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.


Although the photos displayed in the exhibit Humanism in China are concerned first and foremost with depicting everyday Chinese people, they inevitably provide a compelling vantage point to witness the dramatic changes China has undergone in the past sixty years from a geographic perspective. Displacement caused by the civil war at the beginning of the founding of the People’s Republic of China and later political campaigns like the Cultural Revolution brought many urban residents into contact with remote corners of China which gave them first-hand exposure to very different lifestyles of ethnic minorities and an appreciation of different environments and the cultures of the local people who adapted to those environments; many of the photographers represented in the Humanism in China exhibit are among those who experienced this historic displacement and their record of that experience is compelling recorded in the selected photos at China Institute.

Of course, there have been many other factors besides political campaigns that have impacted how Chinese photographers have documented China’s changing geography. The economic reforms China has undergone in the past quarter century has resulted in the largest human migration in human history of a rural population to urban areas. A photo like Wu Jialin’s Horse Cart, Truck, and Airplane Over the Highway Preparing to Land (1997), captures the dizzying pace of China’s surge into a global economy by juxtaposing three modes of transportation that might be considered representative of different stages of economic development; and yet they inhabit the same frame and are all oriented towards the same direction giving viewers of the photograph a sense of orchestrated movement towards a common goal.

Photographs taken from nearly the same vantage point at different historic moments such as the photos of Shanghai’s Bund show just how dramatic urbanization is transforming China. Keep in mind these photos were taken only 20 years apart, so one can imagine the impressive investment of human and financial capital that has gone into China’s urbanization—a phenomenon that continues unabated and will be highlighted in the World Expo to be hosted in Shanghai beginning May, 2010.

Such rapid urbanization has both its benefits and challenges. Such large scale urbanization results in increased energy and material needs that have taken a tremendous toll on China. As China enters the 21st century, it is poised to become one of the most powerful economies in the world but it has also attained the dubious status of one the world’s largest polluters. China is already grappling with the effects of global environmental changes including diminishing water resources, desertification, and possible food security issues. A photo like Liu Weiqiang’s Road Disappearing in a Sandstorm (from a series dated 2001-2003), captures how individual suffering caused by such environmental challenges gets obscured by the seemingly insurmountable nature of these environmental challenges—the dust blown around engulfs and almost erases the people on the road in front of the photographer. As China prepares to host the 2010 World Expo which will have a strong focus on sustainable development, a photo like this reminds us of the very real human consequences of inaction.


One crucial way in which we use and appreciate photography is to record historical and newsworthy events. A photograph such as the one shown on the left of Mao Zedong swimming the Changjiang (aka Yangtze River) on July 16, 1966, is easily recognizable to students of 20th Chinese history. In the wake of the economic disaster caused by policies pursued during the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s which resulted in millions starving in what is widely considered the world’s greatest man-made famine, Mao occupied a less secure position within the Party leadership than might commonly be supposed; at that time, other leaders such as Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping openly challenged Mao’s leadership. While Mao remained the nominal party leader of the autocratic communist state, there was much political infighting throughout the first half of the 1960s. In this light, we can understand the photo of Mao swimming the Changjiang on July 16, 1966 as a carefully staged media event designed to show the Chairman as still vigorous and capable of remarkable feats of character (in fact, it was reported at the time that the then 72-year old Chairman swam nearly 15 km in 65 minutes, which if true would have been a world record pace!). Thus the photo of Mao swimming the Changjiang becomes an iconic photograph that is short-hand for Mao’s reemergence as an irrepressible leader as China headed into the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. Such iconic photographs become convenient images that readily illustrate with immediacy very complex historical events (in a very different instance, consider the “Tank Man” photo of a young man facing down a tank in the streets of Beijing after the events of June 4th, 1989).

The Chinese photographers and museum curators who chose the photographs that comprise the Humanism in China collection self-consciously avoided photojournalistic examples, in large part because they were critical of the staged nature of much of the official photography that came out during the socialist period of China (1949-1976). These photographers chose instead to collect photographs that record less historically or politically charged photos and focused on the everyday experiences of diverse groups of Chinese citizens.

It is virtually impossible, however, to view the entire collection without detecting subtle (and sometimes explicit) commentary on their political and historic context. A photo such as Liu Jun’s A Parent-Official Like This (1985) evokes a complex visual tradition depicting the relationship between Communist party officials with ordinary citizens; compare, for example, Liu Wenxi’s propaganda poster from the early 1970s, Heart to Heart, which shows Chairman Mao sitting eye-level with ordinary villagers apparently discussing typical concerns of a village farming community in a convivial camaraderie while also preserving a carefully cultivated image of Mao as a fatherly figure to the nation deserving respect and even adoration. In contrast, the “parent-official” caught on camera in Liu Jun’s 1985 photo displays an unapproachable, arrogant distance from the surrounding villagers who have just witnessed an altercation between the official and an elderly villager. Professor Jerome Silbergeld of Princeton University, who reorganized the traveling exhibition Humanism in China for its presentation at the China Institute and wrote an essay for the accompanying catalogue, recounts this photograph’s history:

“…[This photograph] itself became news: in May 1985, adjudicating a dispute over transient workers, a rural deputy-chief from Baishui County, Shaanxi Province, roughly knocked a sixty-year-old villager to the ground. Caught through a momentary opening between two figures, left and right, is a complete and crowded composition that speaks to the alienation between entrenched authority and the Chinese masses: a cadre, unmistakable in his tailored clothing and tall, aloof pose, stands back from his deed, his arms folded in an impassive gesture intended to convey confidence but steeped, as well, in sheer arrogance; the victim, horizontal with an open-mouthed expression of agony born of powerlessness and humiliation, conveys a boundless frustration that surpasses any physical pain; two villagers, one older, one young, minister to the victim; and a circle of villagers, none of whom dares look at the cadre, just as he looks at none of them, barely disguise their disgust and manifest revulsion. With one perfectly-timed click of the shutter, the photographer rivals in classic composition a Raphael or a Rembrandt. But the photograph barely survived: police had already surrounded the protest, and although he was a soldier, Liu Jun was seized, held in detention and interrogated for half a day, and forced to expose the film from his camera, which hung conspicuously around his neck; fortunately, the two images Liu had managed to take were shot with a smaller camera he kept concealed in his bag. Published in December of that year in the Zhongguo qingnian bao (Chinese Youth Daily, Beijing, with circulation of a million readers), the photograph produced an uproar, generating a thousand letters and a vituperative response from the cadre, Chen Chunchao, to Chinese Youth Daily and to China’s Xinhua news association that the image was a fake orchestrated by the photographer. Liu Jun used the photo to identify witnesses (including the young figure holding the victim), and a half-year’s investigation by Xinhua newsmen confirmed the authenticity of the photo. Winning second prize in a Beijing news photo competition in 1985, A Parent-Official Like This is one of the foremost exemplars of photographic social criticism in China since the 1949 revolution. And yet one can imagine from an ordeal like this that oftentimes, as much as any émigré like Robert Frank (referred to as a modern day Tocqueville for his classic photo-essay, The Americans), the post-Mao Chinese documentary photographer still functions as a stranger in his own strange land.”

However “strange” 20th century Chinese history may sometimes appear to either a Chinese photographer or his (sometimes her) audience, the photos collected in Humanism in China help give a readily recognizable human face to the often dehumanizing aspects of many historical and political dimensions of 20th century Chinese society.

Culture and People

As the title of this photography exhibition indicates, Humanism in China concentrates on and reclaims as a serious focus of documentary photography individual human lives—a focus that was often suppressed during the first half of the People’s Republic of China by socialist realist concerns with depicting the archetypical, the masses, and conflating individuals with their class status. Guangdong Museum of Art’s director, Wang Huangsheng, outlines the three areas the exhibition endeavors to bring into perspective:

1.To document, with authenticity, a quality intrinsic to photography, various instances in the real lives of the Chinese people while reducing them to their original and candid state of being; touching on, in vivid detail, a wide range of human concerns as manifested during different phases of history; and reflecting human activities and values in a social context.

2.To give intriguing, uninhibited, and personal accounts of the existence of Chinese individuals as separate entities observed from multiple standpoints, so as to provide a host of images of “epitomized Chinese” for the study of social imagery.

3.To indicate, underline, and promote a humanistic trend and the humanitarian concerns and spirits in various fields of the humanities in contemporary China, especially among documentary photographers.

The 600 photos in the traveling exhibition (of which one hundred were selected and reorganized for China Institute’s Fall 2009 exhibit) succeed in this stated objective and truly show an astonishing variety of human experience and individual expression in contemporary China. Given the successful variety of the photographs (not to mention the variety of China’s population!), it is impossible in this section to give an exhaustive introduction to the diverse cultural and human perspectives these photos present; therefore, a more narrow focus on issues related to depicting gender will help illustrate how the photographs engage challenging and shifting dimensions of the human cultural experience in contemporary China (other cultural dimensions you might consider while viewing these photographs would be family, religion, ethnicity, and generational experiences).

Consider Hou Dengke’s photograph Three City Women (1985), which intentionally evokes a socialist realist visual tradition as exemplified in the 1974 propaganda poster, “Drilling and Training for the Revolution, Spinning and Weaving for the People.” While the women photographed clearly occupy the same social class as those drawn in the poster and present a supportive group dynamic similar to that depicted in the propaganda poster, their expressions and body stances realize the humanistic concerns outlined by Director Wang above. One can easily imagine each individual woman photographed working at a different pace and their seasoned expressions elicit an inquisitive response to imagine what particular concerns preoccupy each one individually. In contrast, the circle of women crowded around the weaving machine depicted in the poster provoke no such inquisitive response—each expression is more or less interchangeable with any other expression in the picture, a uniform mask of unequivocal optimism. The poster is actually devoid of any discernable humanistic quality since its main focus is the productivity of the machinery and the women are merely an extension of the machine’s productive capacity; whereas in Hou’s photo, while there is no mistaking that these are working-class women it is ultimately their individuality that is highlighted rather than their work capacity or any class solidarity.

This is not to deny that a real accomplishment of the socialist period was the promotion of women’s rights and their increased integration into the social and economic fabric of Chinese society. A hallmark of the revolutionary agenda in the 20th century and a legitimizing factor of the CCP was the emancipation of women from a patriarchal tradition and a guarantee of their equality in Chinese law. Having said that, social gender construction has been significantly impacted by consumerist culture and the influx of different standards of feminine beauty that was ushered in by the economic and social liberalization China has undergone over the past quarter century. A photograph like Wang Wenyang’s Mother and Daughter Making Up Before Mirrors Together (1993) whimsically demonstrates how the ideal of femininity has changed radically from the working class female ideal depicted in the earlier images discussed, even as the two females depicted in the photo are arguably “working class” themselves (evidenced by the fact that they are applying their make-up in an open air public setting). A large part of the charm in this photo is the way the young daughter studiously mimics her mother to become as pretty as her mom; a different solidarity is expressed in this photo that is not class based but based on a much more intimate daughter-mother dynamic. The tone of the photograph is at a whole other register than either Hou’s photo or the propaganda poster, which is a testament to the diversification of gender ideals attainable for women in contemporary China (and also for men, for that matter). This may make for more complicated social ideas about “beauty” and gender, but it can also be seen as a certain degree of liberation from a socialist realist tradition that occluded gender issues in the name of class identification. At any rate, the photographs invite the viewer to trace evolving notions of gender construction in 20th and 21st centuries China as depicted in familial relationships, social relationships, and romantic relationships.

Photography collections of and about China have become increasingly available on-line; the following are suggested resources where you can explore more about the history and development of photography in China.

Sidney D. Gamble Photographs — a digital collection housed at Duke University of early 20th Century images collected by the scholar, Sidney Gamble.

Thomas H. Hahn’s Docu-Images — an extensive collection of images related to China, including a link to A Bibliography of Photo-albums and Materials related to the History of Photography in China and Tibet before 1949.

Vanished Kingdoms: The Wulsin Photographs of Tibet, China & Mongolia, 1921-1925 — Peabody Essex Museum’s 2004 exhibition that presents 39 rare and compelling images taken by the first Americans to reach the mountains and deserts of western China (Gansu) and Mongolia and the great, heretofore, unphotographed lamaseries of Eastern Tibet.

Red-Color News Soldier — Li Zhensheng’s on-line exhibit of photographs taken during the Cultural Revolution.

Documenting China: Contemporary Photography and Social Change at the Bates College Museum of Art.

Between Past and Future: New Photography and Video from China — International Center for Photography and Asia Society’s 2004 exhibition that takes a comprehensive look at the innovative photo and video art produced since the mid-1990s in China.

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


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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.