China in pictures: From black and white to colour
By Emma Graham-Harrison
“Long live Chairman Mao Zedong” is scrawled on a thin strip of wood stuck into the ground where a peasant in tattered clothes is urging on a weary-looking ox. Near “Ploughing with Mao” are beautifully composed shots of young, fanatical Red Guards smashing antiques, and another group roughly tormenting a “counter-revolutionary” old man.
Even though I know they are coming, it is still a shock to move on and see pictures of flawless models lounging on a bench in Beijing, rich young kids drinking in a bar and a group of smiling old women in a technicolour riot of outfits holding pictures of their younger, sterner, revolutionary selves.
The pictures lining the walls of the “China: Portrait of a Country” exhibition are a sharp visual reminder of the changes that have taken place in just one generation, almost unimaginable to those who didn’t live through them, even those like me who have tried to study China and made their home here for years.
In little over three decades, it has gone from an isolated, poor, ideologically rigid backwater to an international powerhouse with the world’s fourth-largest economy.
But there is also a reminder of things that have not changed.
The exhibit skips from the mid-80s to the early 90s, avoiding all reference to the student protests in Tiananmen square in 1989 and the bloody crackdown that followed.
And the later images catch those who have been left behind in the rush of reform, or even hurt by the changes. Sweaty manual labourers, people pushed off their land to make way for a giant dam, children in schools without even a roof.
Officially the transformation is chalked up to “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. After years covering the creation of vast new fortunes amid social repression and environmental degradation it can often seem more like ruthless capitalism with Chinese characteristics.
Beijing is now trying to balance its rapid growth, levelling inequalities to create a “harmonious society” and a greener economy, in the hope that another photographic portrait of China in 30 years will show equally dramatic changes.
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