Searching for Zhuang Xueben
A film by: Blank Lands Collective
Produced by: Blank Lands Collective, Nacne S.A.S
In collaboration with: AVRO, HLJTV, Beijing Zhilinyi Communication Technologies
With the support of MEDIA for Development
For more info: blanklands.com
ll ages and histories have their Blank Lands, territories not plotted on maps, featureless in common consciousness or arousing suspicion and prejudice.
The Blank Lands of China in the 30s were remote regions of the western borders, in the collective Chinese imagination inhabited by ‘barbarian cannibals’. Yet a young photographer, Zhuang Xueben, chose to recount passionately the story of these lands and those times.
Born in Shanghai in 1909, Zhuang Xueben was of the first generation of Chinese free to experiment with the tools of the new form of visual communication which was spreading, in the unrivalled cultural workshop of Shanghai.
In 1934, interpreting with great originality the era’s cultural debate concerning modernity and the reconstruction of national identity, Zhuang decided to set out for the western borders, intent on entering Tibet. Upon arrival in Sichuan, he was denied access to Tibet, and unable to return to Shanghai, which had in the meantime fallen under Japanese control, he spent the subsequent ten years exploring the far corners of the border regions of Gansu, Qinghai and Sichuan, penetrating the blank lands not marked on maps, and believed to be inhabited by those barbarian cannibals. The Tu, Salar, Qiang and Tibetan ethnic groups are few among many that the benevolently curious and observant Zhuang recorded through his fine photographs and dense travel diaries.
Zhuang photographed people from different social background of the ethnic minorities, by aristocrats, to the shepherds, farmers, merchants and monks, men and women, young and elders. The set of portaits and different costumes is thus able to create an extremely articulate and indicative mosaic of the social complexity of the Chinese ethnic minorities.
Zhuang’s son explain how his father related as equals with those he portrayed, going beyond the limits of anthropological photography by giving them copies of the photos he took, making them conscious co-‐authors of his work and treating them as subjects and not as merely objects of study.
In 1945, after the war was ended, he was able to return to Shanghai, concluding those "ten year journey to the west" who turned him as the first photojournalist to document the reality of the Chinese ethnic minorities
Thanks to a refined style and the uniqueness of subjects, Zhuang’s photographs reached a wide audience at the time. They featured in illustrated magazines and were celebrated in exhibitions attracting thousands of visitors throughout the 40s. This permitted Zhuang to continue his work, even after the Communist Party’s rise to power, until the '60s, when eventually his name and his work disappeared from collective memory, swallowed up by the tragic years of the Cultural Revolution. Then, 40 years later, the accidental discovery of his photographs triggered a process of recovery and rediscovery of his work thanks to many researchers saw in it great historical and cultural value.
In this documentary we will follow the path of Zhuang’s photography, travelling through the blank lands to rediscover a history oftentimes shrouded in mystery, adventurous, exciting and touching, and revealed intimately by the people that live there.
This trip will involve people separated by thousands of miles, united only by their passion for the complex figure of Zhuang Xueben and his photography, whose memory had remained in the shadows for nearly 40 years. Those who today contribute to the rediscovery of his body of work will explore its connections with historical events and reveal its anthropological value, in addition to simply praising how the photographs and diaries are able to create an intense bond between past and present. Zhuang’s first travel in 1935, his attitude and photographic approach towards the people he portrayed, how the aesthetic was influenced by technical obstacles, the disappearance and at the end the rediscovery. Their contribution will progressively outline the figure of Zhuang Xueben and his photography, opening windows of reflection that goes beyond his life and times.
“Since 1934, I have documented most of what I've seen to the west of China with my camera. Times have changed. Therefore, what's been documented may have already become a relic of history”.
Is it as Zhuang suggested?
His diary, written during his first trip in 1934, comes to life once again, creating an imaginary bridge to the past, through remote areas of China and the contrasts of modernity, to discover the rich mosaic of cultures and minorities who still live there today, and finally ends between the steep mountains of Sichuan, to meet a woman photographed by Zhuang almost 80 years before.
But this documentary not only focuses on the narration of the life of a turn of the century photographer, but it is also a journey into a space where fragments of memory and new visions are intertwined, reinstating the power and timeless quality of Zhuang Xueben’s photography.