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Shadows of the East

A stunningly first-hand account of life in China – a photography exhibition at Frankfurt's Museum of Modern Art. By Tilman Spengler

In a bleak upland region in central China two cheerful women walk out of a cave, above whose entrance a large sign proclaims "Fashion Store". On a branch of the Yangtze River village children stand up to their hips in the freezing cold water dangling souvenirs on the ends of long bamboo poles, hoping to attract the custom of the tourists on the passing excursion boat. A group of six blind story-tellers is led over a stony mountain pass in the north-east. Curious onlookers hiding behind their sunglasses crowd round the two victims of a traffic accident. A happy, exhausted mother breast-feeds her triplets.

Photo: Wu Jialin, 1997
Wagon and truck on highroad, landing plane in background ©

Those are just five images out of almost 600 photographs from the People's Republic of China that went on show on May 20 at the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt. This is a reproduction of an exhibition that first opened three years ago in Guangzhou before moving on to Shanghai and Beijing. In the original show 250 Chinese photographers showed works covering the past 50 years; the curators had a total of 100,000 photographs to choose from.

Now the photo show with the unusual name – the original version was also called "Humanism in China" – has landed in Frankfurt for its first stop in Germany. It will go on to Stuttgart, Munich, Dresden and Berlin, whose museums have also made a major contribution to the work of bringing the documentary pictures over to Germany. Visitors will be grateful, for nowhere in any other contemporary exhibition has it been possible to get closer to the ordinary life of the nation that makes up a quarter of the world's population.

Photo: Wang Wenlan, 1991
Cyling to work

The term "humanism" in its current Chinese form made its way into the cosmos of Chinese thought as a rather lonely stowaway in a Japanese translation of Schopenhauer: "The belief that mankind is the root". Of course today, when Chinese people speak about what we in the West would define as "humanism" they find their own idioms and metaphors, where Schopenhauer's role is naturally only a subsidiary one. So how did the courageous curators in Canton come up with this term? Two simple thoughts perhaps hold the key. "Humanism" has, as already mentioned, the premise that "mankind is the root". The decisive thing here is the idea of the root. The word "capitalism", which radiates a so much bigger promise in today's China, accordingly means "The belief that capital is the root".

Every Chinese person, if you will excuse the exaggeration for a moment, thinks in signs, in the characters of his culture. "Capitalism" and "humanism" are only a single character apart. Man against capital. A blind storyteller being led over the mountain pass will understand that, as will a mother trying to breast-feed triplets – as will even an onlooker staring through his shades at a victim on the road.

Photo: Liu Jianming, 1989
An old "folk caligrapher" leaving his writing everywhere

The semantic ballistics of the word "humanism" can, however, also be understood through the prism of the country's most recent history. The "brightest lighthouse that ever appeared as a character on a Chinese screen", as one prominent documentary film called him, Chairman Mao, staged an ideological battle against the "spirit of bourgeois humanism" shortly before launching the Cultural Revolution. Any intellectual who was able to imagine that passion, fear, violence, joy and compassion did not necessarily have to be the direct fruit of correct (or "false") socialist consciousness, and was able to express those thoughts, was put through the mill – if not by choice then by compulsion.

Today – bearing China's scarcely healed modern history in mind – anyone who brings up the word "humanism" is also evoking the socialist campaign that almost forty years ago led to the eradication of "humanist" culture in the name of socialism, or the no less devastating attack in the name of capital that began fifteen years ago. In both cases, it is important for posterity to record what made the two women so happy on their way out of the "Fashion Store" cave, and what souvenirs the tourists in the boat took with them. And what stories the blind men are going to tell after they have been led over the mountain pass.

Photo: Fen Jianxin, 1987
A soldier saying goodbye to his wife and child who have come to see him

The Chinese word for photography, sheying, puts the emphasis on the shade. Whereas the Greek word of Western tradition accentuates the light, the literal translation of the Chinese expression means "working with shade" (while filming is working with "electric shade", dianying). On the other hand, just to spoil the philologists' fun, we have also had our camera obscura – in semantic terms another child of darkness – for more than three centuries.

That is worth noting, to remind us that photography developed almost simultaneously in Europe and China. Historians have still not really made up their minds who, in the mid-nineteenth century, was the first to build a functioning apparatus to preserve some aspect of the visual "true-to-shade". But it is a fact that the process whereby an individual or a social group is frozen in a rigid pose through a lens has been known in both China and Europe for something more than one hundred and fifty years.

Photo: Chen Ling, 2001
Having a picture taken before the winter swim

In terms of composition, photography is a child of portrait-painting. In China we can even still find the confusing phenomenon where the reproduction of landscapes in photography follows the rules of traditional painting. Because this painting style never took a central perspective, the Chinese photographer was also forced to assemble his plates in such a way as if he had worked with several lenses, whose results then flowed together to form a single picture with many fields of view. As in the West, the heroic pose dominated in pictures of historical figures – rigidly seated or standing motionless. The portraitees went down in history as soldiers. Stoic and in their best finery. To this day in rural China it is not uncommon for a portrait sitter to flaunt three wristwatches or an unusual number of mobile phones. In Frankfurt his contemporary German counterpart would pose in a car showroom. We have not grown that far apart.

One of the fascinating aspects of the photographs on show in the exhibition here is precisely that nothing appears to be posed or staged, even though all the scenes must at least have taken their course in unspoken agreement with the camera. The photos taken by Walker Evans in the United States during the early 1930s, the time of John Steinbeck and "The Grapes of Wrath", are still pictorial documents that reprehend and carry a message. The "Humanism in China" exhibition does the same for its country, its society and its culture, but without ever pointing a rigidly threatening finger at the viewer.

Photo: Song Gangmin, 1997
Scene in a detoxification centre

Udo Kittelmann, the director of the Frankfurt Museum of Modern Art, deserves enormous thanks for this exhibition, which with great skill and sensitivity reproduces another exhibition, the historical original in Guangzhou. This aspect of reproduction even extends into the quiet reservation of the Chinese show. The pictures crowd together, not unlike the curious visitors to an exhibition in that country. The catalogue text documents with crafty precision how English is understood and interpreted by those who come to it from Chinese.

The exhibition in Frankfurt is accompanied by other works relating to the theme, continuing the recent tradition of the Frankfurt museum. Barbara Klemm's photos from China are as always a pure joy, but, for all my deepest respect for the other artists, I must advise against visiting the other works. The European interpretations of what is happening or may have happened in China cannot but appear coarse compared to the blind storytellers, the victims on the street, the children in the river, the women in front of the fashion shop.


The article originally appeared in Die Zeit on 24 May, 2006.

"Humanism in China" runs at the Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main until August 27, 2006.

Translation: Meredith Dale - let's talk european