Humanism in China: A Contemporary Record of Photography

Grades 9-12 Government, History Lesson or Unit Plan
  • Li Dan ‘Tourists at the Wenshu Temple in Chengdu taking a souvenir photograph’ 1983

  • Hei-Ming ‘Iron Rice Bowl’ 2000

In this lesson, students will examine early photographs of China and the attached cartoon: A “Magic Lens”. This introduction to the early history of photography in China is designed to make students think critically about how cameras are used and how photographs are related to society. They will walk away with a basic knowledge of the history of Chinese photography, and the ability to analyze the links between photography and society.

Title: Seeing the Camera in a Different Light
Author: Teach China Staff
Subject Area: Art, Social Studies
Grade Level: 9-12
Time Required: One 40-minute period
Standards: National Arts Standards, Visual Arts: Understanding the Visual Arts in Relation to History and Cultures, K-4; 5-8; 9-12
Essential Question(s): Does the camera as a technological tool change the way we see people in other cultures or change how we look at other people in society?
Learning Objectives/Goals/Aims:
  • 1. Learn about the introduction of the camera to China and social reactions when it was first introduced.
  • 2. Students analyze common characteristics of visual arts evident across time and among cultural/ethnic groups to formulate analyses, evaluations, and interpretations of meaning by making observations and inferences based on a pictorial magazine comic strip about the uses of pictorial technology.
Introduction: In this lesson, students will examine early photographs of China and the attached cartoon: A “Magic Lens.” This introduction to the early history of photography in China is designed to make students think critically about how cameras are used and how photographs are related to society. They will walk away with a basic knowledge of the history of Chinese photography, and the ability to analyze the links between photography and society.
Procedure/Pedagogical Technique/Instructional Strategy:  1. Distribute Document 1 [attached]: A “Magic Lens”: A Pictorial Cartoon from Early 20th Century China. The teacher will provide a brief introduction outlined above to help historically contextualize when the cartoon was published as well as explain what a pictorial magazine was.

2. Divide the class up into four groups and assign them one frame of the cartoon per group. Explain to students that they are responsible for identifying the different social situations depicted and the various social positions of the persons depicted in the cartoon that they are reading. Once they have discussed what those relationships are, the class comes together and discusses what they think the message of the cartoon is about the introduction of a “magic lens” to society.

Discussion Points/ GroupInteraction: 1. How would you characterize the overall tone of the cartoon?

2. How do you think the “magic lens” depicted in the cartoon is related to photography?

3. Think about contemporary technology and whether the class believes there is a social debate about how much others can “see into” our lives? Do students feel technology can expose something meaningful about social relations not otherwise evident? If so, can they identify an example and debate whether this is a productive use of technology or a disruptive use?

Assessment: Have the students been able to identify meaningful social critiques being made in the cartoon? Were they able to make a meaningful connection to social anxieties about the introduction of a new technology to existing social relations in early 20th century China? In their discussions, does it prepare them to read photographs with a critical eye to the social commentary of a photo rather than just its composition?
Closure:  1. Students do a web search for photographs of early China (see instructional resources for suggested sites); have the students write a two page essay on both why the composition of the photograph makes it a memorable photograph and also what social relations are being depicted in the photograph and how is that evident in the photo.

2. Alternatively, students draw a new cartoon where they are the creators of a “magic lens”—what types of situations and people would they turn their lens on? What do they anticipate they might discover?

Instructional Resources/ Materials: 1. Grace Lau, Picturing the Chinese: Early Western Photographs and Postcards of China (San Francisco, CA: Long River Press, 2008); a good reference book for understanding early history of photography in China.

2. Gilles Mora, Photospeak: A Guide to the Ideas, Movements, and Techniques of Photography, 1839 to the Present (New York: Abbeville Press, 1998).

3. Duke University Libraries’ collection of Stanley D. Gamble Photographs [http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/gamble/]; a useful collection of photographs taken during a renowned China scholar’s four separate trips to China between 1908 and 1932.

4. Historical photographs of China from Thomas H. Hahn’s Docu-Images [http://hahn.zenfolio.com/f240852810]; a useful collection of mostly early 20thcentury photos of China.

Extending the Lesson/ Follow-up Activity: Have students do a photo spread themselves where they identify a specific social place (e.g. public library entrance, homeless shelter, supermarket check-out counter) and then document interactions between different peoples. They should keep a log detailing why they chose this particular place, how they expect the social interactions will unfold, and then present their photo documentation of what actually took place. Did their documentary photo shoot conform to their expectations or did it reveal unexpected results? What photos were most meaningful to them and why?

[1] Lu Xun, “On Photography,” in Modern Chinese Literary Thought: Writings on Literature, 1893-1945 (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1996). Pp. 196-204.

Resource Type: Lesson Plan
Caterogy: Grades 9-12 Government, History Lesson or Unit Plan

Author

Teach China Team

Teach China is a comprehensive professional development program offered by China Institute to provide a wealth of opportunities for K-12 educators to enhance their knowledge of China, past and present. We take an interdisciplinary approach consistent with national and state-mandated standards in order to help educators incorporate the teaching of China into all subjects and grade levels, including Mandarin language learning, the humanities, social studies, and the arts. Teach China promotes cross-cultural understanding through the use and creation of authentic materials, the presentation of balanced perspectives, and the fostering of enduring connections between educators around the world.