China’s Most Controversial Photography
Author: Taiyang Hua
Taking pictures in China can land you in a Chinese prison if you are in the wrong place at the right time! This is exactly why, compared with the rest of the world, there have been so few published photographs of Chinese culture. In fact, the majority of commercial coffee table books and stock photos and about China focus wholly on tourist attractions rather than people or street life. It takes a keen eye and familiarity with Chinese culture for a photographer to be able to evade the Communist authorities and escape the country with his roll of film in tact. The following fourteen famous Chinese photographs, spanning from olden times to the digital age, including several scandalous (but nonetheless iconic) images, managed to slip past the Communist censors and have come to define “New China.”
1) Baby Soup by Zhu Yu
Chinese performance artist Zhu Yu’s most famous piece of conceptual art, titled “Eating People,” was performed at a Shanghai arts festival in 2000. It consisted of a series of photographs of him cooking and eating what is alleged to be a human fetus. One picture, circulated on the internet via e-mail in 2001, provoked investigations by both the FBI and Scotland Yard.The piece’s cannibalistic theme caused a stir in Britain when Yu’s work was featured on a Channel 4 documentary exploring Chinese modern art in 2003. In response to the public reaction, Mr. Yu stated, “No religion forbids cannibalism. Nor can I find any law which prevents us from eating people. I took advantage of the space between morality and the law and based my work on it”.Yu has claimed that he used an actual fetus which was stolen from a medical school.
2) Edison Chen Sex Scandal
The Edison Chen photo scandal involved the illegal distribution over the Internet of intimate and private photographs of Hong Kong actor Edison Chen with various women, including actresses Gillian Chung, Bobo Chan, Rachel Ngan and Cecilia Cheung. The scandal shook the Hong Kong entertainment industry in early 2008 and received high profile media attention locally and around the world. Chen admitted being the author and copyright owner of most of the photographs, and stated that the private photographs had been stolen and published illegally without his consent. He made a public apology, especially to the women involved, and also announced that he would “step away indefinitely” from the Hong Kong entertainment industry.
3) Tiananmen Tank Man by Jeff Widener
Tank Man, or the Unknown Rebel, is the nickname of an anonymous man who stood in front of a column of Chinese Type 59 tanks the morning after the Chinese military forcibly removed protestors from in and around Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989. The most iconic photograph of the event was taken by Jeff Widener of the Associated Press, from a sixth floor balcony of the Beijing Hotel, about half a mile (800 meters) away from the scene. Widener was injured and suffering from flu at the time. Though he was concerned that his shots were not good, his image was syndicated to a large number of newspapers around the world, and was said to have appeared on the front page of all European papers.
4) Nanking Massacre by Unknown
The Nanking Massacre or Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanking, was a mass murder and war rape that occurred during the six-week period following the Japanese capture of the city of Nanjing (Nanking), the former capital of the Republic of China, on December 13, 1937 during the Second Sino-Japanese War. During this period, up to hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians and disarmed soldiers were murdered and 20,000–80,000 women were raped by soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army. Although the Japanese government has admitted the acts of the killing of a large number of noncombatants, looting and other violence committed by the Imperial Japanese Army after the fall of Nanking, some Japanese officials have argued that the death toll was military in nature and that no such crimes ever occurred. Denial of the massacre has become a staple of Japanese nationalism.
5) Mao Zedong Portrait by Unknown
In 1962, Mao proposed the Socialist Education Movement (SEM) in an attempt to educate the peasants to resist the temptations of feudalism and the sprouts of capitalism that he saw re-emerging in the countryside from Liu’s economic reforms. Large quantities of politicized art were produced and circulated — with Mao at the center. Numerous posters, badges and musical compositions referenced Mao in the phrase “Chairman Mao is the red sun in our hearts” and a “Savior of the people”. In October 1966, Mao’s Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, which was known as the Little Red Book was published. Party members were encouraged to carry a copy with them and possession was almost mandatory as a criterion for membership. Over the years, Mao’s image became displayed almost everywhere, present in homes, offices and shops.
6) Big Eyes by Xie Hailong
Su Mingjuan became the image ambassador for Project Hope. The Chinese Youth Development Foundation used “Big Eyes” as the promotional icon. Based upon an incomplete tally, as of 1994, this photograph was used more than 100 million times in newspapers, posters and other materials and that probably made it the most printed photograph in history. It is ranked number one in the survey of “most memorable photographs in the first 50 years of the nation.” Project Hope has collected 2 billion yuan [ed. about US$300 million) in contributions. A survey of the donors showed that half of them were not familiar with Project Hope and its work, but there were few who didn’t know “Big Eyes” and many of them donated money on account of that image. In January 1994, the Hong Kong tabloid Next Weekly reported that Project Hope could not account for HK$70 million in donations, implying the donations from the people of Hong Kong to help the Chinese children have been misdirected to the pockets of certain people. The affected party filed a libel lawsuit that did not get resolved for six years. The net outcome was that Next Weekly had to pay HK$3.5 million in damages as well as court fees. In 2002, Project Hope was reportedly involved with embezzlement of donations. National Audit Office confirmed that in 2002 it audited financial situations of Project Hope but the report was never publicised.
7) Falling into Pothole by Liu Tao
A photographer has come under fire in China for his pictures of a man falling off a bicycle. Liu Tao was accused of lying in wait to take his pictures instead of warning people of the danger. Readers of the Beijing Youth Daily, which published the shots, wrote in to express their feelings. One wrote: “The pictures are well shot, but the person who shot this is disgusting. He knew there was a pit, but was waiting there for someone to fall over.” The photographer was accused of lying in wait to take his pictures instead of warning people of the danger. And another said: “The photographer should really be condemned since he knew there definitely would be other victims.” Liu defended himself, saying: “I just knew that the city government has paved the pit, and without my pictures, the pit would not be noticed by the government, and there would perhaps be more people falling over.”
8) Faked Photo Of Rare Antelope by Liu Weiqing
Xinhua, China’s state-run news agency, issued an unusual public apology for publishing a doctored photograph of Tibetan wildlife frolicking near a high-speed train. The deception — uncovered by Chinese Internet users who sniffed out a Photoshop scam in the award-winning picture — has brought on a big debate about media ethics, China’s troubled relationship with Tibet, and how pregnant antelope react to noise. The photo was the work of Liu Weiqing, a 41-year-old photographer who had been camped with his Jeep on the Tibetan plateau since March, as part of a highly publicized series by the Daqing Evening News, a regional newspaper, to raise awareness of the rare Tibetan antelope. Mr. Liu was also under contract with Xinhua to provide photos for China’s largest government-run news service.
9) Faked Photo of South China Tiger by Zhou Zhenglong
Chinese photographers said the South China tiger on digital pictures, released by forestry authorities and widely discussed on the Internet, is a fake. Technological analysis showed the South China tiger on the 40 pictures was not real and could not serve as evidence for the existence of the wild animal. The digital picture, purporting to be a wild South China tiger crouching in the midst of green bushes, was released by the Forestry Department of northwest China’s Shaanxi Province at a news conference Zhou Zhenglong, 52, a farmer and former hunter in Chengguan Township of Shaanxi’s Zhenping County, photographed the tiger with a digital camera and on film.
10) Living Blow-up Doll by Wang Jiayun
Chinese female high school student Wang “Blow-up doll” Jiayun has received a lot of attention on the internet. After high school student Wang Jiayun’s weibo photographs spread on the internet, her name became a top search term on various major web portals. Wang Jiayun’s height is 164cm, her weight 42kg. As of the afternoon on the 17th, the number of visits to Wang Jiayun’s weibo already surpassed 3.5 million. On the 17th alone, the number of visits exceeded 1.18 million. Wang Jiayun says she was born in Kowloon of Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, and presently lives in Shenzhen City of Guangdong province in China.
11) Pink Light District by Tom Carter
Few foreigners have photographed China as extensively as American travel photographer Tom Carter, who spent 2 years backpacking 35,000 miles across all 33 provinces. His seminal photography book CHINA: Portrait of a People has received critical acclaim for its unbiased portrayal of life and humanity in modern China. However Carter’s best-selling book was banned for sale in Mainland China by the Communist Party for including 15 images (out of 900) of Chinese prostitutes and brothels (of which Carter coined the phrase “Pink Light District” in various cities including Beijing and Hong Kong. Carter refused to either defend or apologize for his “pink light” photos except to say “the cool thing about photographs – especially these – is that they speak for themselves.”
12) Government Leader Beats Reporter by Wang Xi
From Wang Xi’s (victim) blog: “You may have seen the news reports that I made about the chopping of trees in Niujia Village, Lihe town, Dezhou/Linyi city during which I was shoved around by the village director Tan Zhuanhe. It was like this: I walked out of the village government office and he was there waiting for me. I told him that I was going to the village with him. He said fiercely: “Go, let’s go to the village!” I asked, “What kind of attitude is that?” Suddenly he swung his fist and hit me in the temple. I was stunned. I reacted and yelled: “What are you doing!” He raised his hand and slapped me. Here is the moment captured by the camera. During this episode, the town government party secretary named Ying stood on the side and watched with arms akimbo. He did not intercede. When I asked secretary Ying for help, he turned around and walked away.”
13) Rural Chinese Strip Show by Unknown
Nothing is known about the origin of these images accept that they are from an underground strip show in a rural Chinese village, province unknown. Such performances are illegal in China (along with pornography), however bribes to notoriously-corrupt local Chinese police usually allow them to stay open.
14) Villager Protests Nude Photo Shoot by Unknown
A naked photo shoot in China was disrupted when an outraged local villager began attacking photographers. The 20-year-old model and more than 10 photographers descended on the Shenxiandong Forestry Park in central China’s Henan province to shoot a series of arty nude pictures. They were accidentally discovered by a local villager who quickly informed other residents to come and look. Unsurprisingly it wasn’t long before a group of male ‘art’ lovers had gathered at the scene to watch. However, their wives were not so appreciative and were quick to scold their errant husbands and send them home. Then several hours into the photo shoot a local pensioner, armed with a tree branch, made his disapproval clear when he attacked the photographers. The man, Shen Guoxian, 60, said: “These people are here to shoot naked pictures, which is too dirty and polluting to the environment. It damaged the family bonds in the village.” However, one of the photographers involved complained that the villagers were “too narrow-minded”. Another added: “Body art is a high-end art. The human body is the most beautiful work of mother nature.” Park manager Wu Guangwei said: “They, as tourists, have bought tickets and have the right to take pictures. It’s hard to us to balance the two ends; the villagers and the artists.”
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