立場新聞 Stand News


2015/4/22 — 14:40

It’s a gorgeous, sunny day in the spring of 2014. The sky is blue and the air is clear – a perfect day for photography. Thirty-two-year-old Matjaž Tančič and his luscious hipster moustache roll up on an electric motorbike, carrying a young woman from Shanghai on the back. He’s wearing a blue and red sweat suit with white stripes. Across it are written two Chinese characters: Middle Kingdom. This is his second trip to Yi County. On his first trip here in 2012 he took 3D photography portraits of over twenty locals in their homes. In 2013 Matjaž was awarded the Best 3D Photographer of the year by World Photography Organization for one of these portraits. This time he came back to continue and to deepen the series.

Matjaž doesn’t fit the stereotype of a young western man who falls in love with China. He’s an ambitious young European who’s come to China to strive. His homeland of Slovenia used to belong to Yugoslavia, a country that long mirrored China in its social structure. Matjaž studied photography at the London College of Fashion, and he now splits time between Ljubljana and Beijing. That choice to come to Beijing emerged from his keen sense that right now this is a place full of opportunities for the taking.

He is not like a partisan in Emir Kusturica’s movie who doesn’t know the sea change of the time after he climbed out of the underground world. He long ago became a world citizen, one who follows the action to the most interesting places on earth, seeking out opportunities that will let him blossom. As the capital of China, Beijing is already one of the most happening cities in the world, with colossal construction projects attracting star architects eager to turn their dreams into reality. The thriving art scene and boundless business opportunities exert a pull on a new wealth from around the globe. The fast-growing local fashion industry keeps expanding just to keep up with the demand from an expanding middle class. Photographers here don’t just draw material from the social change that surrounds them, they find entirely new platforms to showcase their skills. Matjaž even used Beijing’s geography to his advantage, cooperating with a British company on a 3D photography expedition into North Korea.


I met Matjaž at CCD Photospring 2012. I was one of the guests on a portfolio review at the event, and upon seeing his 3D photo series’ I immediately invited him to attend that year’s Yi County International Photo Festival. Out of this came the “Timekeepers” series. When visiting Yi County in 2012, he passed out 3D glasses to villagers and local officials so they could view his work. It looked like a scene straight out of science fiction when the crowds all gathered around his laptop wearing their 3D glasses. A girl from Hefei who had returned from England acted as his translator. Whether it was just the idle chatter over dinner or the villagers’ jokes, Matjaž demanded that she translate each word for him. He brought her to each corner of every village and tried to understand everything. Other than what he could draw from his own intuition and sensitivity, the vast majority of his understanding of Yi County came straight from the parched mouth of his translator. I sympathized with the translator each time I saw them driving off into the distance.

This difficult journey helped Tančič’ to decide on his shooting objective. The old rural houses in Yi County mostly kept the traditional style of Huizhou Architecture. The houses come in four kinds: two halls, four rooms, and two side-rooms; one hall, two rooms, and two side-rooms; one hall and one room; or only halls but no room. Whether rich or poor, each family has sky wells and halls. A rich family will even have two sky wells and three halls. The sky well is an open space connecting to “heaven’s way”. The water from four sides of the sky well has to be guided in the house. Water is connected with wealth in traditional Chinese culture, so “four waters converging in a bright hall” bodes well for the family finances.


The hall is the center of family life, and is also an important space in social rituals. The typical two-four-two house has two halls: the upper hall is tall and wide, and the lower hall is small and narrow. The shape of the two halls resembles the character for “昌” (Chang, meaning prosperity). The interior decoration is almost the same in every house. A wall facing south is in the center, on which paintings and couplets are hanged. In front of the wall is a narrow table, then a square table with chairs on two sides. At the two wings of the hall, three chairs and two tea tables are placed. Taken together, they are called “one hall’s furniture”. Tančič’s main focus lay in the furnishings on the narrow table. A vase is in the east, a mercury mirror is in the west, and a chime clock is in the middle. There are a couple of porcelain cap tubes near the clock. The furnishings are chosen because when the object’s names are spoken in succession in Chinese, they form a homophone for “Life is smooth and peaceful through its end.”

This custom is believed to have been created by Huizhou merchants during China’s Republican Era in the early-mid twentieth century. The eastern vase and western mirror are from the Book of Changes. The east is the position of the dragon, which correlates to objects with “Yang” characteristics, like a vase. The west is the position of the tiger, which correlates to objects with “Yin” characteristics, like a mirror. The cap tube reflects a certain gentleman’s style Huizhou merchants learnt from the outside world. A skullcap or a western topper hanging on the tube hints that there is a businessman in this family. When it comes to showing off, attention focuses on the chime clock. Originally given as tribute to the Wanli Emperor of Ming Dynasty by Matteo Ricci in 1601, the western time instrument had always been a royal plaything until the Qing Dynasty. Emperors Kangxi and Qianlong were loyal fans of timepieces but by the Republican Era, clocks were used by normal people. Huizhou merchants travelled around with ample finances and open eyes. Exotic objects and tastes became popular after being introduced by the merchants. Despite the change of regimes and the passage of time, the custom is still miraculously rooted in rural society till today.

The introduction of the chime clock changed thoroughly the view about time in this agricultural society. The missionaries like Ricci knew well the tactics of cultural transmission. As a tribute to the emperor, the clock would project influence from the top down. Beijing’s bell and drum had always maintained the traditional methods of timekeeping. The night begins from two and a half “Ke” (ancient timing unit, 14 minutes and 24 seconds) after sunset, and ends from two and a half Ke before sunrise. One night has five “Geng” (two hour intervals), and each of the five Geng have five “Chou” (24 minutes). However, western time keeping methods began to be applied during the reign of the Guangxu emperor. By the time of the Republic of China, traditional timekeeping that tracked with natural changes, the flow of seasons and life cycles, had been totally replaced by the precise linear Western concept of time. For the new Republican government, Western timing methods measured by mechanical scales could raise administrative efficiency, and could be used to implement modern industrial time management. But in China’s vast and slow-moving rural areas, chime clocks are still a means to show off, a rootless symbol of modernity. Roads, television and internet coverage today have done little to change its meaning.

Though each family in Yi County has a clock on their table, it’s just there to carry on the custom. The villagers still arrange their life and farming by a traditional view of time. In local dialect, they call breakfast “eating daylight” and call supper “eating dusk.” Besides the four seasons and twenty-four solar terms, the villagers there have created some local proverbs that act as a guide for farming. For example, “in long August, a kilo of radishes for a kilo of glutinous rice; in short August, cabbages and radishes are useless.” (In the lunar calendar, a long August means the winter is short and radish harvest little, so radishes are as precious as glutinous rice). “Tea before the Beginning of Summer, and grass after the Beginning of Summer.” “After drinking the wine at the Dragon Boat Festival, you have to work through the night.” In 2007 when I first went to Xidi Village, I heard the sound of beating watches, but thought it may just have been brought back to life to attract visitors. The “Timekeepers” captured by Tančič, when translated into Chinese should refer to night watchmen in agricultural society. The watchman not only tells time, but warns villagers to prevent fire or burglary, assuring the safety of the whole village. So in 2012 when he exhibited the first series of pictures, I translated “Timekeepers” as “Timewatchers.” The villagers remaining in rural China not only guard the existence of slow time, but also a culture on the verge of disappearing.

Coming from Beijing to Yi County, you must cross between two kinds of time. In Beijing, time is money. People strive for every second, resenting the waste of time while waiting for a taxi or taking the subway across the city. In Yi County, the villagers work at sunrise and rest at sunset. Time is fast or slow according to the weather and cycles of the harvests. Rest is based on the cyclical energy of the body. During traditional festival days, even the promise of big payouts won’t make people work. Tančič captures the discrepancy of the two times, and also sees how the big country is tangled up in its rapid modernization. City vs. village, economic development vs. historical protection, participating in globalization vs. preserving local traditions. Two contradictory powers are tearing at the heart of the country. As a refraction of the tearing, the chime clock in Huizhou house used to be a symbol of modernization, placed in the center of a traditional living space; the decorations of the hall are strictly prescribed by both Confucianism and traditional rituals, the wall in the center is used for hanging ancestors’ pictures, when younger generations pray before the pictures they feel a strong and solemn sense of purpose; regardless of the span of generations, those living today can commune with ancestors in the space created by ritual, forming a cyclical chain of birth and death that follows time without end. The modern linear time represented by the chime clock has been hollowed out. Televisions and DVDs appear as new symbols of modern life. However, the clock still carries with it the positive associations of old superstition: “Life is smooth and peaceful through its end”.

You can only identify time’s struggles through the physical space in which it passes. This is why Tančič took two pictures in each villager’s home: one of the clock on the table, and another of people sitting or standing in the hall. A clock is a mechanical timing instrument. A human being is made of flesh, blood and soul. The spaces in which people live are rich in social information. These three elements -- the clock, the human being, and the space in which they live – reveal time’s true face.

On Tančič’s second visit in 2014, he took also many photographs in modern houses. Huizhou merchants disappeared during the period of the socialist planned economy. Not long after, China’s reform and opening-up spurred a new generation of Huizhou citizens to leave the area. They went to the coastal developed cities to work, and brought their knowledge and experience back to the villages. The capable ones started to pull down the old–style houses, building new modern houses on the same old land and on new land. The houses expressed their understanding of “modernization”. The incapable ones couldn’t build new houses, but practical needs forced them to remodel the old houses, leaving the traditional forms and institutions behind. The city’s sense of worth and aesthetics sank into rural society. The simple outhouses were replaced by modern toilets. Supply cooperatives and corner stores were replaced by supermarkets. Televisions and DVDs appeared in halls. Computers may appear soon after. The desire for “development,” and with it linear time, is becoming stronger and stronger.

The Chinese translation of “Timekeepers” may seem a little old-fashioned now. After several years living in Yi County, I deeply feel that the normal life of villagers cannot remain this way simply because of the nostalgia of the intelligentsia. It is inhuman to exclude the countryside from modernity, to try and preserve a paradise in which people can’t feel time passing, just so elites from the cities can enjoy it on their vacation. The village’s layout, the ancient buildings, the life style, and the agricultural ecology – all of this should be protected in a way that promises the villagers a better life. Those diehard history protectionists thunder away in pursuit of “political correctness” and “moral superiority,” regardless of the living standard of the residents and their demands for self-development. Knowing nothing of the deep social reasons for historical destruction, these people have no constructive words or actions for using the historical resources to improve residents’ living standard. They are the same as another extreme, the absolute development advocates, who go forward at price of sacrificing the historical memories. Neither can untangle the mental knots of modernization. As a cold-headed and objective spectator, Tančič records and reveals our entanglement in his lens.

As “others,” coming from the outside world, many foreign photographers see more clearly than us our reality and historical limits. Canadian photographer Edward Burtynsky has been to Fujian’s factories and rural dumps of industrial refuse, Sichuan’s Three Gorges Dam, Tianjin’s coal mining base, the homes of Shanghai’s nouveau riche and the impoverished back alleys. He recorded our most unforgettable memories, that is, the large environmental and emotional price we paid for development. Different from Burtynsky, who focuses on full-shot grand historical scenes, Tančič walked into around 60 family homes in Yi County’s villages. In the residents’ private living spaces, he shot their furnishings, and let them face to the lens in their own halls. These faces ravaged by farm work or changed by travels, together with their houses and used goods, help Tančič to change abstract time into images you can see, smells you can breathe, and surfaces you can feel with your hand.

When I gaze at their portraits, I always have a feeling of “my country, my people.” They are bodies grinded under the wheels of modern cars. Though living in remote villages, they also have connections with the crowded cities. The cereals they grow, the labor they provide, and their homes that may be demolished one day – this is what drives this country’s development. They are often neglected subjects, but they are revealed in Tančič’s photographs.

Bishan Village, Feb. 20, 2015

School of Tillers (SOT, 理農館 ) is a space for contemporary agrarianists, renovated from an old barn in Bishan Village, Yi County, Huangshan City, Anhui Province, China. This project was started in 2014 by Ou Ning, the founder of Bishan Project, it serves the functions of gallery, learning center, curated library, tea room, café, zakka and researcher residence, aiming to promote the contemporary agrarianism and the rural Reconstruction movement.

26 Taiqian Group, Bishan Village, Biyang Town, Yi County
Huangshan City, Anhui Province, China 245501
E-mail: [email protected]
Telephone: 0559-5175700

Open Time:
Monday to Thurday and Sunday: 10 am – 6 pm
Friday, Saturday and Holidays: 10 am – 10 pm