Everyday Precious and the Predicament of "Modernization"
By Han Bing
We have been informed that we are on the road to happiness, striding from the deceptive fantasies of the past into a feverish frenzy of economic modernization. The effects of so-called globalization and modernization rain down on us like blows to the face as we hurtle from one world toward another, rushing towards the mirage of a make-believe China, bloated with decadence and grotesque with vulgar self-indulgence. The view of history and the yearning for a new life are concentrated in China's pursuit of so-called "modernity." Like the experience of other Third World countries, China's pursuit of a certain kind of special or specifically designated modernity has continuously disrupted people's ways of life. The fragments of their previously existing cultural values lie in wreckage, like the "New China's" vast expanse of city ruins. Five thousand years shriek and vanish into mountains of urban rubble, but the direction of this new life cannot be seen clearly in these concrete skies, or through the haze of dust spreading endlessly like a veil.
My photography series, "Everyday Precious," presents the existential conditions of people dreaming of modernization and urbanization. It is about the interchange between people and the ordinary objects from their daily lives, as well as a mirror of the process by which their traditional everyday lives are ruptured through modernization. Although these objects seem to be merely ordinary (objects such as tools of manual labor, construction materials, and other objects closely related to quotidian life), they are nevertheless things that working people rely on daily for survival.
"Facing the Future with My Family: Everyday Precious, No. 1," was taken on National Day in 2001 with my family. Everyone is holding a red brick in hand, facing the camera, in front of our home and family garden. The bricks seem heavy; they feel as if they are full of the arduousness of labor, and hopes and anxieties about the future.
The red brick was the quintessential building material of China's early stage of urbanization, and it is still the mainstay of rural construction. In the 80s, the red brick was the signifier of modernity. In the 90s, however, before many rural people had even moved from their old homes of gray bricks or mud and straw and into red brick buildings, in the cities, the brick had already been relegated to a symbol of "backwardness." Although bricks have been designated as refuse in the cities where such buildings are being demolished en masse, for those unable to keep up with the pace of the "New China's" modernization, this "everyday garbage" of urbanization is nevertheless a source of sustenance and survival—an "everyday treasure" that is precious, indeed.
The migrant workers undertaking the labor of urbanization come to the cities to work so that in their rural hometowns they can afford to construct homes far inferior to those they demolish in the cities. "Superfluous Remnants of an Already Backward Modernity: Everyday Precious, No. 2," reflects this paradoxical reality. The gargantuan humanly made edifices we see in the cities, hulking in a sleep-paralysis-like state, are the microcosms of China's urban construction. I stand with a group of migrant peasant workers who had demolished outmoded brick masonry and built a new skyscraper in its place, but did not receive pay. Raising red bricks in our hands, we stand before a razed building in the heart of downtown Beijing's CBD (Central Business District). Although these construction workers had no warm clothes or gloves, they worked through the bitter winter tearing down red brick buildings to make way for new steel and concrete skyscrapers. Snowflakes hang in the air, blurring the flourishing metropolis in the distance. The picture is still and devoid of passion. There are only the pallid, lifeless forms of visible things—a homeland in the ruins, ceaselessly dismembered, and manufactured, hazy dreams in the struggling, bestial urban jungle.
What is the place of the human being in this process of modernization? In "Unpredictable Moon: Everyday Precious, No. 3," (2002), a group of peasants from Beijing's rural suburbs, who have already lost their land and are now in danger of losing their homes, stand in the dark at the entrance to their village with bricks raised in their hands. In the pitch-black nightscape, the dazzling streetlight illuminates these fatalistic laborers and their unknown new lives like an unpredictable moon. In this vortex of massive modernization and urbanization, what kind of choices will they face?
"Comfort: Everyday Precious, No. 4," is an emotional interview with peasants who have lost their land. In this transformational period of rapid change for Chinese society, peasants' loss of their land signifies the stripping away of their traditional identities, and the rupture of their customary ways of life. Without these things that once anchored them, how will they navigate their ways this new and uncertain life? On an evening in the winter of 2002, I gathered a group of such dispossessed former peasants from the outskirts of Beijing. They stand on a high mound of corn stalks, holding Chinese cabbages—the comfort food and staple of the Chinese poor—
in their arms, and remembering their past as farmers. For these former farmers, there is a psychological comfort in the action of hugging cabbage to their chests, it recalls the days when they grew such crops, and relied on them to fill their bellies. But now, there are no prayers in this black night, only the made-up promises of an imagined bountiful harvest.
The pace of Chinese urbanization and industrialization continues to increase, real estate speculation and the privatization of natural resources have led to vast plots of agricultural fields in the so-called "economic development zones" of the surrounding rural suburbs being taken over and "developed." In relatively "backwards" regions," the wealthy families preside over the cultivation of the land and the poor labor as their employees or as sharecroppers. Combined with the widespread lay-offs of workers, and the urban demolition, reconstruction and expansion, these changes have led to a situation in which the myth of "lost paradise" has become historical necessity. What kind of magnificent scene can this be?
"We Come Bearing Gifts: Everyday Precious, No. 5" explores the ways ordinary laborers' lives and livelihoods are being assaulted under the new order. Everyone holding one of daily lives are closely life items stood at night on the road, "We bring gifts" is the ordinary labor of last resort to tribute to the past, present or the future ? The middle child holding a red brick metaphor of hope or fate? Whether the society is how to transform them are permanent workers, their hands of labor daily to witness their meager living hope.