Zhuang Xueben, “Yaks in Mountains, Sichuan Province, Xikang Region,” 1937
Last month, Raul at Mexican Pictures asked if anybody knew about the Chinese photographer Zhuang Xueben, who created an extensive and beautiful record of Western China’s remote outreaches in the 1930s. Nobody has chimed in with anything too definitive yet, so I’ll add what I know. FotoFest mounted a sizable exhibition of Zhuang’s photographs in Houston this Spring, and I spent a lot of time with the work. His story is pretty incredible, as are his photographs. Infuriatingly Unfortunately, all of my notes were stolen when I returned to Portland, but here’s what I’ve got:
(The FotoFest catalogue features 14 of Zhuang’s photographs, and a biographical essay by Zhu Qi, which is where most of my information comes from.)
Zhuang Xueben, “Woman of Naxi People, Yang Ming County, Yunnan Province,” 1934
There are two crucial contexts to bear in mind when looking at Zhuang’s photographs: the state of Chinese photography in 1934, and the prevailing attitudes at the time within China about Tibetans and other indigenous people of the remote borderlands.
In an illustrated lecture about the history of Chinese photography, there was one unmistakable divide that preceded the Sino-Japanese war: photography before Zhuang Xueben, and photography after. China was very slow to adopt photography (and Modernity in general). It remained a culture steeped and shrouded in its own traditions, and its recent encounters with colonialist Westerners didn’t exactly get the Chinese excited to adopt their latest technological apparatuses. When photography did eventually catch on around the turn of the 20th century, it was used to create what were essentially traditional Chinese paintings, and camera clubs and periodicals at the time were filled with static studio portraits and woefully maudlin, faux-Pictorialist scenes of birds on tree branches and tranquil ponds. (It’s easy to find coffee table books and websites that show photography from China at this time that would initially seem to contradict this assessment, but a quick check will usually confirm that—like so many photography books being published about China today—they are Western views of the foreign country.) Quite simply, there was nothing in the Chinese history books that could have prepared anyone for Zhuang’s clear-eyed, steady vision; in Western terms, it would be like leapfrogging from amateur imitations of PH Emerson scenes to August Sander’s “Young Farmers.” In this sense, Zhuang was a true visionary.
Zhuang Xueben, “Tibetan Buddhist Monk, Living in Heaven and Giving Light to the Soul, Yu Shu County, Qing Hai Province,” 1937
In the 1930s, the Tibetan regions of southwestern China existed on maps as an enormous expanse where few ventured. Popular imagination held that the mountain-dwelling minorities were enormous, barbaric people, “slandered as uncivilized savages,” recalls the Zhuang’s son in an unpublished interview, “with disheveled hair, dressed in leather, eating raw meat, and sleeping in open wild fields.”
In 1933 Zhuang Xueben set out to make the 2,700 mile trek—first on foot, then on camel—to photograph these monstrous, cannabalistic tribesmen. It wasn’t going to be as easy as he thought.
Part two will be posted this weekend.