UCCA Beijing

The Chinese Photobook

2015.4.3 - 2015.5.31

A selection of covers and spreads featured in “The Chinese Photobook.”


Location:  Central Gallery

The status of the “photobook”—a book, with or without text, where the primary message is carried by photographs—has undergone a major reappraisal during the past decade. Produced in a wide range countries and contexts for over a century, photobooks have added enormously to our understanding of photography and its social and cultural importance. Although China boasts a fascinating history of photobook publishing, its importance in this larger global history has not been adequately recognized; this exhibition brings to light the richness and diversity of this heritage.

“The Chinese Photobook” is based on a collection compiled by renowned British photographer Martin Parr and the Beijing- and London-based Dutch photographer team WassinkLundgren. Inspired initially by Parr’s interest in propaganda and Socialist Realism, and part of his ongoing research into the history of the photobook the world, the China collection quickly expanded, forming the basis for a major research project and book published in 2015 by Aperture and the China Photographic Publishing House.

This exhibition in six chapters spans from key volumes published as early as 1900 through contemporary volumes by emerging Chinese photographers, presented in vitrines, as enlargements, in videos, and for perusal in an interactive library. While the form, content, and authorial perspective of these Chinese photobooks vary widely, together they offer a rich and multifaceted perspective on the complicated history of modern China.

“The Chinese Photobook” is co-produced by Aperture Foundation and the Recontres d’Arles with the generous support of the China Art Foundation. Additional support is provided in part by Sondra Gilman Gonzalez-Falla and Celso Gonzalez-Falla, Marina and Andrew E. Lewin, and David Solo. Accompanying texts and individual title descriptions are written by Gu Zheng, Raymond Lum, Stephanie H. Tung, and Gerry Badger.

“The Chinese Photobook” at UCCA is part of the 2015 UK-China Year of Cultural Exchange program, and is supported by the Cultural and Education Section of the British Embassy and IELTS.


Download “The Chinese Photobook”press release.

From Empire to the People’s Republic of China (1900–1949)

Early photography in China was a commercial as well as personal venture: photographers sold their work as individual prints or as albums. Over time, photography established its value vis-à-vis other practical uses, from recording public events and family histories to instruction, and for the communication and reinforcement of didactic political messages. The earliest practitioners of the late nineteenth century, who introduced their Chinese colleagues to the medium, were European professionals such as Jules Itier, Felice Beato, and John Thomson, who followed growing Western colonial and military interests in the East. Their Chinese counterparts in both China and Hong Kong, including Lai Afong, Zou Boqi, Pun Lun, and numerous others, adopted the art to their own tastes and interests. Chinese amateur photographers organized clubs to share prints and exchange ideas.

Advancements in graphic printing during the twenties and thirties provided Chinese photographers with an important new venue in the newly booming world of offset-printed books, magazines, and newspapers. The rush to modernize in major Chinese cities was not only reflected in the eager adoption of black-and-white and hand-colored reproductions, but was also influenced by images widely distributed as albums, curios, and personal mementos for both domestic and international audiences.

The publications created about China and by Chinese photographers in the first half of the twentieth century narrate the often-contradictory images of China being created during this transitional time. They simultaneously depict a quaint, exotic people; a hostile, contested territory to be vanquished; and an evolving nation intent on determining its future for itself. They offer a record of foreign interests as they struggled to establish a toehold in the “Far East,” as well as insight into the evolution of an emerging Chinese artistic community which saw photography as a means of merging modern technologies with traditional aesthetics. Most critically, this time marks the evolution of photography in China from hobby to mainstay of the burgeoning mass media, laying the foundation for what was to become a major tool in the shaping of political identity—and of propaganda, with the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949. —Raymond Lum

Manchuria and the Sino-Japanese War (1931–1947)

This section focuses on photobooks edited and published by Japan and China leading up to and during the Second Sino-Japanese War. In 1931, the Japanese military staged a small explosion on the South Manchurian Railway (or the Mantetsu) located in present day Shenyang, and accused Chinese dissidents of orchestrating the attack. The Japanese military subsequently used this event, now known as the Mukden Incident, as justification for invading Manchuria and establishing its puppet state of Manchukuo six months later.

Produced variously by the government, news agencies, and publishing houses, they served to promote the war effort in various ways. They argued for the legitimacy of the conflict in the Pacific and attempted to rally the Japanese military as it penetrated further into Chinese territory. Many of these books were created to promote and justify the Japanese military’s invasive actions to its own people and to rest of the world. Under the aegis of the Japanese government, Manchukuo published a slew of propagandistic photobooks aimed at legitimating itself. Shot and edited primarily by a sophisticated and experienced group of Japanese photographers and publishers, these books attempted to create a coherent image of the “young nation” of Manchukuo and allay anxieties about its identity. They also defended the Japanese invasion by visualizing the notion of “Five Races under One Union.” This agenda is stated particularly clearly in the pages of FRONT, featured here in the show, with the statement: “Once again with Japan, Manchukuo has built a state of racial harmony and established a land of security and happiness of the people.” Other Japanese-produced photobooks introduced Manchukuo to Japanese citizens in an effort to create a sense of kinship and interest in these far-away colonies. In short, the aforementioned photobooks were not simply about the Japanese invasion, but themselves constituted a kind of photographic invasion.

China in this period was more constrained than Japan in its economic, material, and human resources, and the photobooks it produced were of noticeably inferior quality. Nonetheless, as visual and verbal expressions of resistance by the invaded against the invaders, these Chinese books deserve our attention.—Gu Zheng

The Image of a New China (1945–1966)

Following Japan’s surrender in 1945, the Chinese Communist Party engaged in a four-year war against the Kuomintang, ultimately driving Chiang Kai-shek’s government to Taiwan. On October 1, 1949, Mao Zedong declared the founding of the Central Government of the People’s Republic of China at Tiananmen, inaugurating a new era of Chinese history under the leadership of the Communist Party.

Already experienced in propaganda and in possession of greatly increased resources compared to the war years, the Communist Party and Central Government actively engaged in visual propaganda. Their goal was to increase the people’s political awareness, encourage them to embrace the new government and its ideology, and motivate them to participate in Party and national political movements and various nationbuilding efforts. To flourish, the PRC needed to forge a national consciousness and identity. It also needed to promote a new national image on the international stage in order to end its diplomatic isolation.

In the Mao-era photobooks discussed in this chapter, we recognize some of the basic strategies of PRC visual propaganda. Since the books emphasize nation-building and the prosperous lives of ordinary citizens, their editorial style tends to be clean and legible, with carefully managed compositions and placements of human subjects. Impromptu snapshots are generally avoided in favor of photographs staged to the desired effects. The photographs in these books are not authentic depictions of social life, but rather showcase political “actions” organized by the photographers themselves. The lighting is either dramatic, as in scenes of glory and heroism, or flat, to maximize the legibility of its contents for mass consumption.

In this chapter, we can also trace the development of Mao’s image, which would later evolve into a full-blown, rigidly guarded cult of personality during the Cultural Revolution. Most photobooks on national projects produced in this era open with a portrait of Mao, confirming his status as the supreme leader. This became a de facto standard. All the books discussed in this chapter were official publications. After the founding of New China, private publishing gradually ceased, and all publishers came under Party or government management. All books were distributed through the official channel of Xinhua Bookstore, a state enterprise.—Gu Zheng

State Publishing: The Cultural Revolution and Beyond (1966–Present)

The printed page held a particular place in the Cultural Revolution, a nation-wide effort led from Beijing to remake China into a modern nation by violently overturning cultural traditions and class hierarchies, launched in 1966 and ending upon the death of Chairman Mao Zedong in 1976. Concomitant with a wholesale mobilization of the people to the cause of the revolution was the rise of the cult of Mao, who came to be lionized as both creator and irreproachable savior of China. Mao’s portrait was printed in millions of poster copies, which could be found throughout China in homes, offices, and factories. His image was also printed in many, many books. All official publishing—unofficial publishing was all but unimaginable, so effective were the strictures of the time—was centralized into a vast network of People’s Publishing Houses reporting to the Central Propaganda Department and the State Press and Publications Administration. Rigorous guidelines dictated what could be published and what kind of language and images would benefit or negatively impact society. Anyone who was found to have deviated from the regulations could be censored, or worse.

True modernization, however, did not begin until Mao’s death, with the policies of his successor, Deng Xiaoping, who loosened the government’s grip on the economy. The end of the 1970s and early ’80s liberalized publishing, and private publishers began operating again to print textbooks. More bilingual books began to appear, particularly dictionaries, and many were illustrated with photographs. Books on medicine, science, art, sports, and literature flourished, most without didactic undertones. The majority of illustrated books published by the state served doubly as outreach both inside and beyond China’s borders, extolling modern developments that overseas Chinese may have missed by not living in the country: advances in transportation, engineering, the building industry, foreign relations, sports, and agriculture, culminating in Beijing hosting the Olympics in 2008.—Raymond Lum

The Renaissance of Chinese Photography (1979–Present)

The end of the 1970s saw the repudiation of the Cultural Revolution and the launch of Deng Xiaoping’s new program of “Reform and Opening,” a campaign to modernize China through “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.” In this new, liberal environment, the country opened its doors to foreign trade, and private businesses were allowed to operate for the first time since Communist takeover. Concurrent with these economic changes, social and political changes allowed for a blossoming of individual opinion in the public sphere.

These changes are reflected in the surge of “unofficial” publishing that began as early as 1976, with the self-publication of albums by members of the April Photographic Society, which documented the suppressed public mourning and protests following premier Zhou Enlai’s death, among other projects. Created outside of Party-sanctioned news outlets, the group’s books and exhibitions were a step away from “official” photography in the service of politics and an appeal for a more personal use of the medium. Their contributions mark the unmistakable beginning of a cultural renaissance, and are the harbingers of what would soon become a “contagious” outbreak of individual expression via the camera.

As photographers developed independent projects, debates arose on the medium’s ability to capture reality, the photographer’s subjectivity, and his or her relationship to society. To disseminate these projects, photographers created their own books, often designing and printing the books themselves but relying on purchased ISBNs to gain access to distribution channels. As performance and conceptual art developed in places like Beijing’s East Village, an independent artist community in the mid-1990s, photobooks became an important means of documenting the ephemeral work and distributing it both domestically and abroad. International collectors, dealers, and curators took notice, and in the early 2000s, Chinese photography began to appear prominently in commercial galleries, museum exhibitions, and art fairs. Today, independent art publications have become ubiquitous and, with the rise of the Internet, photographers have been able to develop audiences for more daring, limited-run photobooks without the aid of traditional ISBN distribution channels. The photobook continues to be an important vehicle for self-expression and an essential part of the evolving story of Chinese photography.—Ruben Lundgren and Stephanie H. Tung

Global Perspectives on China (1949–Present)

Foreign photobooks offer an interesting window into how perceptions of and engagement with the People's Republic has changed in the decades since its founding in 1949. Prior to the Cultural Revolution, the general tendency for photographers working in the new Communist state was to portray China in a positive light. Left-wing photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Caio Mario Garrubba ignored the most problematic aspects of the regime, while photographers from the Eastern Bloc, such as the East German Johannes König were knowingly and willingly part of Communism’s propaganda system.

In the post-Cultural Revolution era, attitudes of foreign documentary photographers have been less dichotomized, and more reflective of contemporary realities in all its complexity. Indeed even the notion of "foreign" is complicated by photographers like the Hong Kong-born Pulitzer laureate Liu Heung Shing, whose photos of early Reform-era China for Time have influenced generations of photographers in China. In more recent years, practitioners like Sze Tzong Leong and Edward Burtynsky, both with ties to the art world, have looked at social subjects including urbanization and environmental degradation. On a more playful note, the French born Beijing resident Thomas Sauvin has collected, sorted, and published discarded negatives taken by ordinary Chinese photographers that document social transformation from a wide range of highly individual perspectives. As China has become more deeply integrated into the wider world, the externality of the foreign gaze has found itself in question.

About Martin Parr

A key figure in the world of photography, Martin Parr is recognized as a brilliant satirist of contemporary life. In addition to his work as a photographer and curator, he is a renowned collector of photographic books, and the co-author with Gerry Badger of The Photobook: A History, volumes I, II, and III. He is a contributor, curator, and advisor to several other projects about the photobook, including “The Latin American Photobook.” His own photographs have been featured in over twenty-five photobooks, and are in the collections of museums worldwide, including the J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles; Museum of Modern Art, New York; Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; Metropolitan Museum of Art, Tokyo; and Tate Modern, London. Parr is the current president of Magnum Photos International.

About WassinkLundgren

WassinkLundgren is a collaboration between Dutch artists Thijs groot Wassink and Ruben Lundgren. Their work together includes book projects, exhibitions, and photography commissions. They met while studying at the Utrecht School of the Arts in the Netherlands and have worked together since 2005. They have produced over a dozen books, including WassinkLundgren is Still Searching (2006); Empty Bottles (2007); Tokyo Tokyo (2011); and Hits (2013), a catalogue published on the occasion of their solo show at FOAM, Amsterdam. They have received several awards, including the Prix du Livre at Rencontres d’Arles (2007) for best contemporary photobook; the China Academy Award (2010); and the award for best independent photo exhibition at the Lishui photo festival (2014). Thijs groot Wassink is based in London and Ruben Lundgren is based in Beijing. Their work is represented by Pékin Fine Arts, Beijing.

About Aperture

Created in 1952 by photographers and writers as “common ground for the advancement of photography,” Aperture today is a multi-platform publisher and center for the photo community. Based in New York, Aperture produces, publishes, and presents a program of photography projects, locally and internationally.

Works in the exhibition

View All

RongRong and Inri


Three Shadows Photography Art Chentre

Nature, Society, and Man, volumes I and II

April Photography Society


Basics of Soccer—a Series on Technique

People’s Sports Publishing House



Publisher unknown


Uchida Norio

Leaping into Manchukuo-A Picture Album

Hsinking Sightseeing Association
Hsinking, China

Pictorial Review of the Sino-Japanese Conflict in Shanghai

Wen Hwa Fine Arts Press, Ltd.,


La Chine à Terre et en Ballon [China: from Earth and Balloon]

Berger-Levrault & Cie


Thomas Sauvin,ed.


Archive of Modern Conflict

1 / 8

Installation Views

Installation Views

1 / 15