Soon after his Lu Xun images garnered him national fame, Sha Fei entered the formal service of the Communist cause and became editor of one of the Party’s wartime publications. The Jin-Cha-Ji Pictorial [Jin cha ji hua bao 晋 察 冀 畫 報 ], named after the guerilla base area where it was produced, featured several of Sha Fei’s most famous photographic essays, including his portrait of the saintly Canadian doctor Norman Bethune (1890-1939). His images of soldiers crouching on rooftops, peasant armies marching through plumes of dust, and laughing young enlistees, convey an intensity that was the result of close framing devices that plunge the viewer directly into the action. Suggesting both the kinetic energy of Cartier-Bresson’s street photography and the rawness of Robert Capa’s combat work, Sha Fei’s photographs enable us to practically smell gunpowder and feel the grit of the battlefield under our feet.

Although Sha Fei’s images eschew the rigidity of much contemporary Communist imagery—a surprising feat given the preponderance of Soviet influence on Chinese visual art from the 1930’s onwards—they are still almost always political in nature. Narrating specific instances of military and government action while foregrounding Communist social ideals, they exude optimism and fortitude. Children laugh and smile, young soldiers keep their backs straight under fire, and even Japanese POWs break into song, grateful for the mercy of their Communist captors. The artistry required to make such tableaux appear spontaneous and natural marked Sha Fei as a photographer and propagandist of extraordinary talent. His early death notwithstanding, Sha Fei’s deft blend of ideology and empathy created a high watermark for subsequent generations of Chinese photojournalists. For its revelation of a major artist and important contributor to Chinese political discourse, Art, Documentary, and Propaganda in Wartime China and its catalog are landmark events that should not be missed.

Reviewed by Shana J. Brown, Assistant Professor, Department of History, University of Hawaii, Manoa.