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CHINA 1977 ★ CHARACTER Clare Brett Smith

These photographs were taken in 1977, soon after Chairman Mao's death, and before any sign of China's amazingly rapid modernization. They seem almost antique now after more than thirty years, not only because they are black and white, but also because China has emerged as such an economic power. Smith traveled as a member of the First Delegation of Artists & Craftspeople to the People's Republic of China. Her portfolio emphasizes everyday life, on farms and in factories, and in the workshops of skilled artisans, all in the context of this country's long and illustrious history.

CHINA 1977 ★ CHARACTER Portfolio & Journal

Clare Brett Smith


Photographs and Text of CHINA 1977 ★ CHARACTER by Clare Brett Smith

Library of Congress Catalogue Card Number: ISBN 978-1-4507-1846-2 Copyright © 2010 by Clare Brett Smith All rights reserved Many of these photographs were exhibited in 1979 and 1980 at Smith College and the New Britain Museum of American Art, with a catalogue entitled CHINA ★ CHARACTER.

Clare Brett Smith 80 Mountain Spring Road Farmington, Connecticut 06032 United States of America




★ PORTFOLIO & JOURNAL Finally, in 1977, citizens of the United States could visit China, if approved and invited by the People's Republic of China. As members of the First Delegation of Artists & Craftspeople, we saw only what the Chinese government wanted to show us, but, peripherally we saw quite a bit more. We had three points of view for understanding China: what we'd already read of modern Communist China; what we'd absorbed in the tales of Imperial China; and whatever our official guides planned for us. We saw what they were proud of, as good a way as any to begin to understand a place and its people. We were guests, not investigators. In 1977 the People's Republic of China (PRC) was unfamiliar to us. I was still in college when it was founded in 1949 and there was little mention of it or even though enormous changes were taking place there throughout the 1940's. World War II ended in 1945 and, during the years before and after, Europe and Japan had been uppermost in the news and in our minds. The dramatic changes in China had received much less notice.


China was strangely calm in 1977, but it seemed to be stirring invisibly under the surface. We had expected a more strident martial atmosphere. It was almost as if the people were waiting, but for what? Chairman Mao had died. Zhou Enlai had died. The Gang of Four had been smashed. What would come next? We had read about the arrogance of the Red Guards and that intellectuals had been exiled to work in the fields. We knew the Great Leap Forward had been destructive, and that the Cultural Revolution had nearly obliterated traditional culture and social structure. Chairman Mao's pithy motto, Let a Hundred Flowers Blossom, offered a promise of freedom that was never honored. China and the United States had been estranged for many years. Chinese products, under the anti-communist embargo, could not enter the United States. It's an enormous change now as Chinese goods flood our markets.


In Tiananmen Square where Chairman Mao's embalmed body lay in state, hundreds of people stood in line day after day to pay their respects. People shuffled along in their soft black felt slippers. It was very quiet. 6

But, not everyone stood in line. Some old comrades were "more equal than others".


The old soldier looked typical to me, with his wispy beard and with mountains and valleys behind him. Posing for his comrades on the Great Wall, he could not easily move away from my camera, though I think he would have liked to.



Women Roofers, Shanghai


Our bus and the military truck were the only vehicles on the street in Nanking. Nanking, once the capital city of China, was occupied by the Japanese Army in 1937. The memory of the Massacre of Nanking was still strong, even among visitors, and the sight of soldiers in nearly empty streets was disquieting.


Shanghai: Views from the roof of the Shanghai Mansions Hotel



Tsinan Railway Station


China's most famous monument,The Great Wall of China, stretches some 3,800 miles from Gansu Province eastward to the coast. Some parts were built as early as the 7th century BC. Most of it it was built during the Ming Dynasty 1368-1644.


Most of the ancient city walls of Beijing have been torn down just as the old neighborhoods have been razed for modern development, but restoration is also part of government planning. Above, rebuilding a remnant of the wall that once surrounded and protected the heart of the city.


Traditional Work Brigade: Holding the soil in place is essential as one-third of China was, and still is, desert.


New Orchard Villa, Zhou Enlai's small house in Nanking became a museum when, after his death in 1976, he was reinstated as one of China's heroes. Once popular in the outside world, he was widely admired within China too and his portrait hung beside Mao's in public places. White, bright and austere, his bedroom appears at left and his desk at right.


Zhou's polished Buick gleamed in the garage. The porcelain bowl contained pebbles, shining under water, as they might have when he picked them up, from places important to him. Some were collected on The Long March, the year-long escape of the Red Army in 1934-35. Eighty-six thousand men and woman began that trip, among them the future leaders of the People's Republic of China, Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping


EVERYDAY LIFE We arrived in Beijing in November, 1977. It was still called Peking then. The air was acrid and cold with an old-fashioned smell of coal furnaces, that suddenly reminded me of my grandparents' home in Ohio. We traveled south from Beijing ending in Hong Kong. Wherever we went hard work on the land was a part of life. There was no waste, no trash. Simple, even harsh by our standards, family life was affectionate and strong. Children were clearly treasured, even before the edict of One Child Per Family. Older people were respected and useful, often taking care of children while the parents worded. Everyone wore simply cut blue cotton clothing, often recycled and padded for warmth. Children were exempt from the uniform blues and bright. prints often peeked out below their jackets. People stared at us intently but with only passive interest, neither friendly nor unfriendly.



Raising vegetables for Shanghai was the business of this commune of 27,000 people. Organized into brigades, everyone received a basic living. Work points, earned for extra hours, higher skills or more responsibilities, could pay for luxuries, a clock or a radio. One-year statistics were amazing: 2,700 acres, 120,000 chickens and 46,000 pigs.



Housing at the Shanghai Xian Hongchiao Ren Min Gong Commune


Ventilation Stacks on the Mushroom Barn


Cabbage Harvest 26

Bok Choy 27

One of 46,000 Pigs at the Commune 28

Boatmen on the Pearl River


Farm Traffic, seen from the Train


Cabbage Transport, Soochow 31

From the Train


Nothing was discarded until completely worn out.


Laundry on the roof of the Nanking Observatory




Nanking, in Damin Lake Park


In one of Soochow's famous gardens, a grandmother fled my camera, but stood protectively behind the door where, she surely hoped, she would be out of range. I am usually careful not to trail anyone too closely, but she and the child were irresistible.


Construction, from the Train


Early morning in Beijing, thirty-three years ago: morning and evening, people streamed through streets humming with the sound of bicycle tires. Cars were few. Everyone moved at the same speed. Everyone was going in the same direction, and they flowed smoothly around us when we crossed the street. 39

The One Child Per Family Law was enacted in 1979.


Young women usually wore two long braids. Older women had short straight bobbed hair. I didn't see anyone with the single pigtail, perhaps too reminiscent of coolies who were required to wear queues as a mark of their low caste,


Head of the Revolutionary Committee at the Children's Palace in Shanghai, strong and confident, she looked about thirty years old. She would have been born when the People's Republic of China was proclaimed. If old women were willing to tell, she might hear of their bound feet or how girl babies were often abandoned. At right, a friendly knitter in one of the few remaining old quarters of the city.


Our guide waits at the East-Is-Red Silk Factory. Spittoons were an unpleasant aspect of public life. People spat often and noisily, usually on the floor, quite like our theater floors that are sticky with gum, Coca-Cola and popcorn. 43

Railroad Crossing, Tsinan


Rain in the Streets of Soochow, a city of narrow streets, gardens and canals.


ARTS & CRAFTS Our official mission was cultural, specifically Arts & Crafts. Crafts were produced in factories, not in home workshops, and they were made either for export or for sale in tourist-only Friendship Stores. Decorative objects were irrelevant in the everyday lives of new China. Hand skills were impressively high, developed through repetition of the old ways. Art was not meant to be original and self-expression was considered unimportant. We visited a cloisonnĂŠ factory, a rug factory and a silk factory, print workshops, music schools, drama classes, an embroidery institute, a feather-picture studio, child-care centers and Chinese Opera. And everywhere we went we had long formal meetings, discussions and green tea, with the Revolutionary Committee. Export production was huge with hundreds of oil paintings of Paris and yards of embroidered Rajahstan-style cloth for India. For indivualists, like the people in our group, this was deplorable, but without this official organized production none of these skills would have survived. That's the consolation.


Embroiderers work together on a piece showing Chairman Mao and his successor, Hua. The title was Our Great Leader, Mao, and our wise Chairman, Hua, subtitled With You in Charge, I Am At Ease. This same scene was on billboards, pamphlets, even handkerchiefs, throughout the land.


The Soochow Institute of Embroidery: the silk threads used here are so fine that it's hard to believe it's possible. Wisely, the embroiderers are sent out into the surrounding all-green garden every few hours to rest and refresh their eyes.


The Studio of Glory & Treasure on Liu Li Chang Cultural Street in Beijing was a light-filled workshop for fine print-making, woodcuts, rubbings and scrolls.


The artist, clearly a master, in this egalitarian society is categorized only as a worker in art. He demonstrated his flowing brushwork on a traditional Cactus in Flower. Because the only employer was the state and all property belonged to the state, experts were willing to teach their craft, there being no reason to protect their intellectual property.


Even veteran calligraphers practice.


Calligraphy is copy work, but once correct forms, brush directions and strokes are mastered, an individual style can develop. Mao's calligraphy was prominent on posters and walls, but our guides could not always read it. Form had given way to style and power.


Ivory tusks were still being carved in a Kwangchow workshop before the international ban on trade in elephant ivory took effect. Pieces ranged in size from a five-foot centerpiece, an intricate scene of ladies, gardens and willow trees that takes years to complete, down to a rice-grain sized piece of ivory engraved with one hundred Chinese characters.


Master CloisonnĂŠ Artisan 54

After seeing the magnificent CloissonĂŠ pieces in the Forbidden City, we admired the skill of the workers at the Peking Arts & Crafts Factory but not the final products. They were elaborate constructions of metal and enamel, but they were commercial products and lacked the subtle color and design of fine old pieces. Scholars say that genius will come again in a hundred years or so. In the Chinese long view this may not matter, just as it doesn't matter that Taiwan Province has not yet returned to the Motherland.


Sandalwood Fan Factory products were for sale in tourist areas. The spines were carved and pierced sandalwood and the paper hand-painted. It's a sharp contrast, the sturdy farm girls from rural villages learning to make such dainty and unnecessary objects.


Shiwan Art Pottery in Foshan: The Pearl River Delta yields fine clay and Foshan pottery is well known for figurines, teapots, tableware and vases. Their tiny figurines, half glazed, half natural, were special. Potters in our group were impressed with the technical level. No surprise! Chinese ceramics have been famous for centuries.


Carving and modeling clay demands concentration.


The Shanghai Carpet Factory was a big complex with its own schools. Middle School students who work an hour each day get free tuition. The rugs were very fine, the kind of carved blue and ivory wool carpets familiar to us.


Reeling at a Soochow silk factory: Chinese silk was a major export and only eclipsed today by the sale of the silkworm cocoons themselves.


Repetitive work requires as much close attention as invention but is calming. Perhaps it's the rhythm.


SOUNDS OF MUSIC, PERFORMANCE & CULTURE SHOCK In Beijing, in the outskirts of town near our hotel, loudspeakers played music incessantly, especially in the mornng when, at daybreak, it was time to go to work. The loudspeakers were not literally loud, but the music was high and like small bells . I grew to be fond of one oft-repeated piece, The Yellow River. In the streets of Shanghai there was more construction noise than music, but there was also a world-class music conservatory. Some musicians had trained in Europe and America and all were versed in classic western music as well as Chinese music. Performances had been planned wherever we went, both children and adults. Often there were gymnastics. Even the littlest children had merry well-rehearsed song-and-dance pieces. The arts were beginning to recover by the time of our visit, but the Cultural Revolution, 1966 to 1976, had been a time of economic disaster as well as social and personal upheaval. Chinese Communism had dropped from its idealistic early start, and all the growing pains, oppressive and irrational rules, forced exile of intellectuals, dunce caps for transgressors, real cruelties as well as nonsensical ones. All these were eventually blamed on The Gang of Four. It was a cultural revolution but, in fact, much more devastating than its name implies.


Making a classic western cello and demonstration of an early pipa, a four string lute, one of the oldest Chinese instruments


Young People's Orchestra


The Tibetan girl sang an ethnic song, an example, it was explained, of the governnment's proclaimed interest and sympathy for the tradtions of its minorities. On the right, the music master was more animated than his students.


School of Art & Music, Tsinan: few students had returned to the shool but this young man played a patriotic piece, Liu Yang River, In Praise of Chairman Mao, followed by a Chopin prelude.


Shanghai Music Conservaory: Discussing the effects of the Gang of Four on the arts, this professor, recently reinstated, had been deemed too worldly and too old to be a proper revolutionary. He was not allowed to teach nor to compose. His colleagues were afraid to speak with him and he lived alone. Others fared worse, were assigned hard labor, and were never able to return to music. This seemed to us a surprisingly frank discussion, even more so, because it was done through official interpreters.


The Bad Acts of the Gang of Four: cartoon of Madame Mao and, on the right, a boy manipulates her effigy, a large puppet, in an unsettling and powerful performance. The boy portrayed Madame Mao as unmitigated evil. She (Jian Qing), wife of the late Chairman Mao, was the leader of the despised Gang. Wilful and tough, she was much disliked by the people. The boy's expression was intense, He looked almost possessed.


Children sang for us at a day care center and, right, young girls demonstrated Peking Opera style, with its rigid stance and high shrill singing that pierced straight through one's eardrums,


THE ART OF CHINESE MEDICINE Although our focus was arts, we were interested in other aspects of Chinese life and our visit to the Tsinan Central Hospital was a high point. There, the senior doctor offered a five-pulse analysis to a member of our group. Pulse analysis, dating back to 220 BC, is both ancient and sophisticated. Acupuncture was relatively new in the United States, but it was in wide use here. Dozens of patients sat quietly, studded with needles and hooked up to low-intensity electricity.


We could not tell from our colleague's expression if he was relieved at his diagnosis or not. Clearky the doctor was pleased.


As part of their training young doctors were assigned to rural areas in a new program called Barefoot Doctors, a program that has since been copied in many parts of the world


GARDENS Soochow's gardens reflect a long-gone way of life, a life of wealth, leisure and contemplation. Rooms were built at the end of a scholar's garden so he might be untroubled by household affairs. There were chrysanthemums of all kinds in pots or vases, moongates, trees pruned to frame a view, patterned pebble pathways, thin slices of marble set into the back of carved rosewood chairs. Such houses and gardens were not attainable in the spartan communist world of the People's Republic of China, but they were being maintained by the government as treasures, owned by and for all the people not just for a favored few. The garden light was beautiful, silvery and subtle in tone.The meaning of a Chinese word depends on its tone, an appropriate metaphor for the infinite tones of gray in these photographs of China.



Antique Rosewood and Marble Chairs in Soochow 76



Soochow Tea House




OLD CHINA We did not expect to see many traces of old China. Growing up, we learned about clipper ship voyages to trade with China, of silk and tea and porcelain. Dishes are commonly called china and many of us still have some blue and white willow-patterned pieces. New England families often had at least one missionary relative and Chinese silk jackets with embroidered dragons may still be found in our dress-up trunks. My sister and I had played happily with mother’s ivory Mahjong tiles. We knew Pearl Buck’s, The Good Earth, and we'd read of women’s roles as wives or concubines. We feared it had all been destroyed in the Communist Era, but, even though high-rise buildings and astonishing new architecture was already rising apace in 1977, some of the ancient temples, pagodas, Sung dynasty scrolls, stone and wood carvings and bronzes survived, along with the famous Soochow gardens.


Near Purple Mountain, Nanking


En Route to the Ming Tombs


Bronze Crane, Forbidden City


Section of Sung Dynasty Scroll, Shanghai Museum


Bronze Guardian Lion in the Forbidden City


Buddhist Shrine, Nanking


Miss Chang 88

PHOTOGRAPHER'S NOTE I was surprised to like group travel so much. I had never been part of a travel group before. I liked having no responsibilities. I felt free to wander for photographs and fall behind, knowing the guides would find me and probably scold me for straying. Our guides were knowledgeable and conscientious but they were disappointed in our lack of knowledge of labor issues, something so central in Chinese life. We explained that we were artists and academics (though my husband, Burge, and I were actually business owners, i.e. capitalists). Many of us were self-employed and all of us lived a life-style far outside our guides' experience. Miss Chang, our capable and serious guide throughout the trip, helped us act as a group, to build on each other’s questions in our many meetings rather than speak out with our own separate interests. The guides referred to us as Our Friends, although I would describe them as being more interested in peopleto-people connections than person-to-person. It's been more thirty-three years since this trip and so much has changed. I returned to China only once, for a conference in Yunnan Province, far from Beijing and the East China cities, and so I have only read about the changes, not seen them for myself. I liked China then and, as we entered bustling, neon-lighted, mercantile and frantic, by contrast, Hong Kong at the end of our trip, I felt a deep nostalgia for the simpler life, the work ethic, the sense of equality, the goal of greater good, and that elusive promise, never realized, of Socialism.


Clare Brett Smith

China 1977 - Character  

These photographs were taken in 1977, soon after Chairman Mao's death, and before any sign of China's amazingly rapid modernization. They se...

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