"Rural North China, 1947-1948": Taikang Space

Article excerpt

In today's People's Republic of China, little is explicitly Communist, save perhaps the Chinese Communist Party itself. The country's socialist period is rife with thorny, unprobed complexities, a legacy so fraught and out of step with that of today's economic ascendancy that it is often completely sidestepped in discussions of China's contemporary economy and culture. Yet even if its influence may not always be evident, the Communist legacy continues to inform the very structure of Chinese society.

A recent exhibition of photographs from rural northern China in the period between the end of World War 11 and the founding of the PRC raised questions about this legacy indirectly, through the topic of rural land reform. It featured black-and-white images by David Crook, a British Communist who with his wife, Isabel, wrote important books on the new China, both of them in the process becoming lifelong residents of the country and witnesses to the better part of its twentieth century; and by Wu Qun and Gao Liang, early Communist military photographers who documented rural life, civil war, and early reorganizations of land rights in the preliberation period. Although rural land reform might seem tangential to the concerns of contemporary art, in fact it is the defining policy of the CCP as a Communist party, and the distinctions between rural and urban are a defining feature of Chinese society.

The exhibition was split into two galleries, one devoted to photographs taken by Crook, the other to those of Wu and Gao. All of them travelled through liberated areas of northern China, where the CCP was implementing early land reform, a process that would spread through nearly the entire country by 1953. Although the three photographers took the same geographic area and rural Chinese peasantry as their subject, they had different motivations for their work. Crook's images document the eight months he and his wife spent living in a Hebei Province village called the Ten Mile Inn. …