© 2011-2023 Photography of China
-- Written by Pierre Haski (translated from the French by Frances Dal Chele) Images and text: Courtesy of Jacqueline Konopka
A French architect tells how one day, a Chinese government official phoned him and asked if he had blueprints available for a train station. Receiving an affirmative answer, the official’s relieved reply was: “That’s great! Construction work starts tomorrow!” This joking comment is probably not so very far from reality in a China harboring a 10% growth rate. The country surges forward with neither qualms nor hesitations, nor with excessive self-questioning either. China knows where it’s coming from but isn’t sure it knows where it’s going… yet the country is going there at top speed.
Bogdan Konopka [1953-2019] moves to a different rhythm. He tranquilly installs his tripod and view camera, observes the scene, and sometimes packs everything up without taking a picture, if nothing inspires him. Or else, he’ll duck under the black cloth of his view camera and calmly take his picture, becoming in the process an entertaining curiosity for the neighborhood people, more used to the rapid snapshots of digitalized passers-by. “I do my thinking before taking the picture, not afterwards”, he states. “I don’t come as a thief.”
So it’s not surprising the China he shows us resembles no other. Not the idealized China the authorities vaunt on the immense propaganda billboards that, in every neighborhood and in every city, sell their citizens tomorrow’s steel and concrete dream world. Not the visions of China taken away by foreign visitors, too anxious to see and understand everything about a country that goes to great pains to confuse the issues and that in the end reveals only its complexity.
Then which China does Bogdan Konopka hold up to our gaze, after five trips between 2003 and 2007, a period during which the ex-Middle Empire tremendously accelerated its transformation? First of all, it’s a China… without the Chinese ! This approach isn’t new for this Polish-become-Parisian photographer who has already given us a vision “in gray” of the French capital, devoid of humans yet so very human. He’s done a repeat performance in China, assuredly an enormous challenge in a country of 1.3 billion inhabitants, where obviously it’s difficult to escape the law of numbers, where solitude is an unknown feeling unless one goes off to the heart of the Gobi desert or to the “roof of the world” in the mountains of Tibet. China has no shortage of talented photographers continuously documenting the changes occurring in the lives of the Chinese people.
Thus, the Chinese are absent from Bogdan Konopka’s photographs, but it’s clear they inhabit them entirely. The rare human beings are naturally fuzzy, given the exposure times required by his technique. So much the better. As in a rather magical moment, at dawn on Tiananmen Square, facing Mao Zedong’s portrait, when crowds of provincials brimming with emotion gather to attend the raising of the Chinese flag, bright red with five yellow stars. “When humans are present, they are a perturbing factor”, Bogdan considers, without the slightest trace of contempt or misanthropy.
Obviously, the Chinese are not absent from these pictures, because the pictures are about them – in between the lines. Destruction, construction are typically human activities. It’s human beings deciding to eliminate the signs of the past, or to jealously preserve it, to raze or protect a neighborhood, to rebuild vertically or horizontally. This is what has been going on in China for a decade, the pace having accelerated once Beijing was chosen to host the 2008 Olympic Games, a symbolic occasion intended to mark China’s return to the “Middle” of the world, a position, in China’s eyes, legitimate and natural.
No use pretending the contrary: Bogdan Konopka’s China is not the one the Chinese authorities –probably along with the majority of the Chinese – would like to present during the Olympic Games, their rendezvous with the world. Their dreams of modernity and power are shaped by Western, and particularly American, canons of urbanism. Not surprising then that the signature buildings of the new Beijing are designed by architects from the West (the National Center for the Performing Arts by the French architect Paul Andreu; the headquarters of CCTV, the State television, by Rem Koolhaas, a Dutch architect), or that Shanghai has elected as it’s symbol a tower resembling a spaceship pointed at the sky, erected on Pudong’s reclaimed land.
When travelling around China, it’s not unusual to run across a replica of the White House, built by an unrestrained nouveau riche, or, even more surprising, to come face to face in the suburbs of Beijing with the deed of an audacious Chinese entrepreneur: the château of Maisons-Laffitte’s twin, right down to the French-style garden. During an entire period, in order to give a “Chinese” touch to modern buildings, a traditional-style roof would top a concrete tower, or a few red lanterns would be added for that authentic touch. Today, away with pretense: modernity, to be modern, must be universal.
The “gray” world of Bogdan Konopka belongs, in the minds of the Chinese, to a past they want to forget. A time of humiliation and poverty they want to erase, and legitimately so, from the country’s geography, since history cannot be rewritten (although…). Everything gets mixed-up together, the shabby homes in the hutongs and the opium war, to be condemned in the same breath. The words the government seems to remember the best from the Internationale, still sung at every Chinese Communist Party Congress, are “of the past, let’s make a clean slate”.
A Chinese character came to symbolize this way of thinking: Chai (to be destroyed) and quite naturally, intentionally or not, shows up in certain of Bogdan Konopka’s pictures. One morning in 2003, I found this character drawn in white paint (at night, always at night…) in a circle on the street-side wall of my house located in a hutong, the traditional narrow streets of old Beijing. An official poster pasted on the wall informed me and my neighbors that we had one month to leave, which meant for the majority of the people in the neighborhood, having to rebuild a life away from the only environment, the only neighbors they had ever known.
It’s necessary to have experienced the effervescence that seizes an entire neighborhood in order to understand the violence and scope of the transformations happening in China. Life must be organized all over again, and fast. The authorities understand this quite well and offer a bonus to people who leave during the first ten days. As soon as a family moves out of their home, workers appear (migrants from the countryside, not people from the city) and destroy the roof with sledgehammers in order to prevent squatters. After a few days, the neighborhood begins to look like a war zone, with a permanent cloud of dust, gutted homes, people leaving like refugees, their lifelong possessions piled into a cart pulled by a bicycle. All during this time, real estate promoters prowl about, extolling the merits of public housing located beyond the Fifth and Sixth Ring Roads, an hour and a half away.
My neighbors are preoccupied by only one thing: increasing the amount of the indemnification which will make it possible for them to purchase a small, modern apartment in the suburbs and, for the first time in their lives, gain access to such modern comforts as built-in toilets and kitchen, running water and privacy, something impossible in the hutongs where people live in a tangle. They won’t regret these rundown homes of Dongcheng. Of course, in leaving these old buildings behind, they also leave behind a lifetime of memories and imaginations, but the decrepit condition of the homes and the promiscuity among the families, who kept moving in all during the Mao years without any additional housing being built, mean that my neighbors are able to leave without qualms. The only sad note, especially for the older people, is the loss of sense of community, forfeited in favor of the impersonal world of suburban apartment buildings which will permanently move them away from the Imperial Palace and the gentrified city center, as is happening in all the world capitals.
Yet these neighborhoods embody the heritage of a centuries-old geometrical structure, fanning systematically all around the Forbidden City, the former imperial residence. These neighborhoods have witnessed both history and History, as the enthralled readers of Lao She’s opus, “Four Generations Under One Roof”  know so well. Today, however, this no longer has any importance, compared with issues of prestige and a particular idea of modernity; compared too with the very real necessity of improving the quality of housing or with the less-noble necessities of real estate speculation. After all, the Chinese haven’t invented anything new. Other peoples the world over have experienced what the Chinese are experiencing: China merely adds more speed, scope and force to it.
Bogdan Konopka photographed these homes in Beijing, Shanghai and also in the country areas succumbing voluntarily to this modernist fever as soon as they have the opportunity. He has preserved their soul and captured that exceptional moment when the old gives way to the new, when the world abruptly changes course. Through a doorway missing its door, we see fifty characters drawn on a wall, fifty characters that were supposed to enable every illiterate peasant to enter the world of knowledge and progress… We notice, faded and awaiting the final, obliterating blow, traces of Great Helmsman’s, or the vestiges of a cultural revolution among whose priorities even then was destroying the remains of the past… We can admire signs of even older traditions, those presiding over the construction of a new house, when it was necessary to fool evil spirits, who, as everyone knows, always follow a straight path and collide with any wall crossing it…
One day, a young Shanghai woman came with a friend of mine to visit me in my “si he yuan” (square courtyard) in Beijing, and to my surprise, she asked my permission to take pictures of the house. “I’ve never seen one of these before”, she explained. But the house was brand new. The owner had purchased then demolished the old house, before rebuilding it identically, or almost, adding a bathroom, central heating and…a garage, made useless by the tightness of street leading to it. Yet he hadn’t felt he was committing any sacrilege: he had respected the age-old principles governing the construction of “square courtyards”, he’d used the same materials in the best traditions, a frame of wooden logs, and hired the best craftsmen for the ritual paintings, the small dragons on the roof who indicate by their number the occupant’s status… His logic isn’t the same as ours; we place saving old stones at the heart of respect for architectural heritage, whereas for the owner, intent is has more importance than the age of bricks.
Could this be why only foreigners, UNESCO (discretely) and a handful of cultivated Chinese, too isolated to have any influence even in their own country, seem to be bothered by the destruction of old Beijing, soon just a shadow of its former self, or of most of the ancient towns having managed to survive Maoism ? In a widely-noticed essay, Simon Leys, true name Pierre Ryckmans, the Belgian sinologist who was the first to denounce Maoist illusions in his “The New Clothes of Chairman Mao”, wrote about the mysterious relation the Chinese have with the material heritage of their past. In “The Chinese Attitude Toward the Past” , the author underscores the paradox of a country boasting an exceptional cultural longevity spanning five millennia yet in which we are struck by “the monumental absence of the past”. “The past, which continues to animate Chinese life in so many striking, unexpected or subtle ways, seems to inhabit the people rather than the bricks and stones. The Chinese past is both spiritually active and physically invisible”.
Simon Leys also points out a “periodic tabula rasa phenomenon” running through all of China’s long history and largely preceding the current regime or modern times. Each dynasty took shape on the rubble of the former one, and not by adding its own specificity to the vestiges of the former, as occurred in the Western world. This is a seductive interpretation at times like these, as we witness at the beginning of the 21st century the emergence of a China more powerful than it has been in over a century and a half and when this emergence coincides with the systematic destruction of every link to what came before. That is, unless tourism-linked considerations prevail, like in the museum-towns that Lijiang in the Yunnan and Pingyao in the Shanxi have become. Or like in Beijing’s and Shanghai’s preserved pockets of the past, where modern Chinese revisit a past they would prefer more distant than it really is. One wonders if one is dreaming faced with the vision of a cohort of rickshaws carrying Chinese tourists through Beijing’s hutongs. It’s as if even before having finished the work of destroying the past, people were anxiously hurrying to renew their ties with it.
Bogdan Konopka set foot in China at this crucial moment. This native of Wroclaw, a Polish city three-quarters destroyed during World War II and rebuilt by a communist government, could not fail to be alive to the destruction/reconstruction process underway in a China neither completely communist nor really post communist. This “gray zone” in which China evolves is apparent in every picture: for instance, a bike, survivor from a mythical era, all alone on one side of a wall, on the other side of which are the modern city’s glittering lights, epitomizes this period in time when the old hasn’t completely surrendered to the new, even though it opposes only feeble resistance to steamrolling modernity.
Another thing we necessarily remark in these pictures is the panoply of transportation means, another revealing sign of changing times. The bicycle, of course, but also the three-wheeled cycle-carts used by transporters, like the one we see pedaling through the city’s deserted streets carrying a load ten times bigger than he. Or a bicycle with an armchair attached, still used on the streets of Chinese towns by elderly couples moving to the slow rhythm of tired pedaling, the wife sitting in the back like an empress from olden times. Then suddenly, a black Audi, the symbol of Communist Party officials, sitting almost indecently in the middle of a picture. Bogdan Konopka didn’t forego this picture, even though he usually abides by two rules: no people, but also no cars since they can date a time period and consequently ruin the magic of this timeless photography.
Regarding China, no use trying to confuse the issue. It is plain the current period can be dated. This body of work is precious testimony precisely because it can be situated in time. Ten or twenty years from now, it’s a safe bet that the future generations of Chinese will be grateful to this photographer, come from far-off Poland after many detours, for capturing, in his way, the moment when China brutally entered the modernity it has been chasing for so long, for better or for worse and probably for both. In his way, means capturing through these scorned old bricks and stones from the past, the full extent of China’s humanity.
 Lao She, Four Generations Under One Roof, published by Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1951. under the title The Yellow Storm, translated by Ida Pruitt, and containing 13 more chapters than the Chinese original. Lao She wrote these chapters in New York, and Ida Pruit was translating them almost immediately into English, but the Chinese version was lost; Pruitt's rendering of these chapters have been translated back into Chinese and published in more recent editions of the novel.
 Initially a Morrison Lecture in 1986, subsequently published in 1989 in “Papers on Far Eastern History”
BEHIND THE SCENES
Bogdan Konopka’s shootings across several places in China: