September 30, 2009 / 7:00 AM / 9 years ago

Ghosts of China past emerge in anniversary snaps

BEIJING (Reuters) - In a black-and-white photo from Tiananmen Square in 1970, the four young faces are serious, the clothes drab and nearly identical, and a copy of chairman Mao Zedong’s little red book is clutched in every hand.

This combination photo shows four schoolmates posing on Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1970 (L), and them posing for the photo at the same location in 2009. REUTERS/Handout

Four decades later the same line of women, now in late middle age and clasping new status and identity symbols — bank books, health insurance documents, a retirement card — grin out of an image that is a riot of color, only the backdrop unchanged.

The contrast is simple but arresting, part of a celebration and commemoration of 60 years of change in Communist China, by photographer Hei Ming, called “See you again, Tiananmen.”

“I wanted to show 60 years of change through the lives of the people, because progress is not about whether a Chinese company can buy a car factory in Britain, it is about ordinary citizens,” the award-winning artist told Reuters.

Hei created his tribute to the people of China by painstakingly recreating their snapshots at their country’s spiritual heart, decades after the originals were taken.

The subjects posed in the same place, at the same time of day, and same position — when they could — as years earlier.

Behind them all looms the former entrance to the Forbidden City, the Gate of Heavenly Peace, identical in all pictures, underlining the differences in dress and traffic that sum up the vast changes and convulsions the country has lived since 1949.

Toddlers from decades earlier now stand beside their stooped mothers. Beaming young friends are suddenly crumpled with age.

Most poignant perhaps are the images where the number of subjects has fallen. One man stands beside an empty chair, that decades earlier was filled by his aging mother, others pose alone in the updated version of a group photograph.

Hei got the inspiration for the project when he was searching for a way to pay tribute to the city that is his adopted home. Leafing through old photographs, he stumbled on three shots of himself at Tiananmen Square, in 1983, in 1989 and finally 2003.

“The changes were so great, from a young boy to suddenly see myself as a 40-something. I felt very moved,” he said.


The imposing gate to the former imperial palace has been long been cherished as a symbol of China.

Its place in the national psyche was sealed on October 1, 1949 when late Communist Party leader Mao Zedong stood atop it to declare the founding of “New China,” formally ending decades of unrest and a grueling civil war.

Images taken there have always had a special significance, especially ones dating to the first decades of Communist rule when few people had their own camera and photos were rare.

Some of Hei’s subjects travelled for a whole week to reach the square, and photographers were on hand to supply the necessary props to those who had forgotten the “Little Red Book” or Mao suit needed to give the photo appropriate gravitas.

“People used to think it was almost sacred,” Hei said, in the dark-room where he still processes all his negatives by hand.

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“Back then they didn’t smile when they took photos.”

His first photos featured friends and acquaintances, but Hei also advertised in a Beijing paper, drawing a flood of responses, and now the collection ranges from factory workers to Mao’s personal photographer.

The most up-to-date is a photo of Hei’s son, recreated from the 1990s, and the earliest pre-dates Communist China by one day, taken on the eve of Mao’s famous speech.

Editing by Miral Fahmy

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