Contemporary China visits US, via photography

Updated: 2013-03-25 11:27

By Yu Wei in San Francisco (China Daily)

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What is China like today? A photo exhibition at San Francisco's main public library attempts to answer that question by examining the country's contemporary life.

In 33 photos, On the Wings of Culture captures modern Chinese art, technology, literature, science, architecture and daily lives.

One image is of members of the Qiang ethnic minority celebrating the completion of their village's reconstruction after the deadly May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province. Houses in the new village were built using debris from quake-damaged buildings.

Another photo shows Tan Na, a descendant of Peking Opera master Tan Xinpei, who died in 1917, performing a well-known work of the theatrical form, titled "Celestial Beauty Scattering Flowers".

"When many Americans talk about Chinese culture, they think of the Terracotta Warriors, the past. In fact, since the establishment of the new China, we have made huge progress, not only economic but also cultural and educational achievements," said Song Ru'an, China's acting consul general in San Francisco.

The exhibition, organized by the Chinese consulate in San Francisco, runs through June 16 at the Chinese Center inside the city's main public library.

"I hope these vivid pictures not only provide a platform for the public to access the social, economic and cultural development of China, but also contribute to a deep, comprehensive understanding and better friendship between Chinese and American people," Song said at the exhibit's official opening on Friday.

Chinese officials have brought the photo exhibit to other cities around the world. Song said the choice of San Francisco as the first stop on the show's US tour was deliberate.

"China and the US have entirely different cultural backgrounds, but there is a solid basis for our bilateral cultural exchanges, which can be traced back 200 years," the diplomat said. "San Francisco, as the first place for early Chinese immigrants to set foot in the US, has played a very important role in these cultural exchanges.

Earlier generations of Chinese, he said, came to the United States "not only with dreams of wealth but also Chinese traditions and culture, which contribute to the diverse culture of this beautiful city and the US".

The library's Chinese Center and the local Chinese consulate have worked together on recent projects including the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, the 2008 Beijing Olympics, Lunar New Year celebrations and a commemoration of 30 years of US-China diplomatic relations. The center usually presents four to five special exhibits or events each year, with smaller offerings monthly.

"We are very proud of our Chinese Center and the programs that we have," said Luis Herrera, who as city librarian is the chief administrator of the 27-branch San Francisco Public Library system.

"Not only are there programs, there is also promotion of culture and cultural exchanges in our communities. When I went to Shanghai last year I was excited because I knew a little bit about Shanghai because of the exhibit that we had," Herrera said.

The new exhibit, he believes, opens a window to the variety in Chinese culture in areas such as dance, theater and architecture.

"When you have ordinary or local people, sometimes they may know about Beijing, Shanghai or a little bit about Hong Kong, but they don't know how richly diverse the country is and how unique the various regions are in China. So when they see the representations in these photographs, I think people would like to go there. They'll say, 'What a big country it is' or 'I didn't know that before'."

Karen Strauss, acting chief of the main library, in downtown San Francisco, hopes the rare views of Chinese daily life captured in On the Wings of Culture will attract visitors.

"For those people who don't [usually] come to the main library because they are happy with the library in their neighborhood, I hope they come to see this because the exhibition is really beautiful," said.

Xie Chengyang, a native of the southern Chinese city of Guangdong who immigrated to the US in 1973, happened by the photo exhibition while in the main library to work on his computer skills.

"China is changing every day," Xie said. "I went back to visit my hometown in 2004 and it is a completely different place from what I remember.

"I'm very excited after seeing the progress China has made through those photos. I'm so proud of being Chinese."