We Chinese

| May 20th, 2011

by M. Scott Brauer

Shen Yin Ying

"We Chinese" grew out of a curiosity to find out what Chinese people think about their country and their future.  Media coverage of the country and its development often raises questions about the direction of the government in Beijing on the world stage.  Few reports take into account the feelings of the Chinese people, instead making reference to the country as a monolithic actor without constituent parts.  A country’s trajectory through history cannot be mapped without careful consideration of the people.  This project aims, in a small way, to develop a portrait of the country by looking at the individual people that make it up.

Rui Ling Yan

Zhang Zheng Ya

Wang Fei Le

Shang Xiao Huan

Wang Bao Ning

Zhang Zhen Hua

Zhang Zuo Hao Nan

I started the project as a way to respond to friends’, family’s, and strangers’ questions about the global direction of China and their stereotypes of the people. “Should we be scared of China?” or “Where is China headed?” or broad assertions about the collective character of billions of individuals that make up the country.  The project aims to give faces and voices to a small section of the Chinese people caught in the center of historic shifts in the country’s socioeconomic circumstances.  Recent years in China have been marked by mass migration toward urban centers, substantial increases in personal wealth, radical changes in the country’s educational and industrial sectors, and the start of China’s role as a global leader in political and economic matters.  Ordinary people, the subject of We Chinese, are caught in the middle of this unprecedented change.  While the big story is this change itself, an important and often-overlooked aspect of modern China is what this cultural transformation means to the people and their future.

In 2010, I traveled throughout major urban centers in eastern China stopping people on the street to ask the same two questions about their country and their future. The respondents filled out a one-page typewritten questionnaire that included these two questions and some basic information including name, age, and occupation. The questions were interpreted variously, and the responses range from prosaic to poetic, from rote to inspired, and from unemotional to patriotic. While it’s difficult to draw conclusions about the entire population, the people photographed here expressed a sincere love of country and optimism about the country’s future development and peaceful position in the world.

The name “We Chinese” comes from a phrase I encountered time and again when talking with Chinese people in China, both in Mandarin and English. Answers to questions about the person’s opinion about something or other would often begin with “We Chinese…” (“Wo men Zhong Guo ren”), instead of beginning with something like “I think….”

The project also comes from suspicions of my own methods in documentary work. My work imposes visual and written narratives on situations and cultures. By photographing anyone willing to be a part of the project, using the same set up for the portraits, and asking the same questions of all the subjects, I hoped a narrative about China and its people would naturally emerge.

The final project comprises 100 portraits and short interviews.  The text and pictures are meant to be viewed simultaneously.  More pictures can be seen at http://www.we-chinese.com/  The work has not previously been published, beyond on the website and blogs.  Word of mouth has been tremendous, but I’m still looking for exhibition and publication opportunities for the project.

M. Scott Brauer (b. 1982) is a photojournalist based in Boston, Massachusetts. His work can be seen at: http://www.mscottbrauer.com/.  Brauer graduated from the University of Washington in 2005 with dual degrees with honors in Philosophy and Russian Language, Literature, and Culture.  After college he interned at Black Star and VII and worked at the newspapers the Northwest Herald and the Flint Journal.  In 2007, Brauer moved to China where he photographed personal projects, editorial assignments, and corporate work.  Clients and publications include: The New York Times, Fader magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Time Asia, That’s Shanghai, Epsilon, Vision, Colorlines, World, Lufthansa, Bosch, the Amity Foundation, and the Pfrang Association.  His work has been awarded and exhibited internationally, including at Feztiv Art (Shanghai), the New York Photo Festival, the Format International Photo Festival, the Atlanta Photojournalism Contest, the Visual Culture Awards, and others.  Brauer is also a co-founder and editor of dvafoto.com, a blog about photojournalism and visual culture.

Translations for We Chinese by Heidi Wickersham, http://www.threeriverslanguage.com/

25 Comments | Leave a comment | Comment feed

  1. Matt says:

    I think Scott Brauer’s status as a foreign interviewer may have had a lot of influence on the answers of his respondents, especially “what does China mean to you?” I think it would be telling to have a Chinese person do the interviewing in addition to Scott. Would a Chinese person begin such statements of “women zhongguo ren” to another Chinese citizen?

  2. Curren$y says:

    The girl in the 3rd picture is no independent clothing seller. She’s a hooker.

  3. Crystal says:

    I am not surprised why the guy from the last-but-one picture didn’t say what his occupation is…

  4. jc.yin says:

    Why is the triad member posing on the great wall……

  5. Huzhang says:

    Greatest civilization in the world IMO, will endure while the rest of the world fights over stupid bullshit

    • bomber says:

      I just needed to say, I really had an urge to lay into you, but I’m turning over a new leaf.

  6. Meth says:

    name: Mao

    age: 18

    occupation: China’s leader, past present and future

    what does China mean to you: torture paradise

    what is your role in China’s future: China’s leader, past present and future

  7. Bill Rich says:

    The students here have, of course a bright future. What kind of future the rest of them have ? Looks like China will boom forever with this bunch in charge.

  8. Anon says:

    I absolutely despise the phrase “we Chinese.” It is almost always followed by some laughable generalization about good things that they all do/bad things that they never do. I don’t know that I’ve ever heard an intelligent opinion about anything introduced in this way.

    • Huzhang says:

      Agreed
      Whenever someone says “We ####” or “You ####” you know the guy’s an flippin’ moron

  9. Regina says:

    I love the guy in the second to last picture.

  10. Alec says:

    Nice idea but it doesn’t look like it’s getting interesting responses from anyone. Very patriotic, but I suppose that’s perhaps to be expected.

  11. Dennis says:

    “What contribution will you make to China’s future?” Answer: “None, a voiceless person without any hope of offering any contribution at all.”

  12. john digmeme says:

    Guy 7

    Age: thirty eigh, er… twenty eight!

    Occupation: Kingfen distribution, child/human trafficking, methamphetamine production, counterfeiting.

    What does China mean to you? Like big piggy bank, scrooge mcduck swimming pool

    What is your role in China’s future? Keep inflating price

  13. Dave says:

    Geez, some of these comments are too mean but some are so funny I couldn’t stop from laughing. 🙂

    我 喜欢 中 国 文! 🙂

  14. tom says:

    Oh,the irony. The expressions on their faces say it all.

    What does China mean to me? What does an open-air prison mean to anyone enslaved in it.

    Nice try, though. Attempting to portray China, and Chinese people, as normal with hopes, fears and ambitions like everyone, and everywhere, else. The hideous reality slightly gets in the way however.

    • santaklaws says:

      So true. They are worse than subhuman. They are like cockraoches that need to be stamped out because I truly believe they have no souls.

      Even with 1000 years of colonization from the West, they will still be turds.

      This is more Chinese propaganda to make it seem like they have some humanity – which they don’t.

      If only that Atom bomb in Japan had been bigger and blew up China as well!

      One can only dream….

      Of course, some of the few hot Chinese women will be allowed asylum into the West and sold like cattle 🙂

  15. dauphine says:

    zhang zhen hua has a lot of sexy swag to him lol, i like it

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