21 July 2021

The Sun Also Rises in China

21 July 2021 - Written by Colin Pantall

Cai Dongdong collected over 600,000 pictures of ordinary Chinese life to make History of Life. They capture three generations of Chinese, running through a history that goes from revolution to famine to political upheaval, all of which leads to excesses of contradictions of contemporary state-surveyed capitalism with Chinese characteristics. This is his edit of those pictures and that history.

The editing was a lengthy process. It took him six years. ‘For every 10,000 images I looked through, I selected, at most, ten.’ The initial selection was ‘uncomplicated’, based on ‘intuition, and then it became more nuanced, more generational, more tied in to the generic shifts in poses, the changes in dress and then fashion, the tightening up and the loosening up of expression in front of the camera in a country where the wrong gesture or pose or juxtaposition might be punished by a criticism session or a spell in the countryside which is where nobody wants to be.

The images in History of Life sweep through the great epochs of Liberation, of the Great Leap Forward, of the Cultural Revolution, of the great economic reopening in images that might allude to these periods but never quite settle. Instead, the pictures used are often quietly personal, giving a glimpse into the hopes and dreams of ordinary Chinese, the people who lived through the political turmoil. It’s a quite beautiful combination of images where the pairings, the sequencing, the occasional flashes of the political and the violent hint at the life that lies beneath the conventional compositions and poses.

Part I begins with one of those flashes of the political; an image of a cave, a hint both at the Chinese Communist Party’s origin myth if you like, but also at older belief systems. Move forward and we see a couple bowing before what might be a smiling parent, candles in the background suggesting we’re in some kind of makeshift temple. It’s a setting where the edges of the frame are drenched in a gloom inhabited by women and children. It is a wonderful photograph printed square just above the middle of the numbered page. It’s around the size of the original negative (and possibly print), but with no borders or rebates or obvious degradation.

It’s a simple but beautifully made and designed book that is all about images that add to the generational texture of the book; a woman stares at the camera, her bared pregnant belly sticking out against a backdrop of a well-tended garden. She, we might guess (and different people are going to guess different things with this book depending on who they are and where they are from), is a domestic worker at the house. There are mirrors and windows, self-portraits and temple walks. Permed hair and tilted fedoras mix with river views, classic landscapes, and crowded pre-revolution city streets.

Part II begins with an austere undecorated domestic interior of a grey sofa in a grey room with a grey table. It’s black and white photography so it’s going to be grey, but the feeling is it really is grey, in the mood at least. There are chickens, and cats, and rabbits, and everything is a bit more posed and ordered. There is wheat and swimming and an explosion. Right after the explosion comes a kid with an eye patch. He isn’t smiling. The granny with the snowman is though, a half-smile that wonders what the hell is going on in the world; here, there, or anywhere.

Badges, flags, and study sessions appear, as do revolutionary poses, gymnastics, and table tennis. The images tap into multiple visual worlds, multiple interpretations that cut across time, that short circuit from history to personal experience to art and literature and memory and back again.

And all the way through we come back to basics; the boar mounting the sow, the woman cradling the piglet, the young foal, the fields of wheat, the baskets of oranges, the flooded fields, the earthquakes, the class enemies, the massive irrigation works, the military maneuvers.

Part III begins with fireworks and goes through mountains and waterfalls, and quiet contemplation. The performance becomes more relaxed and open at first; two friends light cigarettes on a bench, a young boy poses naked on a bed, a male lion mounts a lioness in a cramped zoo cage. And then there are young pioneers, what might be public criticism sessions, and a young man being paraded around town before a possible execution. The book ends with a moon, a cave (but looking out into the light) and the last picture is a woman pointing towards a sun low above the horizon. It might be setting, it might be rising. We’ll know soon enough.


All photos from the book History of Life by Cai Dongdong


History of Life by Cai Dongdong

Published in 2021 by Imageless

500 pages // 22 x 17 cm / Hardcover binding // Printed in a limited edition of 700



Cai Dongdong is a Chinese soldier-turned-artist currently based between both Berlin and Beijing. He learnt his trade as a portrait photographer while serving in the People’s Liberation Army in the nineties before turning his attention toward the use of archival and found photography to create half-fragmented realities. Follow him on Instagram.

Colin Pantall is a photographer, writer and lecturer based in Bath, England. His latest book, All Quiet on the Home Front, focuses on family, fatherhood and the landscape. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Written by

Colin Pantall

Reading time

5 minutes