Recently, an exhibition of photographs entitled “Humanism in China” left its last stop in Germany -- Dresden -- after a tour of German cities, to return to China where it has already been shown in Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing. The photos give a fascinating insight into daily life in China; revealing great moments of humanity in an at times inhuman world.
A woman prepares to take a swim in icy waters -- an increasingly popular hobby in China
Housed in a beautiful Baroque building on Dresden's Elbe River, the exhibition room itself is stark. Slabs of concrete accommodate 600 photos taken by 250 Chinese photographers.
The photos are everywhere -- on the slabs and on the walls. Photos of everyday existence; of mines, fields, trains, buses, communal flats, parks, restaurants, all populated by workers, mothers, dancers, schoolchildren…
“The exhibition bears testimony to a critical and unexpectedly autonomous view of Chinese society,” say the curators. “Social customs and cultural complexity, doubt and lack of orientation, change and destruction, emptiness and loss of identity are revealed.”
Existence, time, desire and relationships
Existence is one of the four themes the curators have singled out to reveal the above and to categorise humanity; along with “Time,” “Desire” and “Relationships”. The distinctions are blurred, of course: In China, as elsewhere, existence, relationships, desire and time are all intertwined.
The category “Relationships” of course includes the expected photos of men and women -- a husband gazes with admiration and affection at his heavily-pregnant wife, another carries his wife home on a stretcher after a sterilisation operation. There are also photos of the relationship between family members -- an ecstatic grandmother carries her newly-born grandson, four siblings gaze in awe at new high-rises in Shanghai, a mother breastfeeds two of her triplets whilst the third awaits his turn.
The exhibition also reveals the tender and intimate bond between colleagues. One group of men bathe after a hard day at the factory, others play chess in the break. This category is also about the greater relationship between man and nature -- a relationship, which has heavy consequences, as the recent earthquake in Sichuan province brought home once again.
Man and nature
In one photo, a fisherman surrounded by thousands of dead fish in a polluted lake looks on helplessly. This image, as many others, reveals the enormity of nature -- its overwhelming power and its iron grip on man. On man as an individual, at least. The lone fisherman, the peasant cultivating a field, the herdsman in the foreboding mountains, or a child under a collapsing building are tragically at the mercy of nature.
But there is another side to this coin: The image also shows that, as a collective, man -- let us not forget that China's population makes up one fifth of the world's -- pushed by the state, increasingly greedy as it is propelled by the catapulting force of capitalism, has mounted a successful attack on nature. The dead fish are but one sign of the drastic consequences of man-made destruction.
But China’s mass industrialisation is not only taking its toll on nature but on people, on humanity.
Work, sleep and relaxation
Miners covered in oil after a blow-out look as if they have just survived hell. Later, they scrub themselves clean and their pleasure in this mundane exercise is palpable. China is a country where people toil. They work in mines, in fields, in factories, on building sites, in restaurants, in offices.
When they are not working, they are on the move -- on foot, by bike, by rickshaw, ferry, bus or car -- and when they are neither working nor going to work, they are exhausted and they sleep -- on the streets, in tunnels, in offices.
In moments of respite, the workers relax -- they play cards, they dance, they sing, they act, they swim, they do exercises, they watch television, which in the 1980s and 1990s remains a wonder, and naturally they seduce each other.
The all-encompassing theme of desire does not only include seduction and the desire for another but also the desire for happiness, for fame, for wealth and for the curators desire seems to be interchangeable with greed.
In the new capitalist China, albeit with socialist characteristics, workers queue up for lottery tickets, they read about get-rich-quick schemes in wall-newspapers, or they open themed restaurants where the waiters dress as peasants, in a distinct ironic nod to the Cultural Revolution, whose horrors have been swept under the carpet as China charges forward into an unknown future.
Moving with the times
There is no time -- another theme -- to reflect on the grim past; it seems best to move on, to enter a materialistic, comfortable existence.
If China's workers don't keep up with the times, they will fall, they will be forgotten. The 1997 photos of old women whose feet were bound reveal a forgotten age that goes back even further.
They struggle to survive, selling shoes for women in similar positions -- rare as they have become -- or bras to "modern women". Modern women wearing Western clothing stride down the street eating street-food; telling the world their time has come.
They contrast starkly with the beggars -- old men, women and children -- those whom time will leave behind.
A deadly walk to school
One poignant image shows children walking to school across a rickety bridge over a ravine -- the bridge looks as if it might collapse at literally any second. At one point, it has disintegrated so much that it is effectively a tightrope and one girl, as agile as any circus-artist, is balancing on it with insouciance.
For her, this journey is as normal as any other schoolchild's in the world. Every day, she and her forty classmates risk their lives to get to school, unaware of the dangers. They are like the thousands who died in the rubble of collapsed schools in Sichuan -- left to their fate by the all-mighty, all-uncaring state.
In this exhibition, the state is not a visible protagonist -- there is no propaganda, no slogans, no police or army officers. But as an invisible entity, the state is omnipresent.
Yet, the fact that the exhibition was shown, that it travelled to three cities in China -- Guangzhou, Shanghai and Beijing, is a sign that the state is letting down its guard. The state wants the world to know that China is human. It especially wants the world to know this before and during the August Olympic Games in the capital city. After all, China, like the rest of the world, craves acknowledgement of its existence.