- "The Bridge Connecting Them to Ourselves":Childhood, Photography and Memory in Contemporary China
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In the Fall of 2008 I taught a lecture class on "Photography, History and Memory" at Peiking University. This class, I believe, was the first of its kind to be taught in contemporary Beijing. Its purpose was to look at Chinese family photographs and see what could be learned from them about China's recent past and present. I planned to use photographs from the students' own families. Before I left Yale for Beijing I sought advice from a number of people and was often (though not always) told that it would be practically impossible to teach such a course. It was generally thought that family photographs would be scarce, that Chinese students would not have access to any that existed, and that even if they did they would not share the images in a classroom setting because of the revelations of wealth and status they might contain. As with many generalizations about China, these predictions were uniformly wrong. They could have been true a few years earlier, but things are changing very rapidly in twenty-first century Beijing.
All of my fifty or so students owned or had access to cameras as well as cell phones that took photographs. The first assignment was to make and discuss a family photograph album. Most had little difficulty getting their parents to send photographs to them if they did not already have copies at the university. The parents had old black and white images sometimes going back several generations as well as up to date color ones. Some families made digital copies, and some sent originals. The students also enthusiastically shared their family photographs with their classmates. At the end of the class about fifteen students presented me with copies of their albums and permission to write about them. It was an extraordinary experience, and as a result I am currently engaged in writing a book about history and memory in Chinese family photographs, [End Page 5] work that grew directly out of the discoveries of that class. What follows is an extended meditation on one of those images.
Lv Ju placed a photograph of two very small children seated on a miniature train at the front of her family photograph album. Like an amusement park ride, the cars of the train are essentially painted wooden boxes with benches inside. Lv Ju sits in the bright red locomotive. She looks to be about four years old. She also looks uncomfortable, perhaps embarrassed, with her shoulders hunched and her hands crossed awkwardly over one another, resting on the handlebar. Her dress has been smoothed down modestly to cover her knees, but one leg pokes out anyway, as if she were not sure in the moments before the picture was taken whether to stay or to go and was seriously considering the latter. Nonetheless, she stays and grins. In a smaller, blue-painted car right behind her sits a younger child with a big broad smile. He is also holding the handlebar but in contrast to Lv Ju, he looks comfortable, exited and entirely ready to ride. Behind them, a painted backdrop portrays some of southwest China's magnificent countryside. But between them and the backdrop is a high bamboo railing, placed to protect the children from falling out of the other side of the train.
Lv Ju wrote the following words about the photograph:
Photos can smile. How happy and joyful I was in that toy train then in the first one! Being a little girl born in a small town in Sichuan Province, southwest of China, I've never seen a real train before taking the picture, let alone taking a ride. As a result, when I was sitting on the toy train at first provided by the photo studio as background, I felt so proud but a little shy to enjoy my virgin ride. My face was rather complicated; still you can distinguish my "sweet...