Faces of the World and Travels in China

The World in Faces: Photographer Alexander Khimushin

The World in Faces: Photographer Alexander Khimushin

I had the unique opportunity in 1975 to tour border areas of China, with a delegation of 22 American minority community activists to meet and learn from Chinese National Minorities, from Dongbei (NE), home of the Man People, to Xinjiang (W), Uighur Autonomous Region, Muslim, to the Autonomous Prefecture of Xishuangbanna (SE/SW), Dai Autonomous Prefeture the self governing land of Tibetan and SE Asian Peoples. This tour was requested by the Maoist Chinese government to introduce a nation-wide cross-section of America’s 1/2 dozen minorities to China’s 54 (or a good representation of them). At the time, China’s majority Han People (94% of total population, what we foreigners normally call “Chinese”), still recovering from a century of foreign domination and exploitation, Civil War, WWII, Korean War, and Mao’s own disastrous social campaigns were allotted only one set of ubiquitous clothing, the signature baggy pants, Mao jacket and cap in the 3 recognizable colors of blue (people), green (military), and gray (cadre).*

The World in Faces: Photographer Alexander Khimushin

The World in Faces: Photographer Alexander Khimushin

This preamble of mine to the photos shared of vanishing indigenous people of our world is meant to give some background to the fact that during the excesses of Mao’s Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, 1966-76, the National Minority People throughout China, though going thru the same turmoil and upheaval as the rest of the country, were the only Chinese People allowed to keep their own National dress, jewelry (lots of silver) and customs. Many times the only way of distinguishing one minority group from another was from their distinctive dress and bling! Although I took many photos of the people, it was not my focus during this unprecedented opportunity of discovery (and unfortunately many I did take have been lost or destroyed in the years since, in addition I definitely had not the artistic acumen and ability of this photo artist!). But I did get to see many indigenous, tribal people in China, some in urban settings mingling with the monochrome colors and unisex style of the majority people in their multicolored and infinitely varied hats, bags and other accouterments. It was very jarring and otherworldly experience, being mainly in a monochrome culture at the time, and brought to mind a glimpse of what the mingling of Indian tribes, soldiers, cowboys and all the many and diverse people thrown together in our Far West of our mountains and Great Plains in the 19th Century!

* One other unexpected side effect of the singular dress; being in the PLA, work in the fields, department store, office or hospital was no longer looking at these things to assess an individual. You only had the face to examine. It became clearer immediately that the individual was solely judged by facial recognition, no other distractions interfered. The faces would have been a great photo exploration allowed of the China of that time ! Later it reminded me of the Qing Di terra-cotta army buried in Xian where each individual face is immediately recognized in the singular uniform and grey/brown earth color of the clay.

****This post is taken from Facebook and is a preamble to a shared post from Mongolia Live. The text with original post and photos is as follows:

Photographer spends 6 months traveling alone to photograph Siberia’s Mongolic, Turkic and Tungusic peoples. For the past 9 years, photographer Alexander Khimushin has been traveling the world, visiting 84 different countries. Three years ago, inspired by the idea of documenting remote cultures that are slowly disappearing due to globalization, he began his The World in Faces project. Seeking out small, ethnic minority groups around the world, Khimushin shoots incredible portraits that both honor and immortalize their culture. #MongoliaLive

The Facebook post LaoMa is talking about can be found here. There is also a Facebook for the entire project “The World in Faces”: https://www.facebook.com/theworldinfaces/

YeYe’s 91st Birthday Celebration!  Part II:  After Banquet Group Photo Studio Portraits!

In our last Blog about YeYe’s 91st Celebration (before the intervening video of my 77th!), I tried to recreate and outline my memory of the banquet and my first realization of the status I had been given as Ding Hongkui’s, “Di Yi Waiguoren Xuesheng,” or “First Foreign Student.”  But an added surprise was still in store for me, although most of the other participants were all aware of this added and anticipated treat.

A riotous midnight parade from the 4th floor banquet hall down into the eerily deserted and winding, narrow, completely empty streets of what would be called Wuchang’s “downtown” to arrive in mass at an ancient high ceiling photography establishment’s entrance display room and on into large portrait studios in the rear, where we were to be arranged, more or less herded, onto a bleacher style seating platform.

yeye party.jpg

My reference above to a “riotous parade,” and “more or less herded” is a reference to the amount of alcohol consumed that night at the banquet feast.  This was one tight, happy bunch by the time the banquet ended and we stumbled out and down the streets to the photography studio.  Maotai (also the name of a village or area of southwest China where maotai, the alcoholic beverage comes from), a fiery concoction of distilled sorghum, is just one hell of a sledgehammer drink, but food must be consumed along with it or psychotic reactions are the norm.  Baijiu (White Devil) a category of clear liquors of which Maotai is member.  Chinese feel that the food cushions the alcohol effect.  Drinking this stuff with food slow the effects, otherwise just maotai by itself will fry the brain!  More on this as we continue.

Photography portrait studios were common enough in small town America before and during WWII, we’ve all got wedding pictures of our parents or grandparents taken in them, but they were long gone by the mid 1980’s.  So, it really was a deja vu experience to enter this establishment, and a complete surprise to me as no one informed me where we were going, I was just along for the ride or midnight stroll as it was.  It was entering this studio that I had a further revelation about YeYe’s position in the community where we lived and his importance to it.  First of all, having the whole studio open to us at this late hour made me feel like being in a Mafia Don’s entourage.  The whole downtown was rolled-up for the night and here we were marching in drunken relvery as a rather unruly and boisterous mob.  (Not everyone was tipsy, but I was for sure the only designated driver, if one was needed.  Wives of some guests were pretty much in control of themselves, and there were no fights within my hearing or eyesight, as there were at the wake of his wife who died a few months later.)

Yeye Pipe.JPG

The thing that really gave me an insight into my teacher’s high level of standing in the Wuchang community (later expanded into the larger Wuhan community, and later still into the National Wushu community that I was to discover years later here in America when the Internet World Wide Web materialized) on this excursion was the sight of single portraits of a phalanx of local Illustrious figures of one kind or another.  The framed photos were huge, 3 to 4 feet high, hand colored and arranged high on the tall walls,  lining both sides of the long, narrow display entranceway with its glass cabinets of equipment and photographs.  What hit me like a mailed fist to the forehead were these framed pictures marching down the walls making a right and left turn to meet at the focal point of Ding Hongkui’s portrait on the far wall into the studios, looking more like a bald Albert Einstein contemplating universal cosmic theories while holding a hooked smoking pipe, than a Martial Art Master and foremost authority of the Tang System!!

By this time my head was exploding with trying to keep all the kaleidoscopic events, facts, experiences, both known and unfathomable to me, and to make some sense out of just what the hell was happening and why I was allowed to be here in the first place!  If I had any reason to be at the banquet filling his wine cup it escaped me, though well trained monkeys can do something like that, but at this very important photographic event I was still ushered to his left side as a trusted lieutenant or family member, while my friend and translator, Liang Guojian, beside me at the banquet, was led up to the top right end spot in third row.  I was later to learn that my position was purposeful and at the order of Grandfather Ding, so that even the inebriated friends who pushed each other out of the way for better seats near the living legend did not even try to bother me and usurp where I sat.  I was to learn later, and very glad I was oblivious to the fact until after his death and the splitting up of his school, many of his students, long-standing and ranked as well as newly joined had, let’s say in today’s jargon, “issues” with the foreigner.  At the time, at THIS time, I was in the seat of Heaven at the left hand of the Almighty.  And had no clue as to why.

Yeye large crowd.JPG

The portraits:  of the three accompanying this blog, the one of Ding YeYe holding a pipe came from his family and was given to me by them.  Selden scanned it and the quality is due to not being able to take it out of its frame.  But it does offer a peek and idea of what I write about above.

The two group portraits, with their backdrop of a Chinese landscape with a pagoda sitting upon the promontory heights, will draw this story of an extraordinary Martial Art teacher’s 91st Birthday Celebration to temporary halt, but the conclusion of the group photo shoot won’t truly arrive until the last and final entry to the tale.  Suffice here to mention the small group portrait was meant to be of Dr. Chen and his associate partners in his ground-breaking venture, and YeYe and his top teachers, senior students, and the strange out-of-place mustachioed waiguoren.  The larger group I think included more of the medical establishment, wives and deserving wushu people who survived the evenings festivities and maotai ganbei (dry cup) challenges!

Throw Back Thursday: First photo

YeYe 1985-1. August, Year of the Ox.

YeYe 1985-1. August, Year of the Ox.

YeYe 1985-1. August, Year of the Ox. First photo I took of Ding Hongkui as I was being led by the Pavilion on my first trip to Snake Hill. I was so impressed with this man. Three days later he accepted me in his school as first foreign student in 60 years of teaching at Snake Hill Pavilion. Though known, respected and admired throughout China (as I was to discover over and over in my travels carrying his photos) for his Wushu expertise and overall reputation in Chinese Martial Arts, he was addressed simply as YeYe, or Grandfather. Ding YeYe's special knowledge concerned the Tang System and in this photo he was teaching Bagua Jian, the straight sword form of this system. Although I initially thought I would be studying taijiquan only, when I arrived for my first class (at 5:00 a.m.) I joined this class and began studying this waigong sword form. It was the first of some 30 forms I learned during this sojourn.

Spring Festival and Lantern Festival

lantern Festival 1

Some photos, taken by and shared by London taiji shimei Lia, on the Second Annual Lantern Festival held in west London's Chiswick Garden Park.  When I first looked at these beautiful photos I thought they were the size of those I remembered seeing during my three Lantern Festivals in China, that were festooned in mountain park trees, but the silhouettes of people in one photo (the swan below) show the huge size of these London displays!

Spring Festival and Lantern Festival:

Lantern Festival 7
Lantern Festival 3

These festivals are linked together in China in a way a lot of foreigners are unaware of.  I was privileged to experience 3 of these "Holidays" while living in Wuhan, Wuchang, Hubei Province. Of the three Chun Jie  ! or Spring Festival (what we in the West call Chinese New Year) I spent one of these years in Hong Kong when it was still a British Colony, the other two in Wuchang, but I participated in all three Lantern Festivals 元宵節! with friends and Wuchang, Snake Hill Pavilion classmates.

Lantern Festival 4

Lantern Festival cannot be mentioned without considering Spring Festival. The Big One! The Mother of all Chinese holidays! If you take Easter, our Spring Festival, with its new clothes, new spring flowers; New Year with its alcohol celebration and year-changing rituals; Christmas with its family traveling and gift giving; Thanksgiving with its special food dishes and family meal; throw in 4th of July with unlimited fireworks, mix them all together for 2 to 3 weeks of raucous noise and gunpowder scented streets, a replacement of an annual animal totem and---you have a glimpse of Chinese Spring Festival, or Chun Jie!  Our concept of a one night new year out on the town just doesn't quite fit the bill.  But then comes Lantern Festival...!

Lantern Festival 5

The spectacle of Chun Jie, with its weeks long celebration, incessant fireworks, accompanied by bottle rocket and firecracker injuries to adults and, way too many, young children (my one Spring Festival attendance in Hong Kong was quite different from that of the Mainland; personal fireworks were forbidden, and only prescribed to one government display from barges out in the Fragrant Harbour), and stressful travel with millions of travelers filling train and bus stations finally comes to a close.

Lantern Festival 6

Fifteen days after the Lunar New Year, Lantern Festival brings the tumult of the preceding weeks of hectic celebration with a sedate wrap-up of surprising beauty, grace and neighborly interaction.  Families stroll through the streets carrying candle-lit, birdcage sized lanterns held aloft, greeting one another as the processions wind their way toward a neighborhood park, in my case toward Snake Hill where we met in early mornings in the tiered wushu training areas, to hang the lanterns upon tree branches festooning the paths and sinuous ridge of Sheshan 蛇山, in a gentle glow of swaying colored lights.  A quite magical and breath-taking ritual.

Lantern Festival 2
Lantern Festival 8

Ding Hongkui at 91

Yeye and LaoMa

Yeye and LaoMa

Ding Hongkui, 91 years old at this picture and reaching the end of a 60 year career of teaching at this same Snake Hill Pavilion. The foremost authority in China on Tang Pai, an almost 1400 year old Martial Art System. He never allowed himself to be called anything but Ding YeYe... Grandfather Ding... Fortune surely smiled on me to be able to study under this great man, and be called both his first Foreign Student and Closing Student. (Snake Hill Pavilion was--it is now a mah jong parlour--at the very place on Snake Hill where the 1911 Republican Revolution of Sun Yet- Sen began the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty!)