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Material Life Noisy China in contrasts

photos Paul van der Stap

text Elisa Veini 3


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Introduction This is a fragmentary story about how the Chinese people are confronted with social, economical, and cultural changes in their country. Many Chinese have difficulty finding their way between the old and the new China. In previous times, the collective was determining. Values were set topdown by the government. Nowadays, there is a huge urge for consumption and a (apparent) freedom of choice. At the same time, “harmony” – which used to be a guide for individual conduct – is now becoming a collective, societal ideal. What happens when traditional family bonds relapse due to a massive emigration to cities? How do those who stay behind in the countryside survive? These photos and texts were made between 2010 and 2012 during our travels from Sichuan in the southwest of China to Shanghai on the east coast, from Shaanxi in the north to Guangdong in the south, and from the capital Beijing to the southern countryside of Yunnan and Guizhou.

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he People’s Park of Shanghai is busy, and the reason is not only that it is Sunday afternoon. There are clothes lines hanging between the trees, full of written notes; people stroll along the notes with searching eyes. They are in their twenties, thirties, or even forties, and they are looking for a partner. Or, they are parents who fix the deal for their children. This is exactly what it looks like: a marriage market. The younger generations experience loneliness trough and through: they are often the only child of parents who also were the only child; they study and work so hard that they have little time left for any hobbies or for socializing; and they are ready to move from Heilongjiang to Guangzhou or from Kunming to Hohhot, if their career demands. And: they are mostly men. Because of selective abortions, for every hundred girls about 120 boys are born, in the south even nearly 140 boys. Some notes carry photos. Photos of serious-looking men in suit, who want to give the impression that they have succeeded in life. Of young women with heavy make-up, long, wavy hair and crossed legs. The hopes are high and the notes plenty. Those who have no luck today, may have another chance next week.

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Since the 2008 Olympics, Beijing has the ambition to become a bilingual city. On the bus and in the subway, stations are announced in Chinese as well as in English, and in subway corridors and other public areas, large posters display the bilingual message “Beijing spirit. Patriotism. Innovation. Inclusiveness.” Beijing is reaching out to foreigners, so much is clear, but the capital is not as inclusive for its own citizens as the posters suggest. To stop population growth, 700,000 people must move from the inner city to the suburbs in the next few years. Naturally, newcomers land in the farthest suburbs, unless they are capable of paying the off the scale rent asked for a flat in more central areas. These measures often result in migrants returning to their homes in the countryside. This is an actual trend, because the Chinese economy is not growing as much as was expected, there are fewer and fewer jobs available. As far as innovation is concerned, things aren’t going too well either. What remains is “patriotism”, which is in fact a euphemism for a new, expansive nationalism. China is an upcoming world power and that makes Chinese values worth propagating, both at home and abroad. This is what the people are made to understand. But the contemporary Chinese aren’t the obedient yes-men they used to be. Attempts to include more patriotic lessons in the school curriculum led to huge protests, and not just in Hong Kong, where the initiative was cancelled eventually. Beijing spirit? Plenty. For example, take a walk in one of the five hundred hutongs that are still there. People talk, eat, play and work in the streets to escape their far too small, dark houses. Life in the hutongs is chummy, noisy and rustic. Solidarity aplenty there.

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Material Life Noisy - magazine preview  

Paul van der Stap (photos) and Elisa Veini (text): Material Life Noisy: China in contrasts. 74 pages with 56 color photos and 15 mini-essays...

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