Hannah Arendt Center and Asian Studies Program present:
Images of the Chinese Youth Sent to the Countryside During the Cultural Revolution 1966-1976 by Tang Desheng
Exhibition: April 1-30. Special Panel Discussion on April 13
Wednesday, April 13, 2016
Campus Center, Weis Cinema
6:00 pm – 8:00 pm
During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) Tang Desheng had an opportunity to photograph the students who were sent from the cities to the rural countryside. For this he was well prepared. His family owned a photo shop in the small city of Changzhou, Jiangsu for several generations. Despite the restrictions and expense of photography and maintaining a capitalist enterprise, the family business thrived, because every year everyone required an identity photo, and they waited on long lines to have their picture taken; and then there were celebratory occasions to be recorded like births, marriages, birthdays, graduation, and the 100 day ceremony. Ten years before, Tang was in the army taking photographs for the government. At the onset of the Cultural Revolution, Tang left his home to travel with the youths from the city who were sent to the countryside. He explained that he was curious about the kind of the life they would find in the rural areas, how they would adjust to it, and perhaps he wanted to be part of the youth movement.
Curated by Patricia Karetzky,
Oskar Munsterberg Chair of Asian Art, Bard College.
Exhibition: Campus Center, April 1-30
April 13, 2016
6pm, Weis Cinema (Campus Center)
Free & Open to the Public
Drew Thompson; Assistant Professor of Africana and Historical Studies
Gilles Peress; Distinguished Visiting Professor of Human Rights and Photography
Robert Culp; Associate Professor of History; Chair, Social Studies Division
As a young professional photographer he followed a good instinct for a chance to record history, he followed the story. During his vacations and weekends Tang lived in various rural communities, following the students all over China for a period of ten years. He followed the educated youth traveling to Sichuan, Shanghai and Nanjing, Hainan, Shandong, Yunan, Heilongjiang, among other places. As he was entrenched with the youthful community, he recorded the events in their life from the momentous to the routine, and his photos recreate for us a visual history of those days. The vast majority of the photos are black and white taken with a Rollei Reflex twin lens camera his older sister gave him. Part of the value of his work is that he uniquely captured a movement that lasted a decade and covered a wide geography. Tang sought communion with the students, he was not content to be an observer, but became a member of their community to share their living circumstances no matter how meager. Tang shot them working, eating, resting, enjoining in private moments of intimate heartbreak and in the frenzy of public denunciation meetings. Looking at the photos one can relive those moments in all their complexity. Tang’s work is also invaluable because cameras were very expensive and people were not allowed to use them freely. In contrast to the staged images contracted by state agencies, some of these are spontaneous pictures and Tang is sometimes able to show the activities as well as the emotions of the participants. Part of the complexity of this project is its depiction of a positive aspect of the students’ lives, despite their extreme hardships in the countryside. Tang’s work met with resistance, sometimes he was beaten up for taking the photographs and he was suspect for members of his family lived overseas in Hong Kong and Macao. It is interesting that a few of the people remained in Changzhou or returned to visit the small city and took the opportunity to seek him out in recent years and renew their acquaintance with him.
Ostensibly the students who were brought up and educated in the cities were sent to the countryside to learn how to help the farmers and to learn about the rural life led close to the land; on the other hand they were to spread the urban culture to the rural population. For them, at this time of China's economic instability and financial deprivation they were assured of jobs, housing and food. Because of the shortage of food, the students could not return home to the city where they would be dependent on their family’s meager food supply. This essay will present the body of Tang's work from this period organized according to the themes of: work, science and technology, education, entertainment and indoctrination. We begin with a photo of Welcoming the students to Mengcheng Commune in 1970, when the local people came out to shake the students’ hands, with offerings of food, and festive flags. Optimistic at first, the students had a hard time adjusting to life in the countryside, the grueling labor, tedium, homesickness, and poor living conditions. As they were not allowed to return home, some married local people, and after ten years many grew depressed and despondent. Only two out of a hundred were sent back to the city.