A romp around the provinces of China.
On January 1st 2014 the then President of China, President Xi Jinping made the following statement: “The stories of China should be well told, voices of China well spread, and characteristics of China well explained.” The significance of these words were all part of a massive PR or propaganda program on the part of the government. In 2010 the government officially recognised 56 minority groups. In doing so in tandem with infrastructure development in the poorer provinces the seeds of a tourist industry was being developed with the construction of massive highways, tunnels through impassable mountains and modern western styled hotels. In parallel the government had been inviting foreigners to visit China and experience this new world literally being created all around.
For five years I had the pleasure of being invited to China and have visited some eight times. I have been to the provinces of Sichuan where as a guest of the Chinese Embassy in London I was toured around the areas affected by the 2005 Wenchuan earthquake. This then led on to visits to the provinces of Guizhou and Gansu.
As a photographer who in 30 years has photographed across the world covering stories about slavery and its legacy, to photographing frozen chickens for Iceland Frozen Foods and at one time furniture for Sotheby’s, there is not that much I haven’t photographed. Over the years I’ve done a bit of lots of things, and in some ways doing more commercial work created the capital to develop projects – an element of prostitution that led to publishing.
In contrast, photographing strange people in costumes presented to you never really made sense. What was the role of myself and other invited guests? This has continued to frustrate me for years. Year after year we went back to China had lots of fun, experienced new cultures, people, landscapes and food – but the one resounding thought – why?
Having looked at early photography from the colonial period which were and are problematic from the perspective of consent and power imbalances, and, observing the work of the orientalist pioneers gawking at the newly discovered world consisting of different people and places. This photography we were engaged in seemed a bit like what I have described, we rarely had the consent of the subjects and we were as curious of 'them' as they were of 'us.
Arriving in a province with very little information, then being bussed off to mountain villages shrouded in grey mist we ultimately would arrive to be greeted by people who seemed genuinely pleased to see us. These minority people were always dressed in splendid colourfull clothes.
On reflection however it seemed that these people were simply staging a show for foreigners and this has been my frustration. The villages chosen were chosen by provincial leaders. They were pristine examples of a particular minority groups. Generally, these villages had little or no work. In guizhou, traditionally a coal mining and resource province, the creation of these tourist villages trading on years of history and minority culture in one investment did two crucial things in China. It created employment where there was unemployment and at the same time created a tourist industry. Chinas leaders relaxed the internal travel laws allowing people to move around the country. With its increasing middle class these people will and do fuel the internal tourist industry which brings money into these previously poor provinces. All good in some respects, but still, it leaves some confusion. As someone who did for a while photograph frozen chickens for money, undertaking this work in China for money is no different.
However, some questions still arise. The people we photographed, did we have their consent, did we actually understand anything about them. Our minders generally offered little or no information about who, what and why. The translators I think were surprised when we asked for individual name.
As a body of work made over five years about a people and place undergoing massive transformation whilst personally interesting, I still struggle with a process of making photographs where consent is dubious and where the apparatus of government is ultimately in control. The Chinese use the word propaganda, for westerners it has negative connotations – in china it simply means the dissemination of information in a literal way. The role of westerners was prescribed and ultimately it was a PR journey which was fascinating.
The last forum I attended dominated by a predominantly Chinese photographic body finally delved into the question of ‘tourist villages’ and the question of truth and honesty. In the west debate after debate about truth and the role of truth within photography divides opinion. Established rules are being questioned and criticised. If a photograph is presented stating it is constructed or has been manipulated, then the role of these images is honest within the process of telling stories. If the presentation of a photograph is misleading or an image has been manipulated, then it is dishonest – the image is misleading the viewer. The debate at the forum whilst it did not address issues of authenticity and truthfulness, it did raise the following. The tourist villages are state controlled, therefore how can you invite foreign photographers to create a snapshot of China as these villages are not the real China. This interested me that as a young country in terms of photography, a country that largely missed out of analogue photography but rather landed in a digital age of mobile phones and digital cameras has on its own questioned the role of state control which allow western and Chinese photographers to see what the state wants.
The complex relationship between state and photography has always been discussed in the west and I was very surprised to hear this as a discussion in China by Chinese photographers. There is definitely an ongoing discussion about the role of photography that is used to portray China.
However, within the context of President Ji Jinping statement – “these characteristics” applied to the tourist villages are just one aspect of China. Therefore, provided the images are presented within the context of “Chinas Tourist Villages” then they are presented honestly. Bringing it back to a western perspective are they any different to photographing Maypole dancers or reinactors doing battle on the field? Provided you do not imply that everyone behaves like this, then the context is honest in its presentation - simply you are watching a tourist show.
So being part of China’s PR program in developing its state funded tourist industry that has an ambition to be the No 1 to go to holiday destination with the next five years is what it is, pictures that are arranged by the state and mainly controlled and presented within that context, they are what they are.
On the odd occasions, however it was possible to be away from the tourist villages and meet children, or meet the old people who went through the cultural revolution. Sometimes unexpectedly you would stumble on something that was truly unexpected like a bull fight we found taking place in a river bed in Guizhou.
The real joy was meeting Chinas children. Always polite, excellent English and curious. These children are Chinas future, these children who have been born into a modern digital age are very different from their parents and grandparents, yet at the same time with all the modernity they are still bound by 5000 years of culture and history. They see a digital world presented on Tv and through the web. The children always seemed pleased to engage and in the main I always got their consent.
The children will be the future – they will be the custodians of China being the No 1 tourist destination.
These children and China will always be a mystery and as much as westerners may like to think they understand – they don't and probably never will.
China’s history is filled with the folklore of the different peoples who make up this extraordinary land that contains a vast mixture of cultures. Today the country regards itself as a multi-national state where its diverse population of 56 nationalities live and work within the national boundaries of the People’s Republic of China, and where traditions and customs are all interwoven to make up a unified nation.
The Han nationality represents 92% of the overall population - estimated now at over 1.3 billion - and plays a leading role in state affairs. Over the course of history, the Han have established strong ties with other ethnic groups in political, economic and cultural spheres. The Han people, who can be found across the country, predominantly come from the Yellow, Yangtze and Pearl River Valleys and the Songliao Plain of the northeast of China.
The ethnic minorities of China, although relatively small in number, actually inhabit about 50% to 60% of the country’s landmass. They mainly hail from or live in Inner Mongolia, Xinjiang, Tibet, Guangxi and Ningxia, as well as in some regions of Heilongjiang, Jilin, Liaoning, Gansu, Qinghai, Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, Guangdong, Hunan, Hebei, Hubei, Fujian and Taiwan.
According the census of 1990, the largest ‘minority’ group is the Zhuang with over 15 million people who largely come from Guangxi, Yunnan, Guangdong and Guizhou with the Manchu the second largest, numbering close on 9 million, and the Hui third with over 8.5 million. The Uygur people number over 7 million with the Tujia - who come from Hunnan and Hubei - reaching over 5.7 million, with Mongolians close on 5 million, and Tibetans around 4.5 million.
Apart from the Han, the other 55 nationalities are: the Zhuang, Hui, Uygur, Yi, Miao, Manchu, Tibetan, Mongolian, Tujia, Bouyei, Korean, Dong, Yao, Bai, Hani, Kazak, Dai, Li, Lisu, She, Lahu, Va, Shui, Dongxiang, Naxi,Tu, Kirgiz, Qiang, Daur, Jingpo, Mulam, Xibe, Salar, Blang, Gelo, Maonan, Tajik, Primi, Nu, Achang, Ewenki, Jino, Uzbek, Gin, De’ang, Yugur, Bonan, Monba, Drung, Oroqen, Tatar, Russian, Lhoba, Gaoshan and Hezhe.