Two Faces of Modern China

Iris Yirei Hu


The exhibitions Felice Beato: A Photographer on the Eastern Road and Photographs from the New China at the Getty Museum, offer two varying points of view of modern China. Famous for covering the Opium Wars in China during the 1860s, Italian photographer Felice Beato depicts China in the eyes of British imperialists, unveiling blatant European colonialism through his photographs. Next to Beato’s work, Photographs from a New China exhibits a collection of photography from contemporary Chinese artists. But is their standpoint strictly Chinese? Remnants of Western consciousness remain debated through the photographs that cover iconic developments of recent Chinese history from the Cultural Revolution to the rise of capitalism.

Beato’s beautifully rendered high-quality albumen prints depict a shadowy past, yet many of the photographs in the exhibition are highly idealized. For instance, the diptych of the Emperor’s Summer Palace Yuanmingyuan is a beautiful yet distant appropriation of the palace complex whose current state is nowhere near what the photograph depicts. The terror of destruction and its war-torn condition is so omnipotent today in the actual site that Beato’s historical photograph completely romanticizes and idealizes the complex.

In addition, the juxtaposition of Lord Elgin, who ordered the looting of the Summer Palace, and Prince Kung, who regrettably ceded all trading ports to Britain, reveals the inequality of power through an Orientalist perspective. Elgin is depicted right in the center of the frame—bold, confident, and self-assured. Though he does not smile, his facial expression and strong pose evoke power and dominance. On the other hand, Prince Kung, also photographed in the center of the frame, appears distant and disoriented. His baggy eyes show restlessness, and his pose is nothing short of defeat and hopeless surrender. The pair idealizes European colonialism and claims Britain a winner. Moreover, the landscape of the British and French naval ships surrounding the port of Hong Kong is the prime example of European power. Beato’s vantage point takes that of Hong Kong, and looks out to a sea scattered with European ships, literally depicting Western dominance over the port. While Hong Kong is portrayed as passive, European power is idealized through the ships and becomes the central focal point of the image. Ultimately, Beato’s China is an inherent interpretation of British colonial rule: it is objectified and the image of China is dominated by undeniable misrepresentation.

Opposite of Beato’s monochrome prints is the exuberant color palette of Photography from the New China, which signifies the entrance of a new and contemporary trajectory. To quote Wu Hung, Consulting Curator of University of Chicago’s Smart Museum of Art, “It was as if a century of Western art had been restaged in China.” After the Cultural Revolution, an influx of Western culture, arts, and theories that were all banned during Chairman Mao’s reign became available, which deeply influenced artists, and ultimately paved the way for the rise of China’s own contemporary art movement. Subsequently, photography became more popular and accessible to the Chinese, and inherently became an art practice soon after. In New China, the artists’ proximity to the Cultural Revolution is the unifying factor in their work. Chinese artist Hai Bo takes viewers back to a time and place—not too far away yet almost unfamiliar—of the Cultural Revolution through his series of portraits that reflect the changing state of China and individual people.

The artists of Beijing’s East Village, Rong Rong and Zhang Huan, as well as Ma Liuming, experimented with the body and self-image through avant-garde performances, which were photographed for the sake of questioning the function of documentation.

Wang Qingsong’s staged photographs (the one below particularly references itself to a work of art from ancient China) question a consumerist and capitalistic post-Mao China that is forcibly storming onto the world stage. New China surveys Chinese artists’ own responses to an ever-changing China, questioning and challenging the self and society with the influence of Western culture. The exhibition offers a fresh introduction of Chinese contemporary photography with images that speak for themselves.

owever, Chinese contemporary art ultimately stemmed from westernization, so it is only inherent that this exhibition would revolve around responses to the Cultural Revolution, capitalism, and individualism. I felt that this exhibition did not successfully survey Chinese contemporary art as it should have. Focusing mainly on post-60s generation artists, who experienced an entirely different China than artists born in the eighties, ultimately left out a huge segment of China’s contemporary art movement. Post-80s generation artists have, likewise, impacted the development of Chinese contemporary art because they offer a very different vantage point. Having little to no understanding of the Cultural Revolution, post-80s generation artists grew up in a more affluent, open, and capitalistic China, and it is important to note the historical difference between those who experienced the incredible force of the Cultural Revolution and those who did not. With China modernizing and developing, the exhibition would have been a more well rounded and diverse experience if it included artists from different generations. Regardless of this issue, the Getty ultimately succeeded in introducing arts of China through two exhibitions with two entirely different vantage points.