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  Chinese Way>Life

Book report: Stories of China’s Reform

2014-03-06 17:38:02

(China Today)


A Captivating Stroll through an Epic Era

Stories of China’s Reform – A Photographer’s Personal Experiences

Author: Liu Weibing

273 pages, paperback

Price: RMB 78

Published by Foreign Languages Press in Beijing, November 2013

A good book pulls you in. Whether fiction or non-fiction, it can conjure up another world and draw you into it. You smile and you grieve; you marvel and you sigh. Only when you finish the last line on the last page is the spell broken – yet some of the scenes stick with you.

Liu Weibing’s Stories of China’s Reform – A Photographer’s Personal Experiences, recently published by Foreign Languages Press, stands out as one such compelling book. Down-to-earth narratives like pieces of a splendid mosaic add up to an all-embracing, true-to-life account of the earth-shaking changes that have reshaped China and the world at large during the past 30-odd years.

Poring through the book is like strolling down a picture gallery. As a seasoned photographer with Xinhua News Agency, Liu illustrates his stories with abundant riveting photos – from cabbages, one of the few winter vegetables available in northern China until the late 80s, to fast food restaurants, from billboards to beauty contests, and from the SARS outbreak to the Wenchuan earthquake. Embodying his outstanding professional acumen, these pictures freeze-frame the most representative moments in China’s recent history, reinforcing the truth contained in the time-honored aphorism that a picture is worth a thousand words.

No less striking is the language Liu employs to carry his stories. Studded with felicitous details and vivid descriptions, his narration not only describes but also enhances. “From then on, I would rush to the chicken coop the moment I heard the clucking of a hen. My delight would be beyond description once I had an egg in hand, and I would lose no time to crack it open and suck out the white and yolk, whole and raw.” What an animated portrayal of a naughty, greedy boy!

The vividness that characterizes the whole book and provokes the response, “You couldn’t make it up!” is no surprise; the book is a first-person narrative of Liu’s rich experiences and astute observations. He was there at the scenes – Xishimen Grain Shop (the last grain shop in China dealing in food ration coupons), the Shanghai Stock Exchange, the National Day parades in 1984, 1999 and 2009, the Yangtze River floods, and numerous other events that bear the footprint of history. A man of passion, he was there feeling the varying tempos of life; a man of professionalism, he was there recording the changing flow of history.

Liu is a keen observer. Decades of learning and practice have sharpened his eyes and honed his mind. As fully demonstrated by the book, he is able to discern the subtle and capture the typical. He is also a competent recorder. What is particularly noteworthy is that he documents what happens not only with lenses but also with his pen. The photographer has a habit of keeping diaries and writing blogs. Piled up, his notebooks would be more than one meter high. No wonder he has already authored three books in addition to a photo album.

It is also worth mentioning that, thanks to his unique role as a Xinhua senior photographer, he has been blessed with a front seat from which to witness countless great moments of history. His latest publication contains a trove of previous, unpublished details about such historic events as the China-U.S. negotiations on China’s entry into the World Trade Organization in 1999 and Kuomintang leader Lien Chan’s first visit to the Chinese mainland in 2005. Many of them are small yet revealing episodes that help better understand the related bigger picture.

This technique of using small details to convey the situation as a whole is applied throughout the book. The collection of stories covers a cross-section of daily activities and social phenomena such as pollution, high-speed rail, weibo and migrant workers. A large number of the subjects include everyday items at first sight – kettles, hutong, stocks and shopping streets. But skillfully turning those seemingly run-of-the-mill materials into variegated pieces, Liu has created an elaborate mosaic of the socioeconomic development of his country and the improving livelihood of his countrymen in the past 35 years.

His style of writing is comfortingly simple. Reading the book feels like having an engaging chat with a storyteller. The content is factual, fresh and fascinating; Liu does not need to spice it up. The only additive is the occasional spark of his insight and wisdom. As he writes in the book, “People hurrying to work seldom take notice of things at a street corner. But things at a street corner may be worth seeing, like the stone tablet that commemorates the beginning of cinematography in China. Inspired by it, one may go on to think about the changes that have taken place over the past century, especially over the most recent decades.”

Stories of China’s Reform is such a tablet: It leads to a multi-tier review of the changes that have taken place in China in recent times. It is a history book flushed with detailed stories and enthralling pictures. It is a unique gramophone record of history: The voices of ordinary citizens and those of national leaders complement each other and converge into a symphony of the times.

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