China Old and New

China old and new_tif309
Permalink to this Image | Gallery of Rachel's Works

5 Essays

  1. Chao Gao | Sociologist, Grandland International says:

    The bottom of the picture shows a corner of a garden with venerable pavilions embodying the ancient Chinese philosophy of “harmony between the human and nature,” providing a feeling of peace, indifferent to fame or gain, quiet and gentle.

    The center of the photo shows a typical group of modern industrial constructions – factory and chimney; this group prompts viewers to think about the progress and civilization of human beings; but it also suggests that these were achieved through a sacrifice of the natural environment.

    The top group of high buildings and large mansions represents postmodern China – urbanization, rapidly increasing population, and the tension between human and natural resources.

    In general, the ingeniously arranged view shows the stages of Chinese changing history and puts hundreds of or thousands of years of history into one picture. It allows viewers to muse about the development of a society, the movement of human beings, and the relationship between the human and nature.

  2. Staci Newmahr | Sociologist, CUNY, Queens College says:

    The lack of apparent tension between the two ways of life, and most likely world views, is remarkable. Both areas look fully functional and active – neither appears on the verge of disintegration nor economically depressed. I was reminded of the debates, both academic and popular, over the word “progress” and thought this photo lent an entirely new meaning to the concept, one that focuses on the coexistence of traditional and contemporary infrastructures and philosophies, cutting across both time and space.

  3. Eileen Otis | Sociologist, Stony Brook University says:

    “Suburb” (Jiao) is a dirty word in urban China, literally associated with the dirty work of agriculture. Lucky villagers living on the outskirts of cities make a killing offering their property to real estate developers. Increasingly village leaders sell land out from under the villagers, giving them only nominal recompense. This has led to a number of violent social protests in the country. No other country has urbanized so rapidly. As China does so it threatens to erode its agricultural base as rivers, streams, lakes, and air become ever-more polluted.

  4. cindynguyen35 says:

    Susan Sontag’s seminal work On Photography characterized the photographer as a “voyeuristic stroller who discovers the city as a landscape of voluptuous extremes.” Taken from a high vantage point, Rachel Tanur captured the juxtaposition between urban and suburban, old and new, tradition and modernity, nature and manmade—a powerful commentary on the changing landscape of China. This photograph speaks to my own photograph of the tensions of urban Vietnamese life and the complex and tenuous historical, economic, and political connections between Vietnam and China.

    The photograph does not have a central human subject and thus draws the viewer’s eyes to search throughout the frame for a visual anchor. This process of visual exploration and panoptic wandering mimics the voyeuristic feeling of floating between old and new, past and future. There is a tension between nature—its trees and bodies of water—and the man-made industrialization seen through the hazy purple skyline of skyscrapers. However, the majority of the photograph is dominated by blue and green hues symbolizing nature.

    In the immediate foreground stands a mighty ancient Chinese garden complex. Possibly Rachel Tanur photographed from a lookout point within the gardens. Looking downwards, the complex seems crowded by visitors—are they local Chinese partaking in a seasonal festival? Are they urban Chinese escaping the crowds and “air pollution sickness” of the city in the quiet gardens? Or are the crowds foreign tourists, hoping to discover and experience an “authentic Orient” through tea ceremonies and wearing exotic costumes?

    The viewer’s eyes naturally wander upwards from the garden complex and the landscape becomes increasingly more anonymous and non-human. The mid-ground appear to be nondescript factories designated by its repeating architectural structures. Finally the photograph is framed by a line of towers. The looming skyline is obscured by a blanket of haze—a foreshadowing of the future. The photograph is titled simply “China Old and New;” but this photograph demonstrates China’s fragile coexistence of old traditions, a long and rich heritage and history together with the powerful visions of new development, economic growth, and urbanization.

    1. Sontag, S. (1978). On Photography, London, England: Penguin Books. P.55.

  5. kazinf says:

    Rachel Tanur's photograph 'China old and new' beautifully captures the transformation of China during the past decades. In the late 1960's one of the goals of China's cultural revolution was to abolish the four olds - old customs, old culture, old habits and old ideas that were identified as the causes of China's economic backwardness. The aspirations of a prosperous and ideal future for China was produced by constructing a vision to replace the four olds with four news - new customs, new culture, new habits and new ideas. In the decades that followed China transformed into one of the largest economies in the world. In a single image Rachel Tanur has wonderfully documented this transition from the old to the new and the stark contrast between the two. The foreground of the image shows a space of serenity with open spaces and close connection to nature that is usually associated with a traditional way of life. As the viewer's eyes gradually move from the foreground to the background a towering city looms on the horizon - the epitome of modern life but at the same time disconnected from nature, dense and mechanical.

    The most common and popular visual representation of China's growth and development are the photographs of its cities - brightly lit cities with massive transport infrastructures, tall skyscrapers and towering building blocks comparable to the wealthiest cities of the Western world. From government websites to travel magazines, social media pages to massive billboards such visuals produce a single narrative of Chinese cities as spaces of growth and opportunities, modern living and consumer-oriented lifestyles. Such visuals carefully hide a different narrative of China's transformation from rural to urban, one that is less glittery and less glamorous. Rachel Tanur's photograph gives a glimpse of this narrative that is tied to the middle ground of this image - the sprawling suburb just outside the city located between the rural and the urban but belonging to none.

    The construction of China's massive cities was possible to a large extent due to the availability of a large number of migrant workers who came to the city from rural areas in search of better livelihoods. Hidden from view they work in construction sites, manufacturing industries, recycling plants, kitchens and in many other menial jobs that keeps China's growing economy running. Despite their contribution to China's growth, a restrictive household registration system, known as 'hukou', introduced by the government to limit the number of urban residents classify the migrant workers as rural residents. Due to this often even after working in the city for years they are considered as temporary migrants rather than permanent residents of the city. As a result, they are denied access to the city's healthcare and education systems as well as to many other services and amenities that urban residents are entitled to. These migrant workers end up in suburbs like the ones showed in this photograph where they are often forced to cope with sub-standard living conditions. Several studies have indicated that these workers and their family members increasingly experience loneliness and depression with the World Health Organisation (WHO) reporting three times higher suicide rates among them comparing to the national average.

    Mostly invisible in the glamourous narrative of China's growth and progress these migrant workers live somewhere in between the old and the new China. The process of China's urban transformation has not been favourable to all of its population in the same way and too a large extent has been a process of increasing inequality and disenfranchisement of the poor. The main strength of Rachel Tanur's photograph 'China old and new' is that it not only depicts the country's transformation from rural to urban but also draws the viewer's attention to the less seen segregated geographies of inequality in modern China.