Dong Guochang was born in 1934 in Fenghua. At the age of sixty, he builded a huge grave for himself in addition to two pavilions for future generations to rest when they visit him. The township head discouraged him from taking so much land for his grave that even the mother of Chiang Kai-shek did not own such a huge one. Dong, with rulers in his hand, went three times to compare two graves. Finally, he agreed to dissemble the two pavilions. Now, he becomes a famous painter in the village.
Location: The Gallery
Address: 202 E Wisconsin Ave, Lake Forest, IL 60045
Check it out if you can!
In the museum of Van Gogh in Netherland, I encountered this palette of him with remains of pigments. At that point, I felt I was so close to the artist yet distant. I felt the sense of intimacy meticulously tracing each crack on the pigments even more than the time when I was complimenting his oil paintings on the wall. However, I was also frustrated by the glass between the palette and me. It was the first time the concept of distance came to me.
A couple years later, I became a curator myself for my dad’s photos of people in the Siming Mountain, the mother mountain that cultivates rural culture in Ningbo. The concept of intimacy is always with me.
I named my first two exhibitions “Nostalgia” because they are exhibitions that trace roots for the urban Ningbo people. For the two exhibitions, I not only displayed photos but also their stories below each. I wanted to establish the feeling of intimacy to the photos with the stories. I reflected on the role of photography. Nowadays, people look at photos on social media for no more than five seconds before they scroll down. During my first exhibition, the approach for me was to use stories to bring people closer to pictures. During my second exhibition, I invited a 96-year-old mother and her 76-year-old son to the opening ceremony so that the audience could interact with them.
After two in Ningbo, I decided to reach global audience. I went to the local art gallery and persuaded them to provide a place for these pictures and their stories. Besides thinking about what I can do with all those photos and stories, I thought about what it means for the old residing in the Siming Mountain for their entire life. They have never been outside of the mountain before, and the exhibitions would not even matter to them. I came up with the idea of not only shortening the distance between art and audience but also the subject of art and the audience. I have made my photos for sale, and I am going to bring the money back to them. I have also encouraged the visitors to leave messages to them so that they know there are also a group of people knowing and caring about them from the other side of the earth. They depend their entire life on labor of themselves and they probably do not realize they need help from others. On our notebook for message, I already received some warming messages praising this caring sense and reflect on the rural life between China and U.S. I do want to break the geographical isolation and connect to them and the history they have witnessed. For those foreign visitors, I have printed out posters, and I hope they will keep this glimpse of lives in rural Ningbo with them. I, therefore, named this exhibition “More than Nostalgia.”
Historical background: The lowest peasant class in the old ages
Xu Shiyue, born in 1931, is from Xiashao, Beilun. He does not know where his ancestors come from; the only thing he knows is that the Xu family has been watching the ancestor shrine of the Shao family for five generations. They belonged to the lowest social class in the society, depending entirely on the family shrine of the Shaos.
Since the Ming Dynasty, they were banned from going to school, being government officials, or marrying other social classes. They were only allowed to held degrading jobs, like taking care of ancestral shrines or being barbers and butchers. Such discrimination was eliminated by Yongzheng Emperor and gradually faded since the Republic of China period.
In 1949, Chiang Kai-shek* lived in Xikou for half a year, visiting Xuedou Temple and Miaogaotai often. The Siming Mountain is steep; a sedan chair was the best means going up the winding roads. It was this bearer who carried Chiang Kai-shek uphill. Obviously, he considers it an honor, and his family takes delight in talking about it. He is 96 years old now and still healthy besides deafness.
*Chiang Kai-shek: Leader of the Kuomintang
In Feitianwugong Village lives Yu at the age of 89. On July 30th in 1934 in lunar calendar, his father went to work in the cornfield with him before it was too dark. When they just arrived at the cornfield, a gang came up to them. Yu’s father was shot, and Yu was abducted. The gang requested 300 yuan from Yu’s mother. In order to save her son, she sold everything she could and even borrowed money from others. After half a year, Yu was released. Maybe because of such experience, he does not like to talk.
In 1949, the militia of the village killed a member from the Liberation Army. In order to quell the rebellion from Yankeng Village, thousands of soldiers from the Liberation Army gathered at Shanjia Village. The commander lived in the house of Zhang. Though it was a small village with few people, they had 8 guns in total. The villagers with guns all had connection with the leader of the militia. Zhang’s husband identified the eight villagers for the Liberation Army, who confiscated their guns.
At that time, the leader, whose nickname was “the emperor,” had already escaped to the remote mountains. When he heard the news, he threatened Zhang’s husband to send 150 kilogram of rice as apology. Afraid of his local power, they fulfilled his request. Soon, “the emperor” was still arrested what he had done under the pressure of the Liberation Army.
In 1938, the militia of Shimen Village hid three grenades in an obsolete shack half way up the hill. Hearing the news, several children went uphills and stole the grenades. Since the structure of grenades was simple, the children disassembled them. Feeling excited about the detonator, they decided to ignite it. The bravest boy, who was eight years old, was the one holding it. There was no firework as expected. However, the right hand of the boy was injured; all of the fingers broke. After seventy eight years, this boy now becomes a man washing vegetables at the bank of the stream. He is only able to pick the vegetables with these broken fingers.
(Shimen Village, Fenghua)
We finally made some progress on our documentary Nostalgia! Here is my script in it!
He is my dad, an accountant of a foreign-funded corporation.
This is I, Emma, studying in an American high school.
My dad likes photography. Every weekend, he drives into mountains. He used to take pictures of landscape, but he shifts to the people there for the past two years.
The Siming Mountain is the mother mountain surrounding Ningbo.
This is how my dad, with his photos in hands, walks on the mountain roads without a specific destination.
He meets everyone like old friends of his, even though for some of them, it is their first meeting.
In order to make the villagers feeling comfortable telling personal stories to an invader of their houses, dad strives to become friends of them by engaging in their daily lives.
He thought the lives of him and these villagers were two parallel lines whose ends will never meet or overlap until he meets this old lady.
She is a 97-year-old mother, losing the ability to listen or speak.
She comes home from the temple only when her son comes back, as if there is telepath between them.
A son and a mother sit face-to-face, accompanying each other wordlessly.
Zhang is the 75-year-old son of her. Every other month, he comes into the mountain from Ningbo, which is 80 kilometers away, taking the responsibility caring for his mother from the hands of his younger brother, who comes from Shanghai. They take turn living in the house renovated from a former sty. Their constant company with their mother has lasted for more than ten years.
Overflowed with joy, dad is deeply engaged in the process. At this moment, time stands still.
In summer, I go back to Ningbo. Being moved by his works, I become the curator of his photography exhibition. It turns out to be successful. I, with dad, go closer to the lives of these old people. Behind each and every one of them hides a touching story.
These two people are diagnosed with cataract. When dad wants to contact a doctor for them, the old lady rejects.
I am so impressed by them that I ask my dad, “What else can we do for them?”
This is a photography exhibition at a larger scale, and we welcome more people to come.
The exhibition opens with the support from all sectors of the society.
Dad even invites Zhang and his mother to the opening ceremony.
The photography exhibition is successful. All we do is to benefit more people in the Siming Mountain.
One rainy day, I experience his way into deep mountains with Zhang again.
Coming into the mountains is coming back home. As long as his mother is there, deeply inside the Siming Mountain locates their real home.
No matter how tough the trip is, men residing far away from home are unable to let go their initial concern.
Everyone has their own road back home. The soil far away from us lightens and warms our souls.
We live in the same world. We are not separated by a frame, and they are not frozen at the moment of picture.
They are the epitome of our past generations. They were born at a time of political turmoil and have suffered their entire lives. They are always right there for us until the end of their lives.
Eventually, we have to say goodbye.
However, we are never willing to say goodbye to the land.
They are ourselves.