Sunday, March 3, 2024

Fantastic portraits of the Chinese countryside during Chinese New Year, taken by a photographer

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Photographer Zhang Xiao’s photos of the Snake Fire Festival, an ancient festival still seen in parts of northern China during the Lunar New Year, bring life in the countryside to life in a more magical light.

Villagers dressed as cranes, roosters and mythical lions stand among crops or in fallow fields for portraits. Costumed performers parade in front of a brick house against a hazy backdrop, their masked eyes seemingly lost in thought. In a field of harvested wheat, a group of about a dozen men line up holding colorful dragon figurines aloft.

In his new book, Community Fire, Zhang said he wanted to capture the unrealistic “disconnect” between people’s everyday lives and the mythical figures they imagine.

“Their characters seemed to come from the sky itself… forming a gigantic theatrical stage beyond the limits of reality, transporting groups of sleepwalkers to a dream world,” he wrote. There is. “I didn’t want to wake them up, so I walked among them and quietly took pictures.”

Zhang Xiao

A girl waits to change into formal attire before a festival in Huanghuayu Village, Shaanxi Province.

Rooted in millennia-old agricultural practices that worship fire and land, Shehuo (often translated as “earth and fire”) folk rituals traditionally include prayers for good fortune and a good harvest, and to ward off evil spirits. That was included. Festivals vary by region, but today they typically include parades and shows by performers ranging from stilt walkers to opera singers.

Celebrations will be held today to coincide with the Lunar New Year, which began on Saturday. As such, they came to encompass many traditions such as temple fairs and lion dances that were held throughout China during this period. (Chinese New Year celebrations usually last over two weeks, and the Deer Fire Festival is held on his 15th, the last day of the season.)

The Ox Fire Festival has been included in the UNESCO-style “Intangible Cultural Heritage” list by the Chinese government. But the festival’s status in the rapidly urbanizing country remains under threat, Zhang said, noting that most of the performers he met have moved to cities and only return to their villages for holidays. He added that he had done so.

Zhang Xiao

A group of friends are posing with a large golden dragon doll.

“The importance of traditional customs can no longer meet the needs of modern life,” the photographer told CNN via email. “Young people today are more interested in the Internet and games. They don’t even try to understand traditional culture. I think that’s sad.”

E-commerce and the death of crafts

Hoping to document the festival’s disappearing traditions, as well as the costumes and props associated with it, Zhang spent more than a decade photographing snake fire ceremonies in villages in Shaanxi and Henan provinces. Some of the images, taken between 2007 and 2019, are currently on display at Harvard University’s Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology (more than 100 of them were featured in Community Fire).

These photographs not only capture rituals, rituals, and folklore, but also speak to the proliferation of mass-produced paraphernalia that has transformed festivals since the turn of the 21st century. One image depicts a stack of expressionless plastic masks. The set of 12 spooky photos shows a smiling prop head dangling from a tree in a flimsy carrier bag.

Zhang Xiao

Unfinished dragon head props piled up on the ground in Huozhuang, Henan province.

Several pages of Zhang’s book are devoted to screenshots of Taobao, the Alibaba-owned shopping platform where Shehuo products can be purchased at bargain prices. They range from his elaborate two-person lion dance costumes, which sell for just 360 yuan ($50), to headdresses that cost less than 17 yuan ($2.40).

The rise of cheap goods and e-commerce has brought a variety of benefits to these villages. Some have taken advantage of the opportunity, including the city of Huozhuang in Henan province, which features prominently in Zhang’s project. The photographer visited and documented several small family-run workshops that buy semi-finished products in bulk online, then finish them by hand and sell them for a profit on platforms like Taobao.

“In some villages, virtually the entire population is mobilized to produce and sell Ushi-Tora props,” the photographer writes in his book.

Zhang Xiao

Chefo performers reenact the battle between the Chinese Eighth Route Army and the Japanese army during the Sino-Japanese War.

However, when economic opportunities arise, traditional skills and customs are lost. Materials such as paper and bamboo have been replaced by cheaper wire frames, plastics and synthetic fibers, Zhang said. Mr. Zhang grew up in rural China’s Shandong province and is currently based in Chengdu, one of the largest metropolises in southwestern China.

The third-generation prop maker told Zhang that, in the photographer’s words, he was “lamenting the gradual disappearance of traditional crafts.” However, he claimed that most of the villagers the photographer met were indifferent to the loss of cultural heritage.

And although as a documentarian, Zhang assumed the role of a “silent spectator” during his assignment, he still expressed regret over the festival’s rapid commercialization.

“People don’t focus on how to improve the quality and craftsmanship of products,” says the photographer, who is currently working on a documentary about rural life in China.

“Instead, they are fixated on how to manufacture these products as quickly and at the lowest cost as possible to gain an advantage over their competitors. The whole thing is a vicious cycle of price competition.”

community fire” (published by Aperture and Peabody Museum Press) is available now.Ann Accompanying exhibition is on display at the Peabody Museum of Archeology and Ethnology in Cambridge, Massachusetts until April 14, 2024.

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