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Old Photos, New Words: Revisiting China 1980-1981

Updated: Jan 11, 2023

Postcards from the Past

Picture postcards, sent through the post, are both a product of and a stimulus to tourism. They give the recipient a little snapshot and a short message from a friend or loved one's travels. The photos on these cards are usually quite beautiful, often "perfect," hence the term "a picture postcard perfect photograph." There's a description or at least a name of the place on the other side with room to write your own message--"Wish you were here!"-- whether you mean it or not or "We stood right here" or "I didn't actually see this," (so I bought the card) or something else to help your reader appreciate what they are seeing. There was a time when people had bulletin boards where they might tack up these little messages from far away friends.

But what is a postcard from the past? In a way the past is a place, but then so is the present, I suppose, a fleeting place that stands still only in our minds. And then there are "real" postcards or letters from the past. Every so often there is a news story about a letter delivered after twenty, fifty, even a hundred years have passed. Found behind a cabinet during post office renovation or something like that, waiting somewhere, untouched by time, except for dust or the yellowing of the paper, then finally delivered to the address if possible. Now those are REAL postcards from the past!

Those postcards are truly frozen in time. They cannot be changed or undone. But we have changed, our world has changed and that is why we like hearing about these old letters, they remind us of another time--they often evoke nostalgia, or at least curiosity. We marvel at their very existence, the date is important, all these things add some sort of value in our mind to these old cards and letters that they otherwise would not have. Frequently their messages are the most mundane imaginable, but their age adds interest when we compare them to our present.

What I am doing here is a bit different. My photographs are far from perfect pictures

of famous places nor have they been lost or undelivered, although I suppose they are untouched. I have lived with them all these years, it’s true, but the photos haven’t changed much. What has changed, of course is me. And you. And the world. So when you view them now or read the message, they are new and old at the same time; old photographs, new words, providing new perspectives. The accumulation of lived experience has imposed itself on our view of these photos. In other words, their meaning has changed. The photographs below recall for me a moment from my past, coupled with words from my present drawn from an untrustworthy memory. But the truth of memory is not the point, this is not a courtroom or a psychoanalyst's couch--I'm not trying to prove anything or discover something about myself. I am simply sharing some old images and my memories about them.

Like postcards, they may stand in for my whole experience of China in the early 1980s--that’s a long time and a long way; a world apart, a country hard to get to and into under a Chinese Communist Party still unaware of the profits to be gained from tourism. But as a student of Chinese language and culture, not a tourist, I could travel to most places freely and cheaply and speak to people when I arrived. Most of the photographs here are not of "tourist attractions," although would become popular with people from all over the world. It's hard to tell because tourism was so "undeveloped" at that time. In most cases I gravitated toward less spectacular scenes, less famous places or the nooks and crannies behind the scenes, as it were.

In this spirit, I present you with my "Postcards from the Past: China 1980-1981" showing a world removed in place and time. The mail has arrived. Have a look!

Despite my lack of tourist experience, I want to start with photos showing places that would later become huge tourist destinations--in effect a sort of pre-tourism China so I can boast "I was there before it was discovered!"

Datong Courtyard

This is, in fact, the "Tourist Office" for the Yungang Caves (near Datong) in 1980. You have to follow the smoke on this cold late December day for signs of life. The four of us Americans found the tour guide sitting next to the stove drinking tea. She recovered from her surprise at seeing four foreigners arrive and requested the coupons from our tour bus. All we could produce were the tiny receipts from the public bus and our student IDs. The question quickly became: Should she give us a tour even though we were not officially tourists? After a bit of discussion, we reached a compromise--she would give us a tour of the main building with all the "famous" and the so-called "best" Buddha statutes (no photos allowed) but then let us wander around the rest of the caves on our own taking all the photos we wanted! We had been in China long enough to know that this was a rare and wonderful opportunity.

Yungang Sky

Here is what we saw: This is a very large Buddha carved into the cliffside is part of the huge complex of Buddha statues and reliefs exposed or in caves.

Some of them were well preserved, like in this cave:

While others demonstrated the Buddhist principle of impermanence:

Yungang wind

Guilin is another tourist attraction, this time of remarkable and unusual natural beauty.

It was a favorite of Chinese painters over the centuries. It's been said that Western painters arriving in China in the 17th century thought Chinese paintings of mountains looked like a children's drawings, until they visited Guilin and saw for themselves!

Guilin Family on Bicycle

As students, we were often able to travel to more remote places including forests

in Sichuan Province, where we surprised these young people off in search of firewood.

Wood Gatherers

We shared a trail leading to a Daoist monastery and the structure in the back is a rest area for pilgrims.

The roofs of traditional buildings always seem to capture some essence of China for me. This photo was taken at the recently restored Yonghe Gong monastery in the heart of Beijing. Newly opened to the public after being shuttered during the Cultural Revolution, it survived undamaged due to the protection of Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai.

Yonghe Gong

The greatest example of Chinese roofs and grand imperial architecture no doubt can be found in the Gugong (Ancient Palace), also known as the Forbidden City, in the center of Beijing. I was on the roof of the Peking Hotel in the rain when I took this photo.

Palace in Rain

But I frequently sought out the back alleys and small courtyards far from the main buildings, like this rear passage in the Forbidden City.

Palace Alley

Often quite beautiful in their own right, it was their human scale that intrigued me. Along these passageways servants and officials once hurried to their duties or where the Emperor’s many concubines lived lonely secluded lives.

Palace Trees

These once forbidden spaces have so many stories to tell. I can imagine palace intrigues and midnight assignations.

How can one travel to the world's most populous country and not photograph the people? Of course it is complicated and in general, I was very sensitive to photographing people but it wasn't always possible to ask permission like on this very cold day in Xian.

Xian Winter

Or because I didn't want to wake this Chinese visitor napping on a Forbidden City bench, oblivious to the passing crowds.

I hope my photographs and stories will give you some pleasure and maybe even some insight into the China of that time. "Wish you were there!" But that time is gone. It won't return. The places are still there--you can still visit them---but of course they have changed and so have you.


Words and Photographs © 2020 Christopher Rzonca

Photographs are part of the Permanent Collection of the Muzeum Azji i Pacyfiku, Warsaw, Poland.

Chris Rzonca teaches writing as part of the Liberal Studies curriculum at New York University. He has written about the Polish writer Andrzej Bobkowski (Polish Review, forthcoming), theatrical performances and other theatre-related events in Poland for European Stages (publ. in New York). His photographs were shown in solo exhibitions in Warsaw and Kazimierz Dolny and have appeared in Kwartalnik Artystyczny (publ. in Bydgoszcz).

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