Books

The Chinese and Their Belongings

What is home? And more importantly, what are belongings? With these questions ringing in his mind, Chinese photographer Ma Hongjie set out over a decade ago to tour his land, going to the homes of people in rural and urban areas to explore how ordinary people lived.

A child from a working class family, Ma Hongjie spent much of his childhood in the impoverished suburban countryside with his grandparents, and siblings.

He taught himself photography in the 1980s while at the same time working in a tractor factory. Soon his work was being recognized and he began winning awards. He is now a recognized documentary photographer and The Family Belongings of Chinese People is his latest project.

In a soon to be released book on the subject, art critic Maya Kosvkaya, who divides her time between Delhi and Beijing, writes about the people he has photographed: “They are Han Chinese, Kazakhs, Hui Muslims, Li people, and various other ethnic minorities. They are poor, salt of the earth peasants, straining to eke out the most basic living, and they are wealthy bourgeois nouveau riche. They are barely middle class urbanites, and they are affluent peasants. In short, they occupy the rainbow of social stratifications.”

As China modernizes at a rapid pace, old traditional forms of living are slowly being pushed aside. “Their homes tell tacit visual stories about changing fortunes, modernization and the character of distinctive local architectural traditions that are rapidly being demolished,” writes Kosvkaya.

The photos provide a fascinating glimpse into the quotidian lives of the Chinese people, a far cry from the shining glass towers of the cities and the impressive modern infrastructure that has come up in the last few decades. These are simple lives, for the most part, and shot in their most natural habitat.

“What is home?” asks Ma Hongjie. “I think home is the place that you came from, and that you miss after you leave it. So in a sense, “family belongings” are a tangible form of “home’’.

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