Humanism in China
Shadows of the East
Article by Tilman Spengler on signandsight.com 
In a bleak upland region in central China two cheerful women walk out of a cave, above whose entrance a large sign proclaims “Fashion Store”. On a branch of the Yangtze River village children stand up to their hips in the freezing cold water dangling souvenirs on the ends of long bamboo poles, hoping to attract the custom of the tourists on the passing excursion boat. A group of six blind story-tellers is led over a stony mountain pass in the north-east. Curious onlookers hiding behind their sunglasses crowd round the two victims of a traffic accident. A happy, exhausted mother breast-feeds her triplets.Those are just five images out of almost 600 photographs from the People’s Republic of China that went on show on May 20 at the Museum of Modern Art in Frankfurt. This is a reproduction of an exhibition that first opened three years ago in Guangzhou before moving on to Shanghai and Beijing. In the original show 250 Chinese photographers showed works covering the past 50 years; the curators had a total of 100,000 photographs to choose from.
Now the photo show with the unusual name – the original version was also called “Humanism in China” – has landed in Frankfurt for its first stop in Germany. It will go on to Stuttgart, Munich, Dresden and Berlin, whose museums have also made a major contribution to the work of bringing the documentary pictures over to Germany. Visitors will be grateful, for nowhere in any other contemporary exhibition has it been possible to get closer to the ordinary life of the nation that makes up a quarter of the world’s population.
The term “humanism” in its current Chinese form made its way into the cosmos of Chinese thought as a rather lonely stowaway in a Japanese translation of Schopenhauer: “The belief that mankind is the root”. Of course today, when Chinese people speak about what we in the West would define as “humanism” they find their own idioms and metaphors, where Schopenhauer’s role is naturally only a subsidiary one. So how did the courageous curators in Canton come up with this term? Two simple thoughts perhaps hold the key. “Humanism” has, as already mentioned, the premise that “mankind is the root”. The decisive thing here is the idea of the root. The word “capitalism”, which radiates a so much bigger promise in today’s China, accordingly means “The belief that capital is the root”.
Every Chinese person, if you will excuse the exaggeration for a moment, thinks in signs, in the characters of his culture. “Capitalism” and “humanism” are only a single character apart. Man against capital. A blind storyteller being led over the mountain pass will understand that, as will a mother trying to breast-feed triplets – as will even an onlooker staring through his shades at a victim on the road.
The semantic ballistics of the word “humanism” can, however, also be understood through the prism of the country’s most recent history. The “brightest lighthouse that ever appeared as a character on a Chinese screen”, as one prominent documentary film called him, Chairman Mao, staged an ideological battle against the “spirit of bourgeois humanism” shortly before launching the Cultural Revolution. Any intellectual who was able to imagine that passion, fear, violence, joy and compassion did not necessarily have to be the direct fruit of correct (or “false”) socialist consciousness, and was able to express those thoughts, was put through the mill – if not by choice then by compulsion.
Today – bearing China’s scarcely healed modern history in mind – anyone who brings up the word “humanism” is also evoking the socialist campaign that almost forty years ago led to the eradication of “humanist” culture in the name of socialism, or the no less devastating attack in the name of capital that began fifteen years ago. In both cases, it is important for posterity to record what made the two women so happy on their way out of the “Fashion Store” cave, and what souvenirs the tourists in the boat took with them. And what stories the blind men are going to tell after they have been led over the mountain pass.
 article: Tilman Spengler on signandsight.com
 photos: hr-online.de
 catalogue: “Humanism in China”
 exhib. in Berlin: “Museum for Photography” – 4May-8July 2007