Man alive, it’s colder than the 9th Circle of Hell in Beijing these days. It’s enough to make this winter-coat-less dummie long for the sweat-soaked smog-choked days of summer. Luckily I’ve spent most of this morning laying out images like the one above. It’s from a series called ‘Bare Life’ that was created by an artist named Wang Zi (王子). He took them in the summers of 04 and 05 in an area called Qianmen, a hutong not far from Tian An Men Square. Wang Zi grew up in a hutong nearby that has since been demolished. Here’s a selection from a text he wrote about the neighborhood (translated by Wang Ruocheng):

Before 1949, Qianmen was the busiest commercial area in the city, with the best courtyards and the most flourishing shops. Nowadays, however, this area has declined to a slum. The dilapidated single-story houses and the embarrassing lives within contrast sharply with the modern skyscrapers that surround them.

Qianmen is located close to Tian An Men Square. In every corner there are symbols and characters from different historical periods. They have been changing along with the developing city and include political slogans from the Mao Zedong period and the advocacy of economic development from the late 1980s, as well as small pieces of paper that advertise, declare of building soon-to-be demolished, celebrate the Olympics, etc. These symbols and Chinese characters have no value themselves; their original meanings may have been forgotten by their writers. Their meanings are confused, the accumulated results of mistakes.

For the poor residents, several families live together in one courtyard, sharing the same water tap. Under that tap there is a cesspool made of bricks, into which all the liquid waste and urine are poured. Insects will settle down here in summer, making it unclean. However, it is the squalor that brings people together, making the area around the tap in the courtyard an important public space. Residents used to clean vegetables and wash clothes here. Passersby even drank the water. All the above are not so common nowadays.

Without fine waste pipes, residents could not have toilets in the courtyard. Instead, they need to walk several minutes to the public toilets in the hutong, where queues can be seen at “rush hour” in the morning. In order to take a shower, people have to walk several kilometers away to a public bathroom. This happened in nearly all of the hutongs and courtyards downtown. Although some families can have simple shower facilities, most people can not afford facilities in their courtyard because they have less than five square meters of housing area. So wiping the body with a wet cloth becomes the most convenient way of taking a bath.

The plight of Beijing’s hutongs triggers strong feelings of nostalgia and righteous indignation on the part of locals and foreigners. These images and text I think capture a slice of that radically diminished aspect of the city without the usual melodrama. They also provide an interesting overview of Chinese male body typologies, but that’s a bonus. More images after the jump. Click to enlarge…



This photo is hard as shit.

Return to Top