Thursday’s Picture of the Week: China

Photo of a man doing tai chi in Rutan Park in Beijing, China

Behind the Scenes: The year is 1995 and Jeffrey is photographing on assignment for The New York Times Travel Section in Beijing, China. He’s there to do a story about Ritan (Temple of the Sun) Park.

This expansive park is one of the oldest sites in Beijing and is like an oasis in the midst of a teeming metropolis. Commissioned by Ming Dynasty emperor JiaJing in 1530, it is filled not only with massive trees, gardens, pavilions, and small lakes, but many places for people to gather and recreate. Tai chi and ballroom dancing are common forms of exercise found here.

When Jeffrey comes upon this elderly gentleman wearing a traditional Mao jacket, fully immersed in the solitude of his early morning ritual, he knows he has captured the essence of Ritan Park and also created a wonderful symbol of ancient China–still alive and well in modern day Beijing.

At its core, tai chi is a martial art (also referred to as shadow boxing), but it is now commonly practiced to strengthen and promote mind/body health. Jeffrey loved how the man was entranced in the shadow of his own dance, and how the traditional Chinese red wall and green tiles melded with the shadow and gesture, creating pure harmony.

This image was created with a Nikon F4, a Nikkor 85mm lens and Fuji Velvia film.

Postscript: A week after it was published as the cover of The New York Times Travel Section, Broadway’s legendary song and dance man, Tommy Tune, wrote a letter to the editor extolling the artistic merits of Jeffrey’s photograph and how he captured the magic of the moment.

“It was quite an honor coming from Tommy Tune, whom I admire for his artistry and accomplishments in the field of dance,” said Jeffrey. “The fact that he would take the time to write a letter to the editor…there really is no higher compliment.”

Gong Xi Fa Cai — Happy Chinese New Year!

Photo of a dragon tile in Beijing's Forbidden City

Today kicks off the year 4710 in China, and it’s cause for much celebration and optimism. It’s the Year of the Dragon, after all, the most auspicious and powerful of the twelve signs in the Chinese zodiac.

Where did the “Year of a particular animal” idea originate? I wondered that myself. Legend has it that in ancient times, Buddha asked all the animals to meet him on Chinese New Year. Twelve came, and Buddha named a year after each one. He announced that the people born in each animal’s year would have some of that animal’s personality.

In Eastern philosophy, the dragon is regarded as a divine beast – the opposite of the malicious monster that Westerners have felt necessary to find and slay. It is said to be a deliverer of good fortune and a master of authority.

Those born in dragon years are innovative, brave, and driven. They’re unafraid of challenges, willing to take risks and passionate about all they do. They are free spirits. Think of John Lennon, Joan of Arc, Mae West, and Salvador Dali.

Photo of girls during Chinese New Year in Beijing, ChinaA baby boom is expected in China this year as many couples believe it is lucky to have a child born during The Year of the Dragon.

Economic forecasts are also strong as new ventures are expected to benefit from the outstanding luck of the dragon.

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Chinese traditions are so rich that I thought it would be fun to share a few more tidbits I’ve learned about this holiday–both from Jeffrey who has been to China well over sixty times, and from research.

Chinese New Year is the longest and most important festival in Chinese culture, lasting fifteen days. It’s celebrated on the new moon of the first month according to the lunar calendar, and is a time for family reunions and massive feasts.

It is also a time when every family thoroughly cleans the house to sweep away any ill-fortune in hopes of making way for good incoming luck.

At Chinese New Year celebrations people wear new red clothes, decorate with red paper, and give children “lucky money” in red envelopes. Red symbolizes fire, which according to legend can drive away bad luck.

Photo of red envelopesThe money given in the red envelopes must be in new bills, and the total amount must be an even number. Certain numbers are bad luck, so the total amount should not be one of these unlucky numbers. Four, for example, is a homonym for “death,” so a red envelope should never contain $4, $40, or $400. Children put their red envelopes under their pillows at night so they can have sweet dreams and become richer in the next year.

Photo of Chinese New Year Fireworks in Beijing, ChinaThe fireworks that shower the festivities are rooted in a similar ancient custom. Long ago, people in China lit bamboo stalks, believing that the crackling flames would frighten evil spirits. Now at midnight on New Year’s Eve, fireworks and firecrackers light up the sky and greet the coming of the new year, driving away evil spirits.

The lantern festival, held on the fifteenth day of the Chinese New Year celebration, is considered the highlight by many. People hang lanterns in temples, and carry lanterns to an evening parade under the light of the full moon.

Photo of a Dragon ParadeIn many areas the centerpiece of the lantern festival is the dragon dance. The dragon—which might stretch a hundred feet long—is typically made of silk, paper, and bamboo. Traditionally the dragon is held aloft by young men who dance as they guide the colorful beast through the streets.

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I’m always optimistic at the start of each new year. 2012 is no exception–especially now that I know the Dragon is leading the way.

Gong Xi Fa Cai - Happy New Year!

Graphic of Happy Chinese New Year i

sources: infoplease.com, about.com, chinesezodiac.com, chiff.com, wikipedia.com

Photos of America from Another Perspective

I don’t need to tell you smart readers what globalization looks like, but clearly it can be amusing at times to see what parts of American culture get transplanted into other countries around the world (at least when it isn’t sad).

Here is a peek at a few images Jeffrey has created over the years showing what happens when American taste lands in other parts of the world.

Photo of the Hard Yak Cafe in Lhasa, Tibet

Lhasa, Tibet (selling yak burgers on the roof of the world).

Photo of McDonald's in Beijing, China

Beijing, China

Photo of Denny's in Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo, Japan

Superman in Beijing, China

Beijing, China

Photo of a knock-off Chicago Bulls sweatshirt in Beijing, China

Beijing, China

M & M Billboard in Moscow, Russia

Moscow, Russia

Photo of a Visa sign in Vietnam

Saigon, Vietnam

Photo of a Marlboro billboard in Shanghai, China

Shanghai, China

If you had one wish, what aspect of American culture would you want to share most around the world (if any)? My guess is that it wouldn’t be the Marlboro Man.

Thursday’s Picture of the Week: China

Vis a Vis magazine cover

Behind the scenes: It’s 1981 and Jeffrey is photographing in Beijing, China. On this day he’s intent on capturing the beauty of the Summer Palace, the former warm-weather residence of China’s imperial rulers.

As Jeffrey crosses a narrow covered walkway, intricately carved and painted with imperial scenes, he notices an elderly gentleman sitting on one of the wooden railings. The man, who seems content to do little more than take in the day’s events around him, is dressed in a Mao jacket and a traditional cap. He is also wearing some of the most exquisite glasses Jeffrey has ever seen.

Photo of the summer palace in Beijing, ChinaThe spectacles rest slightly askew on the man’s nose. The etched hand-tooled silver that frames the circular glass is worn to a salient patina; the crack in the upper left-hand lens holds a story from long ago.

Jeffrey cannot take his eyes off the man whose face perfectly symbolizes traditional China. When the man glances up, Jeffrey asks—through his interpreter—if he would mind having his portrait taken. “Please be sure to tell him how much I admire his glasses,” Jeffrey adds.

The man’s eyes twinkle from beneath their narrow openings. Then his soft, gravely voice begins wrapping Jeffrey in staccato Mandarin, almost as if the man has been waiting his entire life to share this moment. Jeffrey, who has studied a little Chinese, can only understand part of what he is saying, and must wait patiently until his interpreter finally relays the story.

“He says that he is 84-years old and these glasses have been in his family for two generations. His father wore them most of his life, then when he died, they were passed on to him. He said he would be willing to sell them to you for ten dollars.”

Jeffrey is horrified by his offer, imagining all the things that have passed through these lenses. He takes a moment, then simply says to his interpreter,

“Tell him ‘thank you very much for your generous offer’, but I will pay him double if he promises to never sell these glasses; to always keep them in his family.”

The man squints his eyes in delight, then agrees. Finally Jeffrey creates his portrait. A few years later it becomes the cover of Vis a Vis, United Airlines’ inflight magazine, when they publish a 10-page portfolio featuring Jeffrey’s China photographs.

This photograph was created with a Nikon FE camera, a Nikon 85mm lens and Kodachrome 64 film.

Photo of rowboats at the Summer Palace in Beijing, China

PS: The answer to Tuesday’s challenge is Tibet (November 8th post). You’ll have to wait to hear Jeffrey’s stories to fully appreciate his reasons.

My Crash Course in Living Through the Lens

JUNE 1989: Jeffrey and I have been together for less than six months. During this time I’ve been given an unexpected crash course in the frenetic and unpredictable lifestyle of a photojournalist, and what it’s like to live through the lens.

Time Magazine with photo of Aung San Suu KyiYou may remember that 1989 is the year seismic political events begin shaking governments and cultures all around the world.

In April Jeffrey navigates Rangoon’s tension-filled streets during martial law, and photographs Burma’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning democracy leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, when she’s first placed under house arrest. This project is a good indicator of what is to come in this life that Jeffrey and I are now happily sharing (if you missed this story, you can read the details in my two earlier posts):

9/27/11 Beyond Rangoon–Part One

10/4/11 Beyond Rangoon–Part Two

Soon after Burma, in May and early June, Jeffrey spends multiple weeks in Beijing documenting China’s Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square, capturing the passion and energy of China’s youth and its demands for change.

Photo of Democracy Movement

Photo of the Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, 1989

Photo of the Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

It’s an exhilarating and surreal time for me as I watch the evening news every night to see what is unfolding in Tiananmen Square, knowing Jeffrey is there at the front line of history.

I see hunger strikers and workers marching with outrageously bold placards, then witness the “Goddess of Democracy” being erected as a symbol of hope and freedom for the movement. With each new development, threats escalate from the Chinese government. Soon fiery warnings are blasted about the severe consequences protesters will face if they do not end the demonstration and leave the square.

Jeffrey is in a simmering pot of politics, power and impatience, and my jaw grows tighter each day knowing that it’s getting closer to bubbling over–especially in a country in which freedom has never been a priority and brutality has often been a solution. At that moment, the Democracy Movement is no longer just a surreal event half way around the world for me; it is palpably real.

Photo of soldiers in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China 1989, Democracy Movement

It’s then I realize I need to focus on my “own thing” while Jeffrey is gone, otherwise my twenty-three year old dark brown hair will soon be turning white. While Jeffrey is in Tiananmen Square, I spend hours out on the road cycling, distracting myself with Aspen’s intoxicating landscape, centering my attention on simply turning the cranks of my pedals and getting enough oxygen into my lungs, rather than worrying about whether the Chinese government will follow through with its threats. I also immerse myself in work and all the other things I love like reading, painting and writing. I still stay glued to the TV and scour every newspaper, but I realize I have no control over Jeffrey’s safety so I trust in his scrappy ability to navigate through upheaval and create images, while staying out of harm’s way.

Photo of the Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Photo of the Democracy Movement in Tianamen Square

I also can’t help but feel empathy for Jeffrey’s parents. Right before Jeffrey leaves for Beijing, I overhear one of the most endearing phone conversations I can ever remember. “You can’t forbid me to go,” Jeffrey says to his dad as gently as he can, a sweet, appreciative smile crossing his face. “You’ll just have to trust that I’ll be okay. Really. Don’t worry. I’ll be fine,” he says as tries to ease the concerns he hears on the other end of the line.

His dad’s fear says everything about the love his parents hold for Jeffrey, and immediately makes me understand who Jeffrey is from the ground up.

That same trepidation also makes me think about all the other journalists in the world, and all the spouses, families and friends in the wings supporting what each is doing…and most likely worrying–particularly those going into war zones. I’m thankful Jeffrey has not chosen that path.

Photo of the Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China

Tiananmen Square is bad enough.

After nearly six weeks of peaceful demonstrations, the worst happens: China’s Democracy Movement tragically ends in bloodshed. On June 4th, the Chinese government orders the People’s Liberation Army to quash the movement and end all challenges to its power. Thousands of unarmed people are murdered, mowed down by bullets and tanks, and many more are injured as the PLA clears the square.

Photo of Tiananmen Square crackdown, Beijing, China 1989

Thankfully, Jeffrey is not one of them.

In a later post I will share the story of how, in an unusual twist of circumstances, Jeffrey sidesteps the June 4th massacre. I’m a firm believer that most things in life happen for a reason. This is no exception.

The Art of an Improbable Life Blavatar

Jeffrey’s Most Published China Photograph THEN…An Improbable Award NOW

Photo of a Bai Minority girl in ChinaTHEN: GUESS WHICH CHINA PICTURE IS JEFFREY’S MOST PUBLISHED?

1978-2011: Jeffrey began working in China in the late 1970′s soon after he bought his first Nikon FE camera. By now, it probably won’t surprise you that it was an improbable moment that launched him on this first trip to the Middle Kingdom (a story which I will share with you at a later time).

Over the course of three decades and 66 trips, Jeffrey photographed everything from bound feet and Mao jackets to discos and the Democracy Movement to peasants and minorities in remote regions (like this little Bai girl on the right) to China’s massive economic explosion.

Just for fun, this week I thought I’d try something new..take a look at the eight images below and guess which is Jeffrey’s most published photograph of China?

Leave your guess in the comment section of THIS POST and later in the week you will hear the answer, along with the improbable story of how he created this image.

Photos of rice paddies in Sichuan, China

A) A farmer tends his rice paddies in Sichuan Province

Photo of the Shanghai Opera backstage

B) Backstage at the Shanghai Opera

Photo of Moxibustion

C) A Chinese traditional medicine treatment called moxibustion

Photo of Democracy Movement

D) The Democracy Movement in Tiananmen Square

Photo of Shanghai Ballet

E) Ballerinas at the Ballet Wu School in Shanghai

Photo of a monk in Muli, China making tea at a monastery

F) A monk preparing tea at a remote monastery in Yunnan Province

Photo of McDonald's in Beijing, China

G) Ronald McDonald getting the cold shoulder in Beijing

Little Emperor.A03527

H) A young boy dressed as a Little Emperor in Beijing’s Forbidden City

A hint for you: As Confucius once said, “Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”

NOW: AN IMPROBABLE AWARD

SEPTEMBER 2011: By now it is more than apparent that my life has been a series of improbable moments. Well, here’s another one to add to the mix.

My blog has been up and running for a total of 14 days and it has just been honored with a Liebster Blog Award! Did I mention improbable?

Liebster Award GraphicLiebster means “friend” or “beloved” in German, and this honor is meant to bring recognition to quality bloggers who have a following of less than 200 people.

Stunned would be the best word to describe my reaction to this award. Grateful, humbled, appreciative, and giddy are other words.

Thank you to Samantha Stacia and Nancy MacMillan, two of my fellow bloggers, for nominating me for this award. It means a lot. Samantha writes The Blooming Late Journal and Nancy writes Blog of a Vet’s Wife.

As part of this award, the recipient is asked to pay it forward by nominating five other bloggers for this honor. Below are my nominations for the next Liebster Blog Award. I’m not sure how many followers each has, but their blogs are worth checking out:

Traci Green at Author Exposure

Stephey Baker at Marked by the Muse

Two hip chicks at LOVEMikana

Lori Robinson at Africa Inside

Drea McClarty at Two Motivate

Thanks again to Nancy and Samantha for their nominations…and happy reading to the rest of you.