Jiang Jian the Chinese August Sander

I first came face to face with Jiang Jian’s enlarged folk musicians at the 2003 Pingyao Photo Festival and felt immediately under their spell. There is a direct gaze from the subject an earnest and simple expression though they are not especially proud nor shy in their posing for Jiang Jian. They inevitably reminded me of August Sander the great German master who built up a monumental photographic documentary of the German people in the 1920’s to 1930’s, capturing his subjects in the fields, on their jobs, traveling by bicycle on the road. Sander’s famous quote applies so well to Jiang Jian’s MA JIE Folk Singers: “we know that people are formed by the light and air, by their inherited traits, and their actions. We can tell from appearance the work someone does or does not do; we can read in his face whether he is happy or troubled.”

To me Jiang Jian has always appeared like a seasoned traveler, a character described in Chinese martial art novels as a Hero of Rivers and Lakes (Jiang Hu). Little did I know that he had been a violinist (alto) graduate from the Hu Bei Conservatory of Music, had played in an ensemble and been occasionally a practitioner of Er Hu. That explains why, after documenting the farmers’ interiors (see his book “Masters”) and before embarking on the life long project of “Orphans’ Archives” Jiang Jian has photographed the Ma Jie Folk Singers from 2000 to 2003.

Look at this grey-haired folk musician / story teller Liu Yingqi sitting on his stool looking straight into the camera, resting his Zui Hu fiddle on his lap, right leg crossed above the left leg equipped with a self-made percussion clip that is to be operated by foot tapping. He is apparently smoking a cigarette while finger picking his fiddle with the bow idle. Behind him a line of spectators are carefully stepping into the slippery muddy field while one boy with his gaping mouth looks transfixed directly at the photographer.

Another typical image of epic dimension is this trio with bicycle and loud speaker. On the muddy field where the green grass has been crashed by stampede into an undistinguishable wet brownish slippery carpet, three men stand behind a heavily loaded bicycle that carries four bags on its handle bar and three mysterious wooden boxes on its back seat with a cymbal. The apparent leader of the band raises high in his right hand the operatic clapping sticks, his used green army uniform converted into a performing artist costume by the sheer attachment of red strings that serve as a belt around his waist. His two acolytes are holding each one Zuihu fiddle, one pretending to play, and the other on the left just stands there with his eyes squinting into two thin lines. In the background we can only see the back of the crowd, except one single onlooker, an intriguer with hands in his pocket

Jiang Jian’s images of folk singers explore their visceral connection to working environments and tools of trade. In this other photograph, a seemingly giant-size strong man grasping his wrapped fiddle while sitting firmly in front of the camera; his feet inside a pair of muddy ski boots. For Jiang Jian, this musician is the emblematic embodiment of the Ma Jie story tellers whom he holds in the highest esteem. Despite the green and pink flowery cloth wrap that betrays the poet inside the strong manly figure, Jiang’s unsentimental style of documentation captured the confidence with which these men return the photographer's gaze.

Jiang Jian has been a loyal fan of the festival attending every year since 2000. The reason why there is in this exhibition no picture prior to 2003 is this: each year the Ma Jie gathering was subject to very different weather conditions, either it was too sunny and dry, flattening portraiture into boring poses, either a heavy snow was covering all up, or strong wind ruining it all. What made the year 2003 so remarkable was in fact the mud, formed by a warm sun and melting snow; the muddy field plays definitely a determining “coloring” role which gives this series a poignant quality. After 2003 Jiang Jian has tried to photograph Ma Jie but it soon became clear to him that he could no longer find the necessary conditions: while in the past he had been quasi the only photographer covering the festival, now hundreds of other photographers have heard of or seen Jiang Jian’s works and they had flocked there wanting to photograph whatever Jiang Jian was trying to photograph. Secondly the story telling art was slowly dying, when there used to be thousands of musicians gathering in Ma Jie, now they just count by a few hundreds.

So when we look at these portraits of folk singers, we are first fully aware that these people have entered the pantheon of cultural archive and world heritage, thanks to Jiang Jian, and secondly we are struck by the sense of familiar confidence, a sense of kinship emanating from them, for they were actually posing for a friend or a “brother”, obviously they had known the photographer for quite some time. And he also knew some of them really well including their most intimate personal stories.

The realization that the good old traditions, the country life and the folk’s culture were disappearing slowly but surely had pushed Jiang Jian to record the Ma Jie gathering for history. The minutia and the sense of detail adding to the systematic approach are demonstration that these portraits will become a precious archive for the future generation the day fewer and fewer folk singers will still brave the snow the cold and the mud to gather for a Folk Festival that has no television no celebrities no big money around and with fewer and fewer audience.

Jean Loh

Curator 2007

Jiang Jian - Majie Folk Singers
Jiang Jian
4 color printing
90 pages