Xiao Quan: Photography As a Medium for Poetry Emma Hanzlíková

In China, the photographic camera had long been an instrument wielded primarily by emissaries of the colonial powers, after which it became a tool of propaganda. But this situation couldn’t last forever. Photographer Xiao Quan has been presenting his unique insider view of Chinese society since the 1980s. His large-scale exhibition at the House of Photography also traces the evolution of the photographic medium in China from documentary photography to conceptual works and staged images.

Xiao Quan, Zhang Yimou is known and generally admired for his crazy persistence and diligence in his work, 1995, Shanghai
Xiao Quan, Zhang Yimou is known and generally admired for his crazy persistence and diligence in his work, 1995, Shanghai
Xiao Quan, Yi Zhinan, singer, 1990, Chengdu
Xiao Quan, Yi Zhinan, singer, 1990, Chengdu
Xiao Quan, Members of the Tang Dynasty rock band: (from left) Zhang Ju, Liu Yijun, Ding Wu, Zhao Nian, 1993, Xinjiang
Xiao Quan, Members of the Tang Dynasty rock band: (from left) Zhang Ju, Liu Yijun, Ding Wu, Zhao Nian, 1993, Xinjiang

Emma Hanzlíková is an art theorist and sinologist. From 2016 to 2020, she was the main curator for the 8smička “cultural zone” in Humpolec. She has a long interest in bringing together European and Asian art and in Asian art here in the Czech Republic. She spent 2014 on an exchange to the Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, and in 2015–2016 participated in a postgraduate program in the field of Asian art at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London. She has curated several photographic exhibitions at the Josef Sudek Studio on Prague’s Újezd Street, and is the author of three books for children.

How to become a photographer in China and what subjects to focus on? Anonymity is a central theme in a society with a billion people. In such an overpopulated country, the norm is to overlook outsiders, as the author Liao Yiwu captured in his raw style in Interviews with People from the Bottom Rung of Society. But even in this highly individualistic society there exist sensitive loners who, in the spirit of the humanist tradition, view the China around them from a different point of view. These authors and photographers are capable of seeing what others do not, of capturing things that, in a just a moment, become the past. One such person is Xiao Quan (肖全).

A Chinese Cartier-Bresson

The photographer Xiao Quan was born in 1959 in Chengdu, the capital of southwestern China’s Sichuan province, and the city is the setting for several of his images – for instance, on the main square in front of the statue of Mao (which still stands there today) or in the bamboo forest of Wangjianglou Park. Contrasted with the communist backdrop, his photograph of a group of young poets, a reference to the tradition of Tang poetry, makes an especially strong impression. This style of poetry was born here in the seventh century, and this is where the poets Xue Tao and Du Fu had modest, isolated shacks, in the middle of what would later become a great metropolis. Their literary creations are well known to Czech readers thanks to Bohumil Mathesius’s poetic interpretations from the 1930s, published in the collection The Songs of Ancient China.

Although Xiao Quan looks at the world through the viewfinder of a camera, he could just as well be standing in front of the lens, among the group of poets he captured on film. His poetry of light and shadow – a metaphorical description of his photographs based on a literal translation of the Chinese characters for the word “photography,” possesses strong ties to the written poetry tradition known as shi. Although Xiao Quan is usually labeled a documentary photographer, his approach to his subject differs from documentary work and is not purely journalistic. The linguistic aspects of his photographs are perhaps incomprehensible across cultural boundaries, hidden as they are by Chinese characters. As ideograms, Chinese characters function in the same way as photographs – we must first fully read them in order to decipher their meaning. According to exhibition curator Lü Peng, Xiao Quan is the “Henri Cartier-Bresson of China”. While serving with the Chinese navy, Xiao would spend all his savings on the photography books that were available at the time, and also subscribed to a monthly photography magazine through which he learned about the work of American and French photographers. He openly admits Cartier-Bresson’s influence, and his connections to this icon of modern photojournalism are not insignificant. In a book on his work published in China in 1995, Cartier- Bresson even wrote a personal dedication to the young Xiao Quan, thanking him for his gift of a knife.

Bresson had visited China in 1948 while working on a reportage for Life. He stayed for ten months, and returned ten years later in order to show the ongoing or already completed changes in the newly established People’s Republic. But Cartier-Bresson was not the only photographer or documentarian to capture the Middle Kingdom’s transformation during this period. Bresson’s student and member of Magnum Photos Marc Riboud made his first visit to China in 1957, before Xiao was even born. In the late 1950s, the People’s Republic of China was slowly ending its reciprocal cultural cooperation with the socialist Eastern Bloc countries, when China was visited by cultural delegations either acting as independent observers or seeking to spread the doctrine of socialist realism.

Riboud’s assignment was to capture society’s rebirth during the Great Leap Forward (1958–1962) – i.e., at a time when the country was experiencing the worst famine in the history of humankind. For similar reasons, in the spring of 1972 Mao Zedong himself invited the Italian director Michelangelo Antonioni to spend five weeks in China filming Chung Kuo, Cina, a three-hour documentary about the working class, just six years after completing Blowup, perhaps the most famous work of international cinema, shot for entirely different reasons and with the exact opposite connotations. When Riboud returned to China in the 1990s, Xiao Quan worked as his assistant during his repeated visits over the next four years. Riboud advised the young photographer to start to document the unprecedented  changes  that had been set into motion after 1989. The role of master and apprentice is an unassailable fixture within Chinese culture, and for Xiao Quan Marc Riboud was a true shifu.

Cyclists in Marlboro Country

If we compare the photographs of Chinese life by Xiao Quan and those by his idol Cartier-Bresson or by his teacher Riboud, we see that each takes a different point of view, regardless of the fact that each also recorded China at a different phase in its history. Bresson’s images are shot according to the principles of European avant-garde photography, using diagonal composition, and show the enduring influence of Surrealism. Riboud’s photographs, however strong their emotional impact, nevertheless cannot shake their sense of having been created by an outside observer. We must remember that  the  photographs’  subjects must surely have noticed the white face of the laowai (a foreigner) behind the camera, which in the early 1990s was still an uncommon sight in China.

Xiao Quan had the advantage that he could blend in with the crowd. He observed China as it was, and was less interested in creating an aesthetic image than in capturing the essence of his country. At the same time, he was able to look with the eye of an unbiased observer. Only in this way could he capture situations that locals would find ordinary, situations that they would think of paying attention to. This is why Xiao Quan’s photographs are so unique. This dual viewpoint becomes clear if we look at his iconic photograph showing a group of cyclists and a large billboard of Marlboro cowboys. Western marketing is slowly enveloping the entire country. The country was becoming standardized and modernized, was losing the magic of the Middle Kingdom that had endured for millennia, surviving even the horrors of the 1950s and 1960s.

Although Xiao Quan’s photographs already capture the demolition of Beijing’s old hutong neighborhoods, the construction of walls of prefabricated high-rises, and rural day laborers crisscrossing the country with all their belongings in a sack slung over their shoulders, his young protagonists have entirely different expressions on their faces, full of hope and expectations, and the side streets are imbued with the atmosphere of the Qing dynasty, the time of the last emperor. The atmosphere on Chinese streets today would by far not be as enthusiastic.

Although many of the scenes could still be found in China today – for instance, sleeping children in a plastic tub on the rear of a rickshaw – it would be against an entirely different backdrop and with many new attributes. They would be shrouded in the visual smog of Western brands and global chains, brought to China by the much praised and only seemingly free capitalistic socialism.

Xiao Quan, Forward, only forward, 1994, Chengdu
Xiao Quan, Forward, only forward, 1994, Chengdu

I saw the best minds of my generation…

Besides being introduced to his craft by the greatest authorities of the European photographic school, one specific moment in Xiao Quan’s life formed an important initial impulse to begin photographing. Xiao Quan recalls how strongly he was influenced by the portrait of the American poet Ezra Pound, shot in 1963 in Venice by the Armenian photographer Yousuf Karsh and reproduced in the late 1980s in China’s literary magazine Image Puzzle (象罔, Xiangwang). Coincidentally, Pound was an important linguist and expert in Chinese poetry. If a photograph of Pound was Xiao Quan’s punctum in the Barthesian sense, a true trigger moment, we may consider the possibility that Pound himself unconsciously took on this role as catalyst. Pound is, among other things, the author of Cathay (1915), a collection of loosely translated ancient Chinese poetry, and also the editor and co-author of Ernest F. Fenollosa’s theoretical essay The Chinese Written Character As a Medium for Poetry (1920), written in 1908 but not published until after its author’s death. In this essay, Fenollosa, curator of the Asian collection at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, understood Chinese poetry and its graphic poetics as a calligraphic ideogram.

In this way, we return to the thesis that a photograph is an encoded message from its creator that must deciphered just as we do with written texts, which in Chinese are additionally written using symbols. This configuration of verbal and visual expression in photography recalls Pound’s ideogrammic method founded on the arrangement of images into a single expression. But back to the photograph of Pound. When he saw this photograph of the elegant-looking Ezra Pound with a hat and walking cane, the young Xiao Quan decided that he is going to capture “the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness.”

From the ashes of the Cultural Revolution There followed the series Our Generation (我们这一代), first published in the aforementioned Image Puzzle and later, in 1991, in book form, thanks to which Xiao Quan became known at home. This series depicts members of the avant-garde culture scene that emerged from the ashes of the Cultural Revolution. The photographs were taken between 1986 and 1996, often before many of their subjects became famous. In 1986, Xiao Quan photographed  poets  energetically  reciting their works during the China Star Poetry Festival in his hometown of Chengdu. In 1990, he recorded a rock concert by the musician Cui Jian, whose songs were a source of optimism and excitement and a driving force in the life of the country’s younger generations. An important milestone for Chinese culture was the year 1992, when the first art biennial was held in Canton (Guangdong Art Biennale), thus opening the door for Chinese art to enter the international art market. When, soon thereafter, Wang Guangyi’s painting Great Criticism appeared on the cover of Flash Art, the existence of contemporary art in the People’s Republic of China was legitimized.

In 1994, Xiao Quan covered another area of culture outside of art and literature when he photographed the actress Gong Li while she was shooting the film Shanghai Triad with the internationally acclaimed director Zhang Yimou. Czech viewers may recall some of his photographs of the painters Wang Guangyi and Zhang Xiaogang from the exhibition The Reunion of Poetry and Philosophy, organized in 2018 at Prague City Gallery’s Stone Bell House by Xiao Quan’s friend, the renowned curator Lü Peng, who is also behind the upcoming exhibition in Prague. Peng has a long history of presenting underground Chinese art through exhibitions and by compiling a new and previously lacking canon of twentieth- century Chinese art.

Opening to the world – Throwing back the curtain

Like Lü Nan (呂楠, 1962), Zhang Haier (张海儿, 1957), and Han Lei (韩磊, 1967), Xiao Quan is a pioneer who helped Chinese photography undergo rapid development from documentary to conceptual and staged photography. This form of photography is very popular in China today, and along with digital post-production it is one of the most used media on the art scene, as Czech audiences may have noted thanks to Petr Nedoma’s 2003 exhibition A Strange Heaven.

Photography was an important tool for the emerging conceptualists and performance artists who in the early 1990s experimented in artists’ colonies with what for them were new or recently discovered forms of 20th- century modern art imported from the West. These artists did not want to be primarily photographers, however, and used the medium only as a tool. The photographic act was always more important than the photograph itself, which does not have as long a tradition as it does in Europe or America. Truly modern Chinese photography first appeared in the late 1970s, when documentary photography, despite continuing to bow to political demands, also took on a critical tone. Up until this point, the medium had been used by the political power structures to manipulate society and had functioned as a historical resource (though one subject to frequent censorship). The turning point came in 1979, when Beijing’s Zhongshan Park hosted the exhibition Nature, Society, and Man. This first-ever group exhibition of amateur photographers was organized by the April Photography Society (四月影会, Siyue ying hui), an independent art group active in the capital in 1979–1981 that sought to move away from socialistic realism and to return to autonomous photography. Social criticism in photography was slowly transformed into a search for new traditions that went hand in hand with the arrival of humanistic and existential works of literature from the West.

In 1979, Deng Xiaoping announced the reform known as the Four Modernizations, with its emphasis on opening up to the world. These changes enabled China to transform itself into a modern economic power in which shortages were replaced by opulence. The 1980s were a decade of rebirth, a time when society (not just in political circles) worked to lift up a country that had been ravaged by the earlier Maoist experiments. For intellectuals, this period was a renaissance, as they emerged from isolation and began to find inspiration from European and American art, literature, and above all existentialist philosophy.

Artistic experimentation, though still in the form of underground (dixia) art, flourished in music, film, literature, and visual art. For a brief period, China was home to freedom of expression and extravagant subcultures. The atmosphere differed significantly from that of the previous decade, when the entire country was still recovering from the dire consequences of the Cultural Revolution (1966–1967). Although many active participants in cultural life were inspired by Western artists and thinkers, it was not always easy to get one’s hands on the source material. In the period from 1970 to 1980, when Xiao Quan was beginning to take an interest in photography, it was extremely difficult to find any reference works on photographic theory or to learn anything about the Western art world. In this context, an important role was played by underground magazines and mimeographed, hand-bound samizdat editions of just a dozen or so copies passed from person to person – examples include the literary magazine Image Puzzle, Today (今天, Jintian) and many others.

Somewhat later, a similar role was played in China’s underground art scene by Ai Weiwei’s trilogy Black Cover Book (1994), White Cover Book (1995), and Grey Cover Book (1998). Thanks to their author’s American experience, Weiwei’s publications could introduce their readers to books and critical texts by important international representatives of conceptual and performance art.

Xiao Quan, Yang Liping In Tiananmen, Spring 1992, Beijing
Xiao Quan, Yang Liping In Tiananmen, Spring 1992, Beijing

The Image That China Forgot

The Chinese Communist Party consistently uses censorship as a tool against the internet, freedom of speech, and specific individuals. In recent years, there have been regular reports of people detained by the Chinese government – for instance, the literary critic and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波), the artist Ai Weiwei (艾未未 ), and more recently the independent photographer Lu Guang (卢广), who is known for his images of people on the margins of society and his coverage of horrific examples of environmental degradation. News of his detention came in the fall of 2018, after he had traveled to Ürümqi, the capital of Xinjiang province, to meet with a group of local Uighur photographers. Xinjiang, located on China’s western border, is known as an autonomous region of the country’s Uighur minority. Over the past two years, there has been much talk about mass reeducation efforts or even the extermination of the local Muslim population in labor camps. A year after Lu Guang was detained, the Chinese government announced his release.

The communist leadership fears photography’s potential to document the country’s human rights violations, a possibility that it is working hard to prevent. Of course, even evidence of groundbreaking historical events can be manipulated or forgotten, as shown by a brief BBC video shot last year on the occasion of the thirtieth anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre. The report called attention to the eternal question of photography – i.e., whether the fact of something being photographed necessarily means that the given moment or object ever existed. In the video, a reporter shows random passers-by the iconic photograph known as “Tank Man”, taken by the American photographer Jeff Widener on 5 July 1989, during the unrest of Tiananmen Square. Most of the people asked, however, had no idea of what the photograph depicted or the context in which it was taken.

Xiao Quan’s photographs, which have recorded fleeting moments in Chinese history, are only now finding their way outside China. In 2019, Italy’s prestigious Rizzoli publishing house printed Xiao Quan: In China When It All Began, which marked the Western public’s first introduction to his work as a whole. This event is now followed by the exhibition Xiao Quan: Our Generation – Portraits of K. at Prague City Gallery. We hope that the exhibited photographs will help to preserve a part of the history of the Middle Kingdom and thus ensure that it will be neither ignored nor forgotten.