The bridge on the river Nanxi or a meditation on Li Zhixiong¡¯s photographic train ride

What exactly touched me when I discovered the photographs of Li Zhixiong in Pingyao 2007? An unspeakable emotion. I thought: ¡°a Chinese photographer had gone to photograph a French railway station¡­ in France.¡±

This typical French architecture, the exact replica of our so familiar countryside train stations, the roof, the masonry, walls painted in ochre yellow, the casings of the doors and the windows, even the clock, all these trompe-l'oeil! In addition to a good lesson of history & geography that Li Zhixiong has given me, what a personal discovery at the same time, all these memories that rise up to the surface! This square format and all color photographs, with a window mannequin as the main cast, that can be only an homage to Bernard Faucon (*), even if the author acknowledges he has never heard of this name before. This hot and humid sensual atmosphere and this implicit reference to Indochina unquestionably evoke the ¡°lovers¡± of Marguerite Duras (*), even if the photographer, again, confesses he has never read anything written by Duras.

What do we see in Li¡¯s photographs? It¡¯s all about train and railway. No need for psychoanalysis. It¡¯s only communication. Communication between two people in love, communication between China and the external world, a dialogue between the present and the past, between reality and the imaginary, between the genuine and the fabricated.? Like this waiting scene on the station platforms which reaches perfection in its composition: the characters are standing apart but their shadows are about to embrace.

This Chinaman and this woman (she can only be French can't she? In this railwayman¡¯s roundhouse on the French Yunnan railway?), the two lovers turning their back to each other playing the love-hate game, don't they reflect these relations between China and the West?

That this woman is represented by a window mannequin does not mean simply set language and incommunicability, there is true tenderness in this pas-de-deux, this quick-slow-quick waltz between a man of flesh and a morbid dumb statue.

The surprising presence of the priest, this key figure of missionary who are at time sincere carriers of message of love and at times forerunners of colonial invasions: how many impossible loves they were responsible for? They are the sources of conflicts between Chinese Confucianism and puritan Christianity, between atheistic Chinamen and Christian Western women, or between Western women and Chinese lovers (see the Lover of Marguerite Duras)?

This railwayman making the great leap forward in front of this masterpiece of the railway, is it a joke or a homage to the symbol of the techno-industrial prowess and to the disproportionate ambition of its manufacturers of the time? This Eiffel bridge on rafters posing as a pair of scissors planted in two vertical rock cliffs above the Nanxi river does it warn us of this cultural gap between the East and the West, or better, this great divide between man (from Mars) and woman (from Venus)? Connecting two tunnels, wouldn't this bridge be rather a splendid symbol of friendship between two peoples, symbol of man¡¯s conquest over the obstacles of nature? For Li Zhixiong it could quite simply be the passage of the world of reality into the world of imaginary.

My own obsession ignited by these photographs of Li Zhixiong has pushed me into rereading Duras, Auguste Francois, Faucon and Bodard, into researching as far as the History of the French colonies, etc. But this is nothing beside the obstinate Yunnan collector Mr. Yin Xiaojun who has spent the past 10 years collecting and studying the photographic legacy of Auguste Fran?ois (*) who negotiated and supervised the construction of the railway. The latter, failing to have fully grasped the Chinese civilization, had nevertheless left to the posterity and especially to China, which is in terrible lack in that matter, an exceptional iconographic document without equivalent. We would like to thank the gentleman for the invaluable old snapshots that he has kindly authorized us to use for the book.

And we - those (like me) who identify with this suspended bridge between two chasms: daredevils at great extremes or cultural ¡°transmitters¡± - let us be eternally grateful to Li Zhixiong for having had this brilliant idea allowing us to discover and to rediscover this part of our inner selves.
Jean Loh
* Bernard Faucon : Bernard Faucon photographies, (339p) Actes Sud (2005)
* Marguerite Duras : L¡¯Amant (1984) / L¡¯Amant de la Chine du Nord (1991)
* Auguste Francois : L¡¯Oeil du Consul ¨C AF en Chine 1896-1904 / Edition du Ch¨ºne ¨C Guimet (1989) 217p
* Auguste Francois : Le Mandarin Blanc (1990) Calmann-L¨¦vy
* Auguste Francois : De la Mer de Chine au Tonkin, photographies 1886-1904, Ed Sonogy (1996) 167p Masterpiece is used by Lucien Bodard in Le Fils du Consul (1975) Grasset

Li Zhixiong - L'Amant du Sud
Li Zhixiong
4 color printing
128 pages