Posts Tagged ‘China’
As 65th Anniversary of the Communist Takeover of China approaches, Iconic Photos is looking back at the world it changed.
In April 1944, Heinrich Harrer escaped a British internment camp in India to begin his 20-month journey across the Himalayas. Only in January 1946 — long after the war that forced the British authorities to detain Austria-born mountaineer (and as it later transpired, a member of the Nazi party) Harrer – he walked into the Tibetan capital at Lhasa, like a starving beggar.
Harrer was to spend seven years in Tibet, later recounted as the eponymous book and movie (above); under the Potala Palace, he built a skating rink, which brought him to the attention of the palace’s inhabitant, the 12-year old Dalai Lama. For the priest king, Harrer built a cinema, running the projector off an old Jeep engine. Later, he was Dalai Lama’s tutor in maths, geography, science, and history.
Harrer was an avid photographer too. As Court Photographer, he had taken over 2,000 negatives, of which a selection was published in 1991 in the album Lost Lhasa. His book was an unparalleled and sole account of nomadic, feudal, and monastic life as lived by the Tibetans well into the 1940s and 50s.
This life, including the pilgrims’ circuit of Lhasa he documented, was soon to be wiped out by a series of Chinese invasions. Both factions in the Chinese civil war, the Communists and the Kuomintang, had maintained that Tibet was a part of China. At the end of the civil war, the victorious Communists were ready to incorporate Tibet by force.
Two months after the Communist takeover of China, Mao Zedong ordered his army to march into Tibet. Feudal Tibetan theocracy was ill-prepared for a fight and months of frenetic negotiations failed to deliver results. On 23rd May 1951, the Tibetan representatives were forced to sign an agreement which in exchange for nominal self-governance, Tibet agreed to be part of China.
A decade of localized hostilities against the Communist followed; in 1959, the Dalai Lama fled Tibet as the Communists reneged on self-governance promises.
Twenty-five years after the Tiananmen Massacre, the nasty brutish affair resonates on …. but only outside China.
I have remembered June 5th in various ways over the last five years. With a contact sheet in 2013, with an interview with Charlie Cole, the photographer who took one of the iconic Tank Man photos in 2012. The year before, I remarked upon the Zeligian appearance of a former Chinese prime minister in one of the photos taken on the square. In 2009, I covered various versions of the Tank Man photos. In between, we saw the defacing of the Mao portrait during the protests and a defiant Ai Wei Wei. A profound irony is they cannot access WordPress from China, so I remain, as always, preaching to the choir.
I hate to keep banging on this drum but as a blogger of history, attempts to change history offends me to no end; and because of its economic power, China has gotten away with it too, aided by the biggest companies, latest being LinkedIn. In an anticipation of the 25th Anniversary, a stellar book is out: People’s Republic of Amnesia which every student of history and totalitarian regimes should read.
In a memorable passage, the author showed students at leading Beijing universities the photo above. The Chinese youngstars use many means to bypass the Great Firewall, but the black-out surrounding the history has been so effective, so total that only 15 out of 100 of the students polled correctly identified the picture!!!
So dogs may bark, but caravans have moved on. Charade continues. I will keep on blogging about this photo and the Communist Party will keep censoring it.
We will meet again in next June.
This blog gets frequently linked from reddit, many of whose users think this photo as ‘the worst photo ever’. For this author, that photo was not even the worst photo ever taken on a hapless child dying on the ground.
The photo above, by Jeff Abelin – of whom I found very little — speaks volumes louder. This photo conjures up a world of medieval fairy tales — of Hansel and Gretel — in late twentieth century China; a world where untold millions are sacrificed at the altar of demographic dividend; a world where certain stretches of the Yangtze River are common sites of infanticide by drowning. Life magazine comments on the photo:
“A group of Americans came upon this abandoned boy on a path in Fuyang and took him to a local hospital, where they were told by a staffer, “You should have left it where it was.” A day later, another baby was found [dead] in the same spot, and the day after that, the first child, suffering from pneumonia and a deformed heart, died anonymously.
“This picture and the accompanying story caused an uproar, as human rights activists placed the blame for a plague of abandonment and infanticide squarely on the government’s One Couple, One Child policy. Baby girls were at greater risk than boys, who might one day be of more use in the fields: Some estimates held that more than 1.5 million girls out of the 13 million children born in China each year, were being abandoned. Though the government countered that parents with “feudal ideas” were causing the problem, it eventually relaxed the One Child policy – a little.”
Life was optimistic and included the photo on ‘100 Photographs That Changed The World’. True, draconian forced abortions and imprisonments were replaced by huge fines for violators of One Child policy, but the photo didn’t change much. One Child policy still persists, some seventeen years after the photo was taken in September 1997. Today, China has 25-40 million fewer baby girls due to selective infanticides.
The year 1976 was not a happy year for Communist China. It began in January with the death of Premier Zhou Enlai, the urbane party grandee who held back the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution. A few months later, in July, a severe earthquake hit the industrial city of Tangshan, killing 250,000 people, according to government estimates (the real figure was probably much higher).
That the year was the Dragon Year — a watershed moment according to the Chinese astrology — could not have been far from anyone’s mind, let alone that of the old man succumbing to Lou Gehrig’s disease behind the walls of the Forbidden City. Chairman Mao was 81 and he had been the leader of the Chinese Communist Party since 1943; now he had been reduced by his ailment to communicating by means of cryptic scrawls on notepads. (The only person who could decipher them was his nurse).
Mao made his last public appearance on May 27, 1976, when he met the visiting Pakistani Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. Bhutto was a great admirer of Mao, emulating Chinese Communism with his own Islamic Socialism and Mao’s Little Red Books with a similar red book called “Bhutto speaks” and it was suspected that it was during this last meeting that Mao agreed to transfer 50 kg of uranium to Pakistan — an act that allowed Pakistan to develop its first nuclear weapons in the 1980s.
The photos from the meeting were last photos of Chairman Mao — and they made abundantly clear to everyone, including Mao, that he would not be alive much longer. Seeing them, Mao decided to end his public audiences altogether. By September, he was dead.
Iconic Photos’ annual look-back at a nasty and brutish affair.
June 5th is upon us again. In 1989, the Communist government in Beijing marred the date with a brutal and bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protesters gathered on Tiananmen Square.
Last year, I marked the occasion by an interview with Charlie Cole, the photographer who took one of the iconic Tank Man photos. The year before, I remarked upon the Zeligian appearance of a former Chinese prime minister in one of the photos taken on the square. In 2009, I covered various versions of the Tank Man photos. In between, we saw the defacing of the Mao portrait during the protests and a defiant Ai Wei Wei. A profound irony is they cannot access WordPress from China, so I remain, as always, preaching to the choir.
Above is the contact sheet from Stuart Franklin’s version of the Tank Man photos. His photos nearly risked confiscation by the Chinese police, but Franklin had left moments earlier to cover events at the Beijing University before the police came knocking on the journalists’ hotel. Afterwards his negatives were smuggled out in a packet of tea by a French student who later delivered it to Franklin’s Parisian office. Franklin, working then for Time, won the World Press Photo Award for his coverage.
What better symbol of the Chinese Colossus’ feet of clay than the baseless accusations against a lone artist, except possibly the inconvenient fact that the arrested artist was a co-designer of the Bird Nest Stadium, the centerpiece of the Beijing Olympics?
On 4th April, the artist Ai Weiwei was arrested by the Chinese government as he tried to board a plane out of Beijing. The arrest was unfortunate, but not altogether shocking. He may be the country’s most famous living artist, but Ai Weiwei had been the proverbial thorn in the Chinese government’s side for more than two decades.
He went on a hunger strike after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown; when he returned home from exile in New York, where he studied painting and photography, one of his first acts was to take a photo of his wife lifting her skirt and exposing her underwear on the Tiananmen Square. The bloodied square is a regular, conscientious feature in his work. When he took pictures of his hand, with middle finger extended, in front of famous national icons — from the White House to the Eiffel Tower — a middle digit was firmly raised to Mao’s portrait on the Tiananmen Gate . In case the symbolism was unclear, he stood in front of the Forbidden City, his shirt open, the word “Fuck” on his chest. He also named his Shanghai studio — which was forcibly demolished by the government earlier this year — “Fake”; it was less of a commentary on the modern art world than a Chinese homophonic take on “fuck”.
Yet these antics belied his strong political convictions; his twitter feed, while sometimes playful, focused on disappearances and detentions of dissidents. Equally inconvenient to the Chinese government were the questions on accountability he raised in the aftermath of the Sichan earthquake. Eventually, like Solzhenitsyn or Havel before him, Ai was arrested not just for his work, but also for what he came to represent: the conscience of a voiceless generation alienated by their own government.
Neither the Beijing Olympics nor the Shanghai World Expo — both considered China’s coming-of-age parties — could mask the truth that behind a faux-veneer of prosperity and development, China in 2011 was ideologically and politically no different from China in 1989 or Soviet Union before 1989 or Nazi Germany during the 1930s. Market economies, olympics and expos were introduced, with ample wishful thinking that they would alleviate some political, ethnic and religious marginalization, but the most important things last twenty years provided to the Chinese government may be tools to monitor and marginalize their population better, cheaper, and from a further, safer distance.
(Click here to sign a petition to free Ai Weiwei, which has attracted over 90,000 signatures. It would have attracted more signees if not for a hacking attack from China).
“If Mao’s Little Red Book was the national bible, Mao’s official portrait was the national stamp,” wrote the New York Times. Of these omnipresent facsimiles which graced bookcovers, stamps and money, not to mention walls of homes, schools, factories and government buildings, the most famous weighs 1.5 tons and stands six meters tall. A potent symbol of Communist power still hangs on the Tiananmen gate tower, from which rostrum Chairman Mao commenced a new republic in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution in 1966.
But very few people remember that Mao was not the first Chinese leader to appear in such hagiographical form on the Tiananmen Square. After his death in 1925, Sun Yat-sen, the founder of the Chinese Republic, was remembered by a giant portrait erected in the square. A similar image of Chiang Kai-shek, the Nationalist leader, stood on the guard tower from in 1945 (below left).
When the Communists first seized power in February 1949, they replaced Chiang Kai-shek not only literally but also on the Tiananmen. The first version of the iconic Mao was a hastily sketched portrait that stood barely a meter tall. But by the time Mao declared the founding of the People’s Republic on October 1st, the portrait was already in its second iteration, and showed Mao with an octagonal cap and coarse woolen jacket.
Soon, the cap has to go too, and in 1950, after a brief competition, a teacher from the Beijing Art Institute named Zhang Zhenshi was made Mao’s first official portrait maker. He painted the standard image, Mao in his trademark gray suit, that became the imprimatur of Communist China. (It was on one of Zhang’s images that Warhol based his Mao series.) Initially, the portrait had a functional purpose — it served as Mao’s double for people who were too far away to make him — a primitive version of those video screens at concerts. This portrait, which had Mao gazing into distance, was replaced by one in which Mao stared down at people.
In 1967, when the Cultural Revolution was already raging, a final tweak was added to the painting: for the first time, it showed both of Mao’s ears, rather than just one, proof that he was listening to all the people and not just a select few. This frontal pose has remained the standard ever since. In 1976, when Mao died, the colorful oil portrait was briefly replaced by a black and white photograph during the mourning period.
During the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, three teachers from Mao’s hometown defaced Mao’s portrait by throwing eggs filled with ink at it. They were swiftly arrested, and later received some of the harshest sentences in the crackdown with sentences of 16 years, 20 years and life respectively. For all the symbolism it represented, the portrait is often defaced (most recently in 2007 and 2010), and a spare is always kept on hand by the Communist Party for such eventualities. During the Tiananmen Square protests, however, the party was unable to replace the portrait swiftly, and they covered it with black cloth.
However, its importance in national myth is indelible; when the very first portrait was to be auctioned off, the public reaction forced the Chinese government to intervene and retain it. Similar outcry from Chinese diaspora forced Citroen to withdraw adverts featuring the iconic Mao unflatteringly.
Truth be told, seeing Mao even on Baidu Maps (China’s propaganda mouthpiece-cum-searchengine) inspired this post. Looking at Baidu Maps in 3D is like playing SimCity. My only objections are (1) that the Tiananmen Gate didn’t have such huge lanterns on it, and (2) that they still haven’t installed tanks in front of the Beijing Hotel yet.
As Nicholas Kristof wrote in the New York Times, there is something very tragic about Bahrain, the next stop on the Arab World’s 1989 train. That it is one of the most democratic countries in the Arab World may say more about its neighbors than Bahrain itself, but the country indeed made some crucial strides towards democracy in the last decade. In addition to a F1 racetrack, an international banking centre and a US naval base, Bahrain also has a well-educated political classes, constitutional monarchy and representative (if powerless) parliament. Yet, in the last two days, by violently attacking its own citizens, Bahraini government had negated all these steps towards democracy. Even if Bahrain’s Sunni rulers survive in its predominantly Shi’ite state, they will never recover from the bloodshed of yesterday — a poignant reminder of the Other 1989.
The Other 1989. The one in which the Chinese government brutally decimated its own citizens on the Tienanmen Square. Today, we don’t talk much about it for various reasons. Firstly, time had, sadly, clouded our memories. Secondly, positive-thinking forces us to focus more on (and draw parallels only with) on the Cold War that was won in 1989, not on its inconvenient Chinese chapter. Thirdly, we have cravenly abandoned our democratic and humanitarian principles to nurture our (undeniably important) relationship with China. Lastly, within China itself, Tienanmen Massacre was carefully purged out of history and out of collective memory itself.
On another front, the Bahraini protests provide a rare glimpse into how photoagencies and newspapers work alongside one another to cover breaking news from far away lands. Currently, the same photo from Getty Images taken by John Moore near the Pearl Square graces the homepages of major English-speaking news outlets: the New York Times (Global)/IHT; the Telegraph; the Times of London, the BBC; and Time magazine. Le Nouvel Observateur has a smaller version on its homepage and El Pais has another John Moore/Getty Image which is part of the same series. These days, seeing an identical image on such varied assortment of papers is extremely rare, and almost an unique occasion. (In other major papers, Le Monde has an AFP photo and Der Spiegel has a Reuters photo on their homepages).
This is a clear illustration of advantages photographers working for huge photoagencies have over other freelancers or even those who work for individual papers/magazines. This is also another reason that individual papers and magazines do not hire photographers exclusively anymore. For instance, no less than four photographers covered the famous Tank Man moment, but Jeff Widener was able to rely on a network (AP) and managed to distribute it faster than others working independently. It was Widener’s photo that was widely reproduced the next day. Likewise, Charlie Cole, with distribution and publicity power of a weekly (Newsweek) behind him, won a World Press Award for his version, although it can be said that of Stuart Franklin (Magnum, independent) was more aesthetic.
In 1962, an unheralded conscript was killed in Fushun, northeastern China. Lei Feng was just 20 when a banal accident — a falling telephone pole — ended his yet-undistinguished life. Officials later fortuitously uncovered his diary, allegedly filled with words of selfless devotion to the Communist Party. His ideal had been “to be a small cog in the machine,” working for the party and Chairman Mao. “Parents are dear to their children, but they can’t compare with Chairman Mao,” read one entry.
Mao needed all the propaganda skills he had to divert attention away from the Great Leap Forward, which was failing spectacularly; Lei Feng’s story was a godsend — as much as that word can be employed within Mao’s atheistic society. ‘Lei Feng’ myth thus promptly began with a ‘Learn from Comrade Lei Feng’ campaign, initially focused on performing humble Communist deeds, but later also on following the cult of Mao. The biography of Lei Feng saw some strange variants before the definitive version was prepared by the writers of the Propaganda Department in 1964.
Chinese leaders, including Zhou Enlai, Deng Xiaoping, and Jiang Zemin praised Lei Feng as the personification of altruism. ‘Lei Feng Exhibitions’ were organized in the large cities, showing many different “original” copies of the hero’s diary. These exhibitions –and the official illustrated diary — also contained a remarkable number of photographs, such as “Lei Feng helping an old woman to cross the street,” “Lei Feng secretly [sic] doing his comrades’ washing,” “Lei Feng giving his lunch to a comrade who forgot his lunch box,” and so forth. Susan Sontag was frankly dismissive of the authenticity of these photos in her On Photography. Simon Leys was more sarcastic in his 1977 book Ombres Chinoises: “Only cynical and impious spirits will wonder at the providential presence of a photographer during the various incidents in the life of that humble, hitherto unknown soldier.”
After Mao’s death, Lei Feng briefly remained a cultural icon symbolizing selflessness, modesty, and dedication, but his life became more openly questioned. A photograph later hilariously showed Lei wearing a wristwatch, an item of extravagance that was officially denied and practically unavailable to people of his rank*. Although many contemporary writers dismiss Lei’s continued importance, he remains one of modern China’s most resilient icons. Although his prominence in textbooks has declined, Lei Feng remains part of the national curriculum. He may now be subjected to open mockery, but there are still Lei Feng memorial, museum, and memorial day, and his life was also still celebrated in songs, T-shirts, kitsch internet animations and even a video-game even into 1990s and 2000s.
(cf. Wristwatches also made a rather unfortunate appearance in another series of iconic propaganda photographs made by an equally suffocating dictatorship.)
Arriving to China in the late 1850s, William Saunders was the first photographer in China. He opened his photo studio in Shanghai in January 1862, and his fascination with China led him to document scenes of everyday life which reflected nineteenth century China accurately.
His photos were very popular throughout China, and he contributed regularly to Western publications such as the Far East and the Illustrated London News. One of his most famous photos was that of a public execution during the Second Opium War. The photo, reprinted in many Western newspapers, met his audience’s expectations that the enemy they were fighting was ‘savage’, and justified the British military offensive there.
The Second Opium War (1856-1860) was one of the muddier wars — everyone from Russia to the U.S. was involved in what was primarily a military campaign to guarantee European sovereignty in China, which was already being weakened by the internal Taiping rebellion. In 1860, an Anglo-French army landed in Pei Tang and marched to Beijing.
One of the most dramatic moments of the China War was the execution of Private John Moyse. He refused to kow-tow to his Chinese captors, and was savagely beaten and beheaded in cold blood. When his fellow prisoners were released a week later, the tale of Moyse’s bravery spread and immortalized by Francis Hastings Doyle in the poem, The Private of the Buffs. The poem sensationalized Moyse as a newly-recruited young Kentish farmboy rather than a veteran middle-aged Irishman that he was and was instrumental in uniting the public opinion in Britain against the Chinese.
For a few unsettling months in 1969, tensions between two nuclear powers reached fever-pinch. On March 2nd, Soviet and Chinese forces engaged in a ludicrous hand-to-hand combat on an uninhabited island in the frozen Ussuri River that separates Manchuria from Russia.
The Sino-Soviet split which reached its high with the above conflict was baffling. Once, Beijing imitated many Soviet projects, from five-year plans to spy bureaus. The Soviets supplied MiGs to fight in Korea. Chinese kids were taught Russian. However, when Mao denounced Khrushchev’s de-Stalinization, the latter decided to cancel the Soviet aid to the Chinese atomic program and many infrastructure projects.
On March 2nd, Chinese soldiers crossed the ice to dig foxholes on the island. Deliberately provoking the Russians, they returned the next day shouting Maoist slogans. No one was sure how it began (both sides blaming each other), but after a two hour clash, two dozen Soviets and an unknown number of Chinese were dead.
In a second incident on March 15th, hundreds of Chinese died. Subsequent clashes occurred and China moved back industries to protect them from an air strike. Eventually, with a nuclear annihilation looming, both sides blinked–in October, a Soviet delegation arrived in Beijing. China looked elsewhere for much-needed allies, and found one in Richard Nixon.
October 1st 1949. Mao Zedong inexplicably arrived an hour early at the red-lacquered Gate of Eternal Peace, entrance to the 500-year-old palace of China’s emperors. He had chosen a symbol of ancient power to declare his new China. The man in charge of preparations, a loyal soldier named Guo Ying, 24, who had been fighting with the communists since he was 13, seated Mao in the former emperor’s waiting room and fetched him a bowl of apples. There Guo learned that Mao, in his haste, had forgotten the ribbon that each new leader pins to his tunic.
Just outside, in Tiananmen Square, 300,000 people squinted through a yellow haze of soot to see the man who, after two decades of fighting, had routed the American-backed forces of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. As Mao waited, Guo dispatched a comrade to find a piece of red satin and write “chairman” upon it in gold. That crisis averted, Mao stood on the rostrum above a massive portrait of himself and announced in his peasant brogue, “The central government of the People’s Republic of China is established!” “Long live Chairman Mao!” answered the crowd, which began cheering soldiers fresh from battle as they marched in the new country’s first military parade. Guo stood behind Mao and wept for “a victory won with the blood of millions of revolutionaries.”
From Time Magazine’s 80 Days that changed the world.
The above photos were taken by Xu Xiaobing (1916–) and Hou Bo (1924–), a married couple well known for their portraits of Communist leaders from the 1930s to 1950s. Hou Bo was Mao’s personal photographer from 1949 to 1961 and her studio portraits of Mao became the basis for many paintings, posters, and banner images of Mao that were reproduced everywhere.