How Photographers Are Telling the Story of China's Warp-Speed Urbanization

A new exhibition of contemporary Chinese photography charts the country's phenomenal growth from 2000 to 2012.

I remember an early visit I made to see my father in Beijing. It was 1998, back when there were more bicycles than cars and the road out to the apartment building where he lived was still made of dirt. Elderly women perched by the side of it, peddling pork buns and ice pops; bicycles flashed in the heat, dragging carts full of watermelons for sale. In a shantytown across the way, young girls washed each others' hair with buckets and plucked chickens to ready them for dinner. When I next returned, two years later, the road was paved, and Starbucks had arrived in a shiny new location right around the corner from a dank public pit toilet.

It's strange to have nostalgia for a bygone era just a scant decade and a half past, but that is the head-snapping speed at which the beast has grown.

The time period between the last two zodiac years of the dragon is the subject of Rising Dragon, a new exhibition of contemporary Chinese photography at the San Jose Museum of Art. It charts the phenomenal urbanization of China from 2000 to 2012, during which the country left behind its largely agricultural roots to become the world's fastest-growing economy and home to many of its largest cities.

The show includes more than 100 photographs by 36 mainland Chinese artists who came of age during this period; through portraits, cityscapes, landscapes, and daily scenes from modern life, they document the erosion of millennia-old Chinese social traditions and the transition for millions to a fast-paced global society. One decade-long series by photographer Weng Fen, "Sitting on the Wall," documents the radical alteration of one city’s skyline—Haikou, on once-remote Hainan Island, the tropical "Chinese Hawaii"—with annual images that show steadily encroaching parking lots and tall buildings.

"Haikou," from the series "Sitting on the Wall," 2001 (Weng Fen)
"Haikou," from the series "Sitting on the Wall,"

2010 (Weng Fen)

O Zhang documented the identity crisis facing Chinese youth today in "The World is Yours (But Also Ours);" she photographed young people in T-shirts bearing "Chinglish" phrases (the use of which the Chinese government attempted to eradicate before the 2008 Beijing Olympics).

"Salute to the Patriot," from the series "The World is Yours (But Also Ours)," 2008 (O Zhang)



Zhou Hai, in a series called "The Unbearable Heaviness of Industry," created black-and-white prints focused on the ravaged environments of rapid development and the workers who labor in their poisonous conditions:

Beijing Capital Steel Company, forced to close down due to pollution, from the series "The Unbearable Heaviness of Industry," 2005 (Zhou Hai)



Two workers dismantling equipment used for making steel, Liaoning Anshan Steel Company, Anshan, Liaoning, from the series "The Unbearable Heaviness of Industry," 2005 (Zhou Hai)



And Li Lang's portraits of the ethnic Yi minority people in his native Sichuan Province show the steady encroachment of the West on younger generations:

"Yi People #057," from the series "Portrait of Yi," 2001 (Li Lang)



The works were selected to "provide a snapshot of what is happening in China from multiple points of view," says Sherrill Ingalls of the San Jose Museum of Art. Whether it's a humorous look at contemporary consumerism, a documentary view of a vanishing culture, or a vision of the future that—increasingly so—has already come to pass, the exhibition is a valuable reminder of the breakneck pace of recent change in China, the country's gains, and what its people might have lost along the way.

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