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Portraits of change
( China Daily European Weekly )

Portraits of change

Portraits of change

  In this 1907 photo, Ye Jinglu, then 27, wears a pigtail and a short jacket, long trousers and round-mouthed cloth shoes, a common outfit for men in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). The props are a mix of Eastern and Western objects: a Western clock standing for modernity, a bunch of artificial flowers for elegance, a pair of tea cups for social manners and books for learning. Photos provided to China Daily

Portraits of change

  Ye, then 68, took this photo on Oct 1, 1949, which marked the founding of New China. Unlike most of other photos, Ye does not look straight at the camera and instead his eyes are directed at the newspaper. The pose is an imitation of the photo of Chairman Mao Zedong published in newspapers earlier that year.

Portraits of change

An album of yearly studio portraits of a man from 1907-68 has aroused the curiosity of a historical photo collector. Yang Guang finds out more in Beijing.

An ardent historical photo collector has published the portraits of a man who had his picture taken every year from 1907-68, some of China's most important years. TV producer Tong Bingxue, 43, says the man in the photo album had his portrait taken by photo studios during the years that saw the end of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), the Republic of China (1912-49), the turbulence of wars, the founding of the People's Republic of China and the early days of the "cultural revolution" (1966-76).

"The series of photos have recorded the changes of times and formed an archive about his life," Tong says. "He didn't have a choice about the era he would encounter, but he chose to respect life and tried his best to retain the dignity of a man."

Tong has published the album, A Life in Portraits, under Foreign Languages Press. The book also chronicles the life of the man in the album and the stories of Tong's search for him.

Tong started collecting and studying the country's historical photos in 2000 and created a website in 2005 to publicize his interest.

Recalling how he got hold of the photos, Tong says he received a phone call from a bookstore owner in Fuzhou, Fujian province, one night in September 2007, about the album. The caller asked Tong to log on to a private website to view them.

"After just a few minutes, I was astounded," Tong says. "I saw gradual changes of a vigorous young man to a hale and hearty old man. His attire changed with the times - from the first photo in the late Qing Dynasty when he still wore a long braided pigtail, to the long gown and mandarin jacket of the Republic of China, and to the Mao suit of the People's Republic of China."

Tong was so intrigued by the album that he paid a handsome price for it, after some hard bargaining.

He repeatedly perused the album after receiving it, trying to sense the tunnel of time running through more than 60 years. Tong says his curiosity about the album owner was aroused, and he wondered what motivated his lifelong pursuit.

There were only bits and pieces of information on the album hinting to the owner's identity. The album's title had the word "Mr Jinglu". There was a clue in the album that revealed he was born on Oct 6, 1881. And his wife was named Ni Shuyu.

Tong searched online but could not find more information. He also went to libraries, which yielded no answers. "I cracked my brain thinking of alternative research methods," Tong remembers.

Then, Tong decided to seek help from the local media. He wrote an article about his search, attached the last photo dated 1968, and e-mailed them to several newspapers in Fuzhou.

It was not long before Fuzhou Daily published the story and received an unexpectedly overwhelming number of calls the very day the story was published. The most valuable one was from Ye Lin, the youngest grandson of the album owner Ye Jinglu.

Tong went to Fuzhou in the autumn of 2008 to visit Ye Lin, who told him that his daughter-in-law found the two albums in the summer of 2007 when his family was moving house. But the albums were misplaced during the relocating process and someone could have passed them to the bookstore owner in Fuzhou.

At the introduction of Ye Lin, Tong went to Hangzhou, capital of Zhejiang province, to visit Ye Jinglu's daughter Ye Guiying. He also managed to speak to Ye Jinglu's younger son, Ye Deshu, in Taiwan over the phone. Through the conversations, Tong gradually established a clearer image of the senior Ye and could almost envision how Ye would choose special days every year to go to the studio.

"He would dress up in new clothes, put on his new shoes and hat, walk slowly down a long lane and finally enter a photo studio," Tong says.

"He would then tell the photographer what he wanted, and the photographer would get busy choosing the backdrops and the props, adjusting the lighting and organizing the pose. Then would come the click that froze a whole year into a single frame. After several days of anticipation, he would take the finished portrait back home and closely examine the austere monochrome print, losing himself in peaceful reflection.

"This was a life ritual, an annual retrospection," Tong says.

Tong says the album shows the owner's tenacity and persistence in taking those photos. And it provided an uncomfortable reminder to Tong of his personal lack of determination to take photos of his son.

He had resolved to take a photo every day of his son after his birth but had not followed through.

"I encountered Ye in his portraits 40 years after his death," Tong says. "And I, in my 40s, have found a new understanding of myself and life."

Contact the writer at yangguang@chinadaily.com.cn.


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