In 2018, the Chinese photographer Zhang Xiao received the Robert Gardner Fellowship in Photography, which supports an artist’s photographic project about the “human condition anywhere in the world.” Past winners have included Yto Barrada, Chloe Dewe Mathews, Alessandra Sanguinetti, Dayanita Singh, and Guy Tillim, some of whom have published a monograph or presented an exhibition at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University.

For his project Community Fire, Zhang takes a local, hometown look at Shehuo (社火), a Chinese Spring Festival tradition celebrated in rural Northern Chinese communities that includes temple fairs, dragon dances, and storytelling. Shehuo—literally, “community fire”—is devoted to the worship of land and fire, and boasts a history of many thousands of years. During the festival, people hold ceremonies, pray for the next year’s good harvest, and confer blessings of peace and safety on all family members. However, what was once a heterogeneous cultural tradition with myriad regional variations has largely become a tourist-facing, consumption-oriented enterprise. 

Zhang Xiao, A girl waits, in the early morning, to change into her costume, Huanghuayu Village, Shaanxi Province (Shaanxi series, No. 1), 2007
Zhang Xiao, Shehuo performers walk in procession, Huanghuayu Village, Shaanxi Province (Shaanxi series, No. 3), 2007

Zhang’s extraordinary exploration of Shehuo docu­ments the changes this ancient tradition has undergone over the course of a decade of modernization. Taken during a series of vis­its to the Shaanxi and Henan provinces from 2007 to 2019, his photographs ask us to consider how the medium of photography—in its ready availability for the straightforward documentation of singular moments—can evoke not only the vestiges of other times, but also the political and economic forces that bridge the past and the present. The painterly tones and muted focus in his early photographs of Shaanxi, beginning in 2007, offer insight into the sev­eral millennia of history upon which Shehuo rituals have been built. Participants costumed in traditional clothing passed down across centuries blend with the misty, mystical aura of the artist’s compositions, scenes that gesture to the piety and gravity of their ancestors through the makeup, facial expressions, and perfor­mance styles inherited from previous generations. Zhang’s method of “sleepwalking”—as he calls it—alongside the perform­ers suggests an empathetic connection with the practitioners of this tradition.

In contrast, Zhang’s photographs taken one decade later illustrate the popularization and commercialization of a new, tourist-facing Shehuo performance, one that nonetheless con­verses with the histories of performance and belief that endure in villages across Northern China. He composes sharply focused, portrait-like images of the new mass-produced costumes and props, highlighting their disconnect from historically accurate portrayals of the rituals they will be used for. With a touch of humor, Zhang reveals the almost absurd-looking elements of mass production: stacks of plaster faces piled high in a desolate room; masks in plastic shopping bags hanging off tree branches; a multitude of identical, ill-fitting costumes the per­formers’ ancestors could never have imagined.

Zhang Xiao: Community Fire

In his project Community Fire, the photographer Zhang Xiao takes a local, hometown look at Shehuo (社火), a Chinese Spring Festival tradition celebrated in rural Northern Chinese communities that includes temple fairs, dragon dances, and storytelling.

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In his most recent photographs, shot between 2018 and 2019, we discern traces of alienation and hints of ennui in some of the performers, as they casually rest, or take a smoke break. We see an array of whimsical festive lanterns once illuminated by candles and now with electricity. The newfound commerciality of Shehuo is brightly revealed through the flatness of a selection of online web advertisements, which present an overwhelming vari­ety of products, all available, anywhere, for any purpose, and out of their original context.

Zhang’s response to Robert Gardner’s call for fellows to “document the human condition” is a portrait of a rapidly changing rural Chinese society. His work explores the extent to which the ancient folk beliefs and self-organization of folk society will sustain itself amid the advancements of modernization, and how it will weather the government-mandated changes to tra­dition, as brought on by “intangible cultural heritage” designations and the effects of an industrialized and digitalized economy. It is human nature to change and adapt. Through his photography, Zhang shows how a tradition that was once heterogeneous in its practice and individually expressive can undergo homogenization and mechanization, illuminating the effects of modernity upon rural life. Further, it inspires us to contemplate the essence of perfor­mance and the visual expressions of communal belief, to ponder their origins and notice how they have been transformed, in so many places, at an accelerating speed.

Zhang Xiao, Ensemble of Blood Shehuo performers, Yanjiaan Village, Shaanxi Province, 2018
Zhang Xiao, Villagers wearing a lion dance costume for two performers, Huozhuang Village, Henan Province, 2018
Zhang Xiao, Unfinished dragon head props, Huozhuang Village, Henan Province, 2018
Zhang Xiao, Partly finished dragon heads, Huozhuang Village, Henan Province, 2019
Zhang Xiao, Shehuo performer riding a donkey, Xunxian County, Henan Province, 2019
Zhang Xiao, Two red lion performers in costume, Huozhuang Village, Henan Province, 2018
Zhang Xiao, Huo Guanghui in his office, Huozhuang Village, Henan Province, 2019
Zhang Xiao, A luminous dragon dance prop lies in the grass on the outskirts of the village, Huozhuang Village, Henan Province, 2018
All photographs courtesy the artist

This piece is adapted from Zhang Xiao: Community Fire (Aperture/Peabody Museum Press, 2023). Shehuo: Community Fire is on view at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, through April 14, 2024.

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