China Through 88 Lenses Lives Under Chinese Communism, Caught on Film

Liu Heung Shing, a photographer with a long career in the West, has collected hard-to-find work of 88 photographers in China in a new photo book, which aims to show the sweep of ordinary life in China since 1949.


Two photos show communists on the beach: Marshal Ye Jianying, a military man in a pair of shorts, holding court over tea on a wicker table, as well as Chairman Mao himself, years earlier, sitting by the water with his family. Both photos show guarded men in unguarded moments. But there are also official communist stage extravaganzas and bloody victims of official crackdowns. China's first millionaire can also be seen lying on his Mercedes. And naked laborers are depicted hauling a boat up a rocky river bank, with ropes, in 2005.

"That a land so big could be so oppressed, that so many people have suffered, makes me immensely angry," says Liu Heung Shing, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist whose new book, "China, Portrait of a Country" is out this summer in a multiglingual edition (German, English and French). "Naturally, Mao is behind it, but the people also followed his orders without asking questions," he told SPIEGEL ONLINE.

Liu, was born in China, has lived in Hong Kong, studied political science in New York and worked as a photographer for US magazines like Time and Life. He documented the death of Mao in 1976 as well as the violent repression of student protesters in 1989. His protagonists are the Coke-drinking teenagers of the 1980s as well as the brother of the last emperor of the Qing dynasty, Pu Jie, who poses, smiling, in front of his onetime home in the Forbidden City.

Liu travelled through China for four years, examining thousands of dusty negatives and prints. Many of the 88 photographers whose work is included in the collection have reasons to fear government repression, said Liu -- but they still gave permission to publish. The result is a work of photographic history documenting the People's Republic of China from the revolution in 1949 to 2008.

"I wanted to show daily life in different periods," said Liu, "because Mao dominated daily life for such a long time."

But does Liu, who has spent so much time in America, photograph the world through a Western or a Chinese perspective? "Hard to say. I see myself as a Chinese exile who lives in China again. But I like the distance I have." Everyday photographs don't interest many people in China, he says. "But when you study in the West, you learn that sometimes the smallest detail is the most interesting."

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