Photography in China

Chinese Dream

Chinese Dream

Each Chinese President creates a ‘catch-phrase’ to inspire the Chinese people.  Xi Jinping, elected in late 2012 as President, has created ‘Chinese Dream” as his catch phrase.  There is no official definition of what this phrase means, but to most people is it very similar to the ‘American’ or ‘Australian’ dreams – house, car, education for children, financial security, travel.

China is rapidly changing from an agrarian society to an urban society, and the dream is part of this.  The jobs and good schools are in the big cities, better medical services are there, and access to a broader range of services and consumer products.

These images trace the changes in Chinese society – and is the dream becoming a reality, or creating a nightmare?



Posted by DeborahH in China, Cultural dimensions, Daily Life, Photography in China, Village life, 1 comment
The Muslim Quarter – Xi’an

The Muslim Quarter – Xi’an

Cities have defined areas that reflect the local culture of that particular bit of the city. Some of those areas become part of the definition of that city, e.g maybe Pike Place in Seattle, or Piccadilly in London. For Xi’an, the Muslim Quarter is that area that reflects and adds definition.

The Muslim Quarter has a long history in Xi’an, with Muslims living in Xi’an from 651 AD. Every street in the Muslim Quarter had, at one time, a mosque. Today there are still several mosques remaining, but the Cultural Revolution and current government practices have reduced the number still operating as mosques.

The small winding streets lead to hidden treasures – the street markets with anything for sale ranging from dried bull penis to live worms for fish feeding, from cheap tools to dodgy DVDs. Street dentists operate, along with sales of traditional medicines.

Earlier, farms filled in spaces that are now turned into modern housing and shopping centres reflecting China’s desire to be seen as a version of New York or Sydney.

Food is really important in the Muslim Quarter, with a mix of street food and restaurants offering snacks and meals. Bakeries, spice shops, tea shops and butchers fill the air with aromas. Dried fruit stalls, with wonderful grapes, dates, apricots, persimmons and tomatoes imported from Xinjiang in north-west China fill shops and bicycle carts.

Time spent wandering through the Muslim Quarter, sitting in the Great Mosque during call to prayer, eating street food and watching the local Muslim community mix with the Han Chinese and all the international tourists is stimulating.

The sense of community hasn’t disappeared despite all of the changes, and the city is richer for this added definition.

Posted by DeborahH in China, Cultural dimensions, Daily Life, Photography in China, 0 comments
Fun and games

Fun and games

Fun, we want it, and most of the time, feel we don’t have enough of it.  But no matter where we are, people usually find a way to have fun.

For those of us living in westernized societies our fun is placed in specific areas – the beach, parks, the bars, the discos or at home. But in China and many Asian countries, fun is more often out on the streets.  Parks are for walking through and admiring, not sitting, picnicking or playing games in.  Children’s playgrounds are few and far between.  Often the apartments are too small, too hot or too cold to be places of fun, and people are more likely to meet outside for dinner or to enjoy themselves.

This means that walking down streets in China gives the opportunity for watching people having fun right beside the road, sitting on footpaths, open to all to join in.

Empty streets will have shop assistants playing a quick game of badminton (without the net).  Any handy set of steps with a delivery slide will have children creating their own slippery slide.  And almost every street has card, mahjong and Chinese chess players crouching over home-made boards, or sitting on kindergarten sized chairs intensely involved in an epic battle of wits.  Onlookers watch the progress of the games with as much concentration as the players – maybe the coloured pieces of paper changing hands after the game has something to do with that.

At night, the big, empty public spaces will be filled with line dancers or couples waltzing.  Early mornings are likely to see those places filled with old men with their kites or diablo,  and middle-aged women practicing fan dances, or balancing tennis balls on small bats as they glide to music.

Fun… it can be anywhere if we look for it.

Posted by DeborahH, 0 comments
Village Crafts

Village Crafts

One of the uniting factors across the world is the desire to create beauty.  In all countries and across all times we have found ways of creating some form of art, some form of beauty that inspires.

In many villages in China, these art forms have been expanded into commercial crafts, although still on a local rather than industrial scale.

In Liuyang Village, outside Xi’an, the villagers have specialised in creating ceramic sculptures, usually the animals from the Chinese zodiac, highly decorated and gloriously eccentric.

Each step in the process is carefully managed, and the loveliest pieces can take weeks to prepare.  Layers of slurry are built up, sanded down, smoothed and coated in whitewash, waiting for the delicate hand painting of the stylized patterns.  The concentration needed not to have a tiny hand shake or line wobble is intense.

If we lose these village crafts, or they are created in industrial scales, we may retain some of the traditional designs, but we will lose the creativity and depth of care that makes a craft into an artform.


Posted by DeborahH, 1 comment
This (Debating) Life

This (Debating) Life

As I work through all the ‘lasts’ of things that I won’t be doing again in China, debating is one of the biggies.  Since 2005 I have coached, judged, laughed, cried and had a ball with my university debating team.  I’ve watched the team grow from a handful of students to an association that has to apply a cap for applicants and now numbers over 50.  The team executive has run annual debate competitions for the western provinces of China, with the first competition attracting 9 teams, and now again, having to limit the number of teams  entering.

Most students come because they want to improve their English speaking skills and stay because they make great friends, challenge themselves and become way more connected with the world. Along the way, their English improves, they gain loads of confidence, analytical skills and create a new ‘family’ for themselves at university.  Some of the teams have been really successful in competitions, others not so, but still have enjoyment in debate.

Many of the debaters have become really good friends, stayed in contact, even when they’ve gone overseas to live or study.  The ‘local’ ones – those who’ve graduated and are working in other cities have arranged to come back for the mother and father of all goodbye parties.  I’ll be a mess.

Posted by DeborahH in China, Daily Life, Photography in China, 2 comments
The Blind Egg Seller

The Blind Egg Seller

Disability in China is unseen.  Elderly people in wheelchairs are becoming more common, but those people born with serious disabilities are more likely to be abandoned (the orphanages are full of disabled children and girls), or hidden away in homes, seldom seeing beyond their four walls.  Disabled children  are rarely educated; recent statistics show that 28% of disabled children do not receive education at any level.  So the place where it is most likely to see people with disabilities is begging at the big tourist sites.

But, over my years in China I have seen the Blind Egg Seller many times in Xi’an’s Muslim Quarter.  No-one seems to know his name, but he has been working the streets selling his eggs for over 20 years.  He trundles his cart through the streets, selling to local restaurants and residents, feeling the markings on his home-made scale, and carefully selecting eggs, and just as carefully placing them in plastic bags.  He never seems to raise his head, but focuses on the road by feel.

The locals accept his presence and generally the tourists seem not to notice his disability.  No-one tries to cheat  or attack him – over the years he has managed to carve a niche for himself, where he can survive and gain a certain level of respect.  The Blind Egg Seller has become a local institution.

Posted by DeborahH in China, Daily Life, Disability, Photography in China, 1 comment
Afternoon at the Opera

Afternoon at the Opera


One of the joys of life in China is being able to head out of the city into a whole new world of village life.  Villages still retain the essence of traditional lifestyles that are rapidly disappearing in the struggle for modernity in cities.  Yesterday I went to visit good friends who live outside Xi’an. For me these friends embody some of the best of China: welcoming, warm, generous, and talented.  The Li’s are part of a local opera group, retaining the traditions of singing and playing that other villages have lost.  Mr Li is also a renowned ‘nong min hua’ – or farmer painter.  His paintings have life and energy, and unlike many other farmer painters he does not merely repeat the traditional images.  He adds and creates, with sly modern touches.  His paintings supported his 2 sons through university, while his farm work ensured that he and his family could survive daily life. When I visit, I am often lucky enough to be invited on days when the opera group get together to sing and enjoy themselves.

Here is one such day.

Posted by DeborahH in China, Music, Photography in China, Village life, 3 comments


I have been reading Bill Jay’s interviews with David Hurn “On Being a Photographer” and am busily underlining many passages that I feel resonate. One interesting quote is that you are not a photographer because you are interested in photography, and he goes on to say that photography is only a tool for expressing a passion in something else.

That quote was certainly challenging, because it made me ask WHAT am I so passionate about that makes me want to express it through photographs? I cast my mind’s eye back over the photographs I have taken and they cover almost everything!! From family photos to macros of flowers; from antique ploughs to portraits of elderly Burmese ladies… My problem is what am I NOT interested in??

I had to think further about this – maybe I am just someone mucking around with a camera? The best I could come up with is I passionately believe that everything is connected, and I want to express those connections. Connected at an atomic, cellular level; connected an emotional, responsive level; connected at a human level. We are all part of it…

And to add to my thinking about connection, last weekend I went to the wedding of a couple of my debaters. Nothing says ‘connection’ more than a wedding. Clearly a strong symbol of connectedness. It was a lovely wedding, I caught up with other ‘old’ debaters who are now out in the world working and creating their own families and lives. But our connections were still there in the stories we told, the jokes we remembered and the fun we had.

Even when I leave China, we will still have those connections.




Posted by DeborahH in Growth and Development, Musings, Photography in China, 3 comments

Little things


I spent a week playing on an Koh YaoYai in Thailand.  This is a beautiful little island, not as well known as some of the others and so not crowded and not quite so touristy.  I was able to wander about, take trips on the long-tail boats to other islands and generally explore.  The scenery was magnificent, and I did take a couple of hundred photos of amazing islands leaping from the water, but in the end it is always the little things that fascinate me.

Half the joy of life is in little things taken on the run… but let us keep our hearts young and our eyes open that nothing worth our while shall escape us.

Victor Cherbuliez

I spent ages wandering along the beach looking at the tiny shells, the small crabs and enjoying how they fit so well into the environment.

Snorkelling gave me the chance to look beneath the surface – and now an underwater housing for the camera on is my wish list. Beneath the surface so much life occurs, and we are so unaware of it.  However, I also explored the mangrove forest from the sea and found this energetic mangrove snail, hiding from predators and looking for food. These are perennial pursuits for all of us – safety and nourishment.

Mangrove snail

A walk around one of the islands hit by the tsunami revealed this beautiful little fossil shell, uncovered by the waves after millenia of hiding.

Fossil shell

And what is an island without a beach?  Again though, the small waves caught my attention, the force land and sea exert on each other to create a changed state.  Small, but persistent and finally creating a new beach, new sand, new motion.


Looking for the little things that make up our world keeps me balanced.  Not everything has to be bigger than Ben Hur to be wonderful.

Posted by DeborahH in Musings, Photography in China, 2 comments

Temple thoughts

Lotus Light

Temples bring out the contemplative, even if we have no clear or strong beliefs.  The years of meditation, saturation with prayers, blessings, pleas all linger and create a place where we can slow down and look inwards.


Again it seems no matter what our beliefs, we relate to symbols very strongly.  In the business world, we look at logos; in the physical realm we see symbolism in mountains or oceans or rivers; in our homes, the symbols of peace or love can be many – from Nanna’s favourite piece of crystal sitting on a shelf to a special mug we use for a warm drink.  Religious symbols connect us to a spiritual world and create meanings within ourselves, not always dependent on how the priests or religious leaders interpret them.

Prayer wheels and flags

We have many ways of sending our thoughts into the universe.  Through formal church or temple rituals, through personal meditations, through feeling the beauty of what is around us in our hearts and minds.  No matter the form, for me it is the connection to something deep within myself that relates to the universe that is important.  This connection should create peace, within ourselves and maybe across our relationships with all others.

Fire prayers

What I have found fascinating though, is that all spiritual experiences seem to deepen when there is fire present.  Candles, campfires, incense, fireplaces… wherever there is flame it seems as if a part of us meditates.

The most powerful weapon on earth is the human soul on fire.

Ferdinand Foch

Posted by DeborahH in Musings, Photography in China, 0 comments