Koen Wessing – Chinese Days (1985-2007)
That China was an ordinary country. A quarter century after he first travelled there, the Dutch photographer Koen Wessing says that this was what struck him the most in the many months that he spent in the Middle Kingdom in 1985 and 1986. There was nothing exotic about China; it presented itself in gradations of grey and lignite smoke rather than mango and jackfruit. “In Europe,” he laughs, “there were these fierce ideological wars being fought over it. Everybody wanted you to believe it was such an exceptional place. Some talked endlessly of Mao, others about Buddhism.”
No problem for Wessing; he had nothing to prove or debunk, and for him, the polemics between the camp of Joris Yves and Wim Wertheim and that of Renate Rubenstein and Rudy Kousbroek were like water off a duck’s back.
As he was packing his bags for his first trip to China he remembered his friendship with an ethnic Chinese Indonesian pharmacist in Amsterdam. He read La forêt en feu, Simon Leys’s devastating analysis of the totalitarian character of Maoism, and poured over the famous mythological story of the Journey to the West, which tells how the monk Xuan Zang brought Buddhism to China and, with the help of the Monkey King and a pig, among others, defied all the dangers that involved.
Talking isn’t Wessing’s line, and passing judgement even less. He wanted to observe and record. And not the big history, but the small. He has no need for scenes of horror and heroism. If he was going to an ordinary country, then preferably one with ordinary people – men and women who scrape together a difficult living and doze off in the most impossible places.
Wessing watched mothers and fathers who were getting a breath of fresh air with their child in the narrow streets full of the jingle-jangle of bicycle bells. He observed the unemployed, whose gaze held the middle ground between alertness and resignation. They await their chance, while their more fortunate countrymen consume their lunch among the rubble of a building they have already half demolished.
The photographer also saw wiry men, energetic young women and old timers who knew the ropes. Some lugged the large, heavy or awkward possessions of their richer countrymen around on their backs. Others walked the streets hawking snacks they had cooked themselves, or colourful toys, trying to attract the attention of the urban children, who could surely extract a few cents from their grandparents. When one can finally retire in China does not depend so much on their age as on whether there is room for them under the financial umbrella of a son or daughter. Only those who have progeny as a pension can spend their days visiting the tea shops or listening to the warbling of caged birds. The rest are forced to work until their strength fails them, and are thereafter condemned to beg.
Although they bear witness to a raw reality, Wessing’s images often have something charming about them, as though the photographer looked through his lens with his heart, and moreover saw people who were not fundamentally different from himself. Their simple, ordinary actions testify to a vitality, humility and compassion. Men and women help the elderly and little children across the street, they ladle up soup in bowls, search for change for impatient clients or, after a tiring day at work, smile broadly as they drink a warm beer.