China under construction
As he spent a large part of his life in China, Claude Hudelot has gathered together several impressive photo collections depicting the People's Republic of China.
The systematic use of photography for propaganda purposes became one of the prerogatives of the regime in which even Mao Zedong himself often liked to pose.
Foto industria is the first exhibition of this large and surprising collection, more than 300 photographs of carefully composed groups and production workshops to glorify the image of working to build the Communist State.
Group photo on the campus of Ningbo, Political Science Institute of Zhejiang Province, on National Day, 1958 (1.10.1958).
Large meeting of graduate workers and peasants Banner in background: " Let us firmly take the shining road of the association between workers and peasants"
Banner on the left: " Let us go where the motherland has most need of us"
People's brigade of Dazhai In the foreground, Chen Yonggui, leader of the commune who has later become Deputy Prime Minister
Born in 1942 in France.
Leaves and works between France and China.
From 'family business' to 'China in construction'1
For thousands of years, the Middle Kingdom was based on the first family, that of the Son of Heaven, with filial piety Xiao, 孝, as the fulcrum. All other Confucian qualities stem from this principle. "Let the prince behave as a prince, the minister as a minister, the father as a father and the son as a son"2.
This filial piety is fuelled by reciprocity, cardinal virtue of all societies: the relationship between the prince and his subjects is based on the model of the relations between father and son, while fraternal relations based on trust—xin, 信 —, extend to include the whole of humanity3. "Let the superior man never fail reverentially to order his own conduct, and let him be respectful to others and observant of propriety—then all within the four seas will be his brothers"4.
In other words, according to Master Kong, humanity—or China—was one single and same family in which the emperor was the father.
Very early, this "family of China" was represented in various forms: burial figurines placed with the remains of deceased emperors and princes, followed by paintings depicting ancestors and descendants according to an extremely hierarchical system, in keeping with Confucianism. And last of all, photographs reproduced the same unchanging hierarchical order.
So it was not surprising to see the early appearance of family portraits arranged according to very rigorous etiquette, followed by photos grouping certain confraternities and other guilds, and later, manufacturing companies and factory workshops.
What is most striking is the organisation of the impeccable arrangement for each shot which sometimes required hours of preparation. These photos were taken during some ceremony—prize giving to model graduates for example—or for some auspicious date. This complex protocol was completed by an inscription providing all pertinent information: day, month and year, name of the company, and as an essential part of the ritual, the title: "souvenir photo".
This type of photo reached the height of popularity between the 1940s and 1970s,
with the subjects becoming more and more political even within industrial companies during the latter years. The most popular process was the panoramic photo which required a perfectly arranged group in a precise curve so that the camera could take a sweeping shot of the subjects who were subject to absolute immobility.
One very Chinese trait of character was the all-important "keeping face". The fact of being well-positioned in relation to hierarchal superiors and comrades no doubt contributed to the success of these company photos by according value to each individual who in turn blended with the "great ultimate". "All men are brothers"…
After the Communists came to power in 1949 and the enormous work of propaganda began, another type of photo started to flourish. Professional photographers began to roam the country to immortalise the valorous workers in action. These images, carefully staged and lit, have the enormous merit of showing China under every aspect: the huge factories, state-run industry, the rural communes inspired by the famous Dazhai "people's brigade"5, and the "minority groups". Very often there were even photos of the country's leaders like Chairman Mao and Prime Minister Zhou Enlai first in line to put their shoulders to the wheel…
Paradoxically, in 1973 when the Great Helmsman launched the critical campaign against Lin Biao and Confucius—the latter was accused of all the flaws in the capitalist bourgeois system6—a number of propaganda photos complaisantly show the role of the advisors, tutors and elders with the young generation in a display of paternalism that is redolent of neo-Confucianism.
These images were collected by the dozen and formed travelling exhibitions that returned to the "masses" from where they started. A Droste effect to perfection!
These two approaches of the world of work and industry proved to be extremely complementary. Both take us back to a China which seems light years away from the Great Dragon of the new millennium. One would swear that these poor, humble, homespun and uniformly similar people are the remote ancestors of the new masters.
On the contrary: they are their parents and grandparents!
To our eyes too this China seems to be lost in the mists of time; a China with an austere and antiquated ideology and workforce that has become an endangered species. This China that was dreamed of and idealised has gone forever. The height of irony: to quote the famous title of the film by Marco Bellocchio, it is now—and only now—that China is near7.
1. Title of a propaganda publication diffused by China throughout the world for several decades.
2. and 4. Confucius, Lunyu XI, 7 and XII , 5.
3. Danielle Elisseeff, Confucius, des mots en action. Découvertes / Gallimard, 2003.
5. People's brigade used as a so-called model; walls all over China were covered with the famous slogan "In agriculture, learn from Dazhai".
6. cf. the anonymous photo of a factory where workers can be seen with fists raised in front of banners denouncing Lin Biao and Confucius.
7. La Cina è vicina (China is near), made in 1967 considered itself a "Maoist" and premonitory film.
Exhibition designed with the support of Margo Renisio