BEIJING (Reuters Life!) - Chinese photographer Lan Zhigui’s favorite picture is of two Tibetans on a hillside, watching as a perfect rainbow hovered over their valley.
The year was 1961, ten years after Lan crossed into Tibet with the road-building crews of the People’s Liberation Army. The rainbow burst out as he arrived in the steep valley, and lasted for half an hour, the frail 87-year old recounted, eyes gleaming.
Born in Chongqing, Lan was the official photographer who accompanied the army across the high mountain passes from Sichuan to Lhasa in 1951.
Nostalgia shines through Lan’s photos, on exhibit at the National Art Museum in Beijing to mark the 50th anniversary of the Chinese establishing full control over Tibet.
Most of the photos date from the early and mid-1950s, a time called “the honeymoon” by historian A Tom Grunfeld, when a Tibetan cabinet coexisted uneasily with Chinese administrators.
Lan roamed about Tibet by horse, by jeep and by foot. He spent happy weeks in the lowlands, documenting the forest tribes being resettled in river valleys.
“I love this girl, you can see her necklace is made of old British silver coins,” he said, standing by a portrait of a young girl from the Dengba ethnicity.
“Of course, she thought her earrings were the prettiest.”
Lan’s 6x6 Rolleiflex and his 35mm FM3 cameras captured the religious crowds that filled Lhasa in the mid-1950s, and the coarse fabrics and weathered skin of common people.
“In Shanan (south of Lhasa) I saw people who had never had their own home or new clothes in their life,” Lan said.
Crisp photos show soldiers straining against icy mountain streams and the wooden pathways that were driven into mountainsides to get the army into Tibet as fast as possible.
Ceremonial garlands and photos of Mao covered the first jeeps to drive the new roads, just like the garlands and banners that festooned China’s first train into Tibet in 2007.
The new roads carried 20,000 soldiers into Lhasa, stretching the city’s ability to feed them and ensuring a quick defeat when Lhasa’s citizens rose up against Chinese rule in 1959.
After the uprising, the tone of Lan’s photos changed from documentary to propaganda. A black and white photo of Tibetan children at a rural open-air school, frowning in concentration over the boards on their laps, gives way to a color photo of beaming young pioneers posing with a handsome model worker.
“Of course I like best the photos about reform. The old feudal society was so bitterly oppressive, when we came in to reform, you could see how everyone went from being oppressed to how happy they became,” said Yin Fatang, at the time a local official who became party secretary in Tibet in 1980-1985.
Fifty years since Tibet’s spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama, fled into exile after a failed uprising against Chinese rule, China has launched a campaign to celebrate achievements it says include economic progress and the abolition of serfdom.
Many Tibetans outside China dispute these achievements, saying they were launching their own reforms and Beijing’s depiction of traditional society is a distorted caricature.
Lan left Lhasa in 1970, and settled in Chengdu, in Sichuan province, with his Tibetan wife. He returned once in 1991 and found Tibet utterly changed.
“I couldn’t find my way around,” Lan said. “Everywhere there were buildings and roads. I couldn’t find any of the spots where I had taken my photos.”
Editing by Nick Macfie and Miral Fahmy