Humanism in China Resources

All Grades, Arts & Literature, History, Society, Resource Collection
  • Hao Junchen ‘Hugging a portrait of his deceased wife, an elderly man fulfils their dream of visiting Beiijing’ 2003

  • Sun Zixi, In Front of Tiananmen Gate 1964 (oil on canvas, Chinese National Art Gallery)

Hugging a Portrait of Wife

For Fall 2009, China Institute Gallery has selected one hundred works from the groundbreaking collection of documentary photography at the Guangdong Museum of Fine Arts in Guangzhou. This exhibition, Humanism in China: A Contemporary Record of Photography, features modern masterpieces produced by Chinese photographers between 1951 and 2003. These images express an extraordinary range of human emotions and activities in dramatically different settings – urban and rural, public and private – and are of a high aesthetic order. The exhibition was first unveiled at the Guangdong Museum of Art on December 13, 2003 to wide acclaim. Following its initial success, the exhibition was shown in eight other domestic venues before traveling to Europe. China Institute is pleased to host the initial American tour of this collection. The exhibition-related resources presented here are created by Education professionals to help the audience better understand the cultural, social, and aesthetic contexts from which to appreciate these compelling documents of modern and contemporary China.

If you agree that the photo on the left has an emotional impact, what about the photo makes it resonant?

In part it derives from the composition of the photograph. The man holding the photographic portrait of the woman is in the center of the frame, but the photographic portrait he is holding mirrors or echoes the large portrait of Mao hanging behind him (in fact, the held photograph looks significantly larger than Mao’s portrait in the background). This creates an interesting visual tension and dynamic that subtly captures the viewer’s attention; imagine if the man’s body blocked the portrait of Mao Zedong hanging in the background, would the composition of the photograph then change how the viewer would respond to the photograph? In all likelihood it would change the emotional impact of the photo in subtle but significant ways.

The photographer of this photo, Hao Junchen, has given it a title, Hugging a Portrait of Wife, and the complete Chinese title* elaborates that he is fulfilling a dream of traveling together to Beijing. This title gives us other important information to appreciate the power of the photo.

There is the human relationship between the subject of the photo (the old man) and the photo he is holding (his wife). We also know that they are not residents of Beijing but people who had a lifelong aspiration of visiting the capital city together. Photographed in 2003, it also allows us to guesstimate the generation of the man and his wife and speculate what sorts of generational goals and aspirations they shared with others their age (they would have likely been children or teenagers around the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949).

Knowing more information about the subjects of the photograph certainly helps us better understand what is powerfully resonant about the photo; equally important is knowing the historical and cultural context of the photo to better appreciate its significance. Countless Chinese (and foreigners) have been photographed standing in Tiananmen Square like this gentleman and standing in front of Chairman Mao’s portrait. In fact, in official iconography such as Sun Zixi’s 1964 oil painting In Front of Tiananmen (see below), three groups of people stand in carefully positioned balance in front of the gate to present a united picture of harmonious citizenry: soldiers/sailors on the right, workers/peasants in the center, and minority populations on the left. The man pictured in the photo above is sure to evoke such iconography in the imagination of many Chinese viewers, so he not only stands in a symbolic space but in a symbolic tradition. But perhaps part of the pathos of this photograph derives from a nagging feeling that he doesn’t entirely participate in this ideal version of society. Unlike the citizens in the oil painting, he is alone and his isolation is reinforced by the photograph he holds of his departed wife. If you look closely at his other possessions, you’ll notice one hand is gloved and the other is not—evidence of a certain level of poverty.

This is not to suggest the photo is meant to be a critique of the Chinese government; rather, by identifying the important historic and social elements in the photo we can better appreciate why the photograph has such a powerful resonance. The exhibition related resources given on China360 are designed to introduce viewers (teachers, students, and the general audience) to some of the contextual ways in which to better appreciate and understand the works selected for China Institute’s Fall 2009 exhibit, Humanism in China: A Contemporary Record of Photography.

Resource Type: Resource Collections
Caterogy: All Grades, Arts & Literature, History, Society, Resource Collection

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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.