Simply China; Images and Words Reviewed By Truong Buu Lam of
Truong Buu Lam

Reviewer: Truong Buu Lam: Dr. Lam earned his Doctorate in History from the Université Catholique de Louvain, in Belgium many years ago. He has since taught history of Southeast Asia at several Colleges and Universities in Vietnam and the USA. He has authored a few works on Vietnamese history. He is now retired and the last affiliation was the University of Hawaii.

By Truong Buu Lam
Published on December 26, 2011

Author: Nancy Brown, with Chinese translation by Mrs. Qin Di; Design by Janae Thuna

Publisher: China Nationality Art Photographic Publishing House, Beijing, China
ISBN-10: 061542824X :
  ISBN-13: 978-0615428246

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Author: Nancy Brown, with Chinese translation by Mrs. Qin Di; Design by Janae Thuna

Publisher: China Nationality Art Photographic Publishing House, Beijing, China
ISBN-10: 061542824X :  ISBN-13: 978-0615428246

Simply China is a coffee table book of pictures of China. Its almost 300 13 X 10 plates show, in their full splendor, the Forbidden City in Beijing, (p. 37-55), the town of Zhouzhuang in the province of Jiangsu(p. 177), and a few other regions of China, such as Inner Mongolia (p. 57-88), Guangxi, Guilin and Yangshuo (p. 89-119), West Sichuan (p. 121-176), Tibet (p.189-245), and Qinghai Province (p. 247-287).

As the saying goes: A picture is worth a thousand words; and so, this book, with its 300 pictures, is already worth millions. But even so, the author judges desirable to add her own words to introduce her gorgeous pictures. Not only her own words; they are translated into Chinese as if to reach a Chinese audience as well. This, however, should not really be necessary because the pictures transcend all writings: they can speak for themselves and their language is easily understandable by all and every one of their viewers. Can they, effectively? Of course, they can, but taken together, what they say, i.e. the message they convey depends entirely on their creator, the photographer.

The pictures in this book reflect the prevalent mood of the photographer which, as Ms. Brown wrote it: "First and most important is that I love China and its people. I have been a photographer for over thirty years and when I stepped off the plane in 2005 I began my photographic love affair with China and its people." (p. 13) That enthusiasm, that affection have nowhere to go but to rub off onto the people who find themselves at the end of the author's camera lenses. They all appear so relaxed, full of confidence in themselves but visibly also in the photographer. Consider the picture on page 18. How many times have you seen a Chinese lady eating a bowl of something? But the lady in this photo has a radiant expression, a very enchanting smile showing just 3 teeth. Although her eyelids are down, you can still detect her happy and serene mood. You can experience the same perception looking at any other picture of people, particularly of children. I choose at random: on the double page 66-67, 64, 68-69, 98-99, 101, 106-107, 111, 113, 115, 116... (It is very difficult to find the page numbers, for many of them are not marked.) Even the pictures of landscapes, animals or inanimate objects project that air of serenity, peace: pages 25, 70, 102-103, 108-109,

Tibet gets the lion share of this book: more than 50 pages (189-247). The traditional views of the lavish monasteries, the colorful dwellings, the richly decorated shrines, the stunning statues and other cult objects, the ever smiling people, all those beautiful pictures bespeak of a wonderful and legendary region of magnificence, peace, prosperity, affluence.

The section on Tibet more than other regions led me to ask myself a basic question: did all these marvelous pictures reflect the real China? Is it what China or Tibet or Sichuan amount to? My answer to that question is a resonant NO! Although as perfect as anything could be in the presentation of an important region of the world, this book displays only one aspect of China. China is not only self-confidence, serenity, peacefulness, harmony, abundance. It also carries its share of chaos, riot, conflict, violence, dissension, disruption, misery, poverty. Next to the resplendent riches of its monasteries and the blissful countenance of its people, Tibet conceals seeds for an explosive confrontation. Behind the smiles of its happy people are hidden the glare of a multitude infuriated by changes imposed from the outside. Similar contrasts obtain for every region of China or of the wide world, for that matter. Then should the author definitely ignore that other side of reality? Should she uncover at least a tiny corner of the disparity?

One may be able to argue to the contrary. It is perfectly legitimate for a photographer to show whatever and however his/her subject is, as long as s/he does not insist on the fact that the subject s/he presents IS THE REAL THING. In other words, it is all right for Ms. Brown, the photographer of these beautiful photos, to show an opulent China nurturing a crowd of happy Chinese as long as she does not claim that her book represents the One and Only China. As I suggested earlier, pictures speak the language of their maker. I dare think that Ms. Brown is fully aware of that idiosyncrasy. And that is why she entitled her book: Simply China.

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