In honor of Chinese New Year, Matthias Messmer and Hsin-Mei Chuang share reflections on select images from their book, China’s Vanishing World. This book offers readers a rare opportunity to glimpse China as it once was, and as it will soon no longer be. Here are photographs and captions from the authors:
Growing up under the eyes of the Party leaders
Managing China’s vast territory and its people has never been an easy task for the ruling classes, not only during imperial times, but also today. Propaganda has always been a key tool for the Chinese Communist Party to “educate and lead the masses” and is omnipresent in the countryside. Television is often the only way for rural children to learn about the world beyond the countryside. Revolutionary dramas are still popular among the old and the young alike.
The solitude of a believer
China’s countryside is spotted with many tiny temples in shabby conditions. After decades of forced atheism, old temples and shrines were again resurrected after the 1980s. For those in rural China, it is no longer necessary to suppress or hide one’s longing for “unconditional blessings.” However simple or rundown these may edifices appear, inside, believers have once again found a place of solace.
The cage maker and his world
While traditional Chinese art and culture have been appreciated for centuries, the collapse of the “old China” in 1949 changed the interior of almost every rural home. Besides the intrusion of ideologies into the household, the rise of popular culture and materialism accelerated by modern-day technology after the late 1980s have not necessarily improved the aesthetics of most people’s living conditions. However, a wander through these alleys evokes the feeling of being in an open-air theater.
The landscape of souls
The lure of the modern life and materialism has slowly encroached upon the Tibetans who were once shaped and guarded by a magnificent landscape surrounded by high mountains. We cannot but admit the toll of modernization on their lives. Still, the farther we wander into the countryside, the more we see people carrying on the spiritual lives of their ancestors. At dusk, when the mist shrouds this remote valley, we are immersed in the mystery of a forgotten place where nature and religion are the most omnipotent and comforting forces.
Man will triumph over nature
This spread displays the first pages of the chapter “Food, Water, Health and the Environment” from our book. In this chapter, we outline the problems that pose the biggest challenge currently faced by rural China. In recent decades, cultural landscapes have been severely damaged by mega-projects justified by the principle that man will triumph over nature, which was proclaimed by Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution and which still informs central-government planning to this day. In the process of “fighting against nature,” the rural population has inevitably become the most severely affected peoples.