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Humanism in China: A Contemporary Record of Photography

China Institute Gallery
125 East 65th Street, 212-744-8181
Upper East Side
September 24 - December 13, 2009
Web Site


New York – A new exhibition of documentary photography, Humanism in China: A Contemporary Record of Photography, will be on view at China Institute Gallery from September 24 through December 13, 2009, revealing a glimpse of China never before seen in the U.S. The photographs, dating from 1951 though 2003, offer intimate portraits of rural and urban daily life in China, beyond the glossy veneer of the economic boom. A fully illustrated catalogue will accompany the exhibition.

Much in the way that The Family of Man, the 1955 landmark photography exhibition curated by Edward Steichen at The Museum of Modern Art in New York, explored the universality of the human experience, Humanism in China: A Contemporary Record of Photography offers rare insight into ordinary and extraordinary human experiences – in this case, taking place in China over the last 50 years.

Humanism in China: A Contemporary Record of Photography was organized by the Guangdong Museum of Art and represents the first large-scale collection of photography acquired permanently by any museum in China. Opening at the Guangdong Museum in 2003, the exhibition has since traveled to seven venues in China, Germany and Scotland. The curators, Wang Huangsheng, An Ge and Hu Wugong, visited photographers’ homes and studios in more than 20 provinces and viewed an estimated 100,000 photographs before selecting 600 images by 248 photographers. The exhibition at China Institute Gallery will offer a more tightly focused selection – 100 photographs by more than 80 photographers – chosen by Dr. Jerome Silbergeld, Professor of Chinese Art History at Princeton University.

Together the images present an unvarnished, starkly realistic view of the hardships and rewards of social modernization. “These photographs are not just about society and history but are equally about photography itself and the history of documentary photography in China,” Silbergeld writes in the catalogue essay.

Willow Hai Chang, the Director of China Institute Gallery, notes “The medium and language of photography provide an exceptional opportunity to foster a dialogue, enhancing communication and understanding about everyday life in China. Growing up in China and returning there often, I have witnessed the transforming relationship the Chinese have experienced with photography – from the fear that the camera could steal one’s soul that still exists in some remote regions to the urban proliferation of cell-phone cameras and social-networking sites filled with portraits. Photography also provides a most compelling method of recording history, and Humanism in China: A Contemporary Record of Photography creates a contextual framework for both the traditional and modern elements of life in China.”

The emerging themes from the exhibition span an enormous range of human emotions. Tragedy can be seen in the eyes of a man holding a portrait of his deceased wife, while fear is evident as victims flee rising floodwaters. There is also a graceful patience on view as a couple awaits their country wedding, and utter joy is clearly evident as a man displays his wads of cash after winning the lottery.

One of the most striking images in the exhibition is Iron Rice Bowl, Hei Ming’s 2000 portrait of a Muslim chef squatting in front of a crude construction workers’ restaurant, his skullcap mimicking the customers’ rice bowls hanging on the restaurant’s facade. Another notable image, Geng Yensheng’s painterly photograph Miners at Wumeng Mountain, 2003, depicts the harsh working conditions in the mountainous district where Yunnan, Sichuan and Guizhou provinces come together. As Silbergeld writes, the photograph of the young bathing miners “brings social bitterness and formal beauty into a perfectly fused relationship.”

One of the images, A Parent-Official Like This, became well known in China. In May 1985, Liu Jun had his camera ready when he witnessed a rural deputy chief from the Baishui region in Shaanxi province forcefully push a 60-year-old villager to the ground in a dispute over migration. The resulting photograph captures the horrific arrogance of the authority figure as he towers over the powerless villager whose mouth is contorted in pain. The award-winning image is considered the foremost work of photographic social criticism since the 1949 revolution.

Educational Programs A number of educational programs have been organized to support Humanism in China: A Contemporary Record of Photography including a curators’ lecture to be held on Thursday, September 24 from 6:30 to 8 p.m. Further details and dates will be forthcoming. Discover China Through Art (DCTA), the Gallery’s art education program, will be holding docent-led tours and hands-on art workshops for student and adult groups during the exhibition. Interactive exhibition related resources can be accessed at China Institute’s global education portal,

Publications China Institute has published a fully illustrated exhibition catalogue, Humanism in China: A Contemporary Record of Photography, which will be available at the China Institute store. In addition, a bilingual, fully illustrated catalogue published by the Guangdong Museum of Art is available.

Additional Information China Institute Gallery is located at 125 East 65th Street (between Park and Lexington Avenues). Gallery hours are daily Monday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Tuesday and Thursday from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Admission is $7; $4 for students and seniors; and free for children under 12. Admission is free on Tuesday and Thursday from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. For more information, the public can call (212) 744-8181 or visit

About China Institute China Institute advances a deeper understanding of China through programs in education, culture, business and art in the belief that cross-cultural understanding strengthens our global community.

Founded in 1926 by a group of American and Chinese educators, China Institute in America is the oldest bicultural non-profit organization in America to focus exclusively on China. The organization promotes the appreciation of Chinese heritage and provides the historical context for understanding contemporary China. Programs, activities, courses and seminars are offered on the visual and performing arts, culture, history, music, philosophy, language and literature for the general public, children and teachers, as well as for business.

China Institute Gallery, established in 1966, is distinct among the museums of New York City. It was the first in the United States to exclusively showcase Chinese art on a regular basis. Today, China Institute Gallery is New York’s only non-commercial exhibition space solely dedicated to Chinese art and is known for its innovative thematic and scholarly exhibitions, publications and related art education programs.
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