Photographing “China B”

Spanning into the mists of time, its history has predicated thousands of years of philosophies, dogmas, and customs. It’s population, a conceptually difficult to imagine 1,357,000,000, is ultra diverse in its cultures, languages, and cuisines. It’s also very large, the same size as the United States, as it borders 14 adjacent developing countries.

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Shanghai, or as Anthony Bourdain put it, as city that makes his New York City look like a third world country.

What many envision China today, perhaps through news programs, tourism, or the Beijing Olympics, may be a rapidly developing economy with shining beacon cities like Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Beijing. However, few casual tourists or tie-wearing business people will have the opportunity to venture into China’s countryside, to rural roads less traveled, and to what one scholar termed as “China B.”

Power lines stretch across resting winter farmlands.

In my recent travels to China during Lunar New Years, I had the opportunity to travel to an old town on the outskirts of Xi’an, in the Shanxi province, right in the middle of the country. Along the 1.5 hour car ride, I pointed my Sony A7 out the window and capture a side of the country rarely seen. Every image below was shot with a Sony A7 with a Zeiss 35mm f/2.8. The lens focused quickly and confidently, but it was the micro-contrast of the images that really inspired.

The Pollution

This was a chemical manufacturing plant. It makes chemicals for the textile industry that surround the area. It makes chemicals that process clothing you and I probably wear.

I live in Los Angeles. The smog here can get pretty bad especially on a windless day driving into Riverside or San Bernardino county. But the situation there is on a whole other level. It’s literally perpetual fog, like in the video game Silent Hill. Something to do with having particulates in the air allows water vapors to form.

Thick clouds of vapor billow out of the stacks.

It’s also different kind of smog too. Here in LA, smog is brown from the millions of tailpipes. Over there, it’s whitish-grey. The people there knows it’s a crisis. People try to protect themselves and they want change. But like London during the industrial revolution, rapid modernization comes with a hefty price to the environment.

You see paper respirator masks on townsfolk, the police, and children. The desire to protect themselves from pollution is very evident. But it seems there is little your regular person on the street can do.

My Sony A7 performed flawlessly, frame after frame. I rested the lens barrel on the side of the window, left it on aperture priority at first (f/5.6), and shot each photo over the tinted car window. Because the car was moving, I ended up switching to Manual Mode so I could also control the motion blur. I left the shutter speed at about 1/300 and kept shooting, letting the ISO spike up whenever the scene got a little dark. Because the camera is full-frame, I know that ISO would almost never be an issue during the day.

Two Countries in One

This may seem like a scene from a war movie, deserted streets and rubble. But I would say this is quite typical of rural areas. Houses are made from brick and concrete. Old buildings come down and new ones go up, and excess building material can be seen here and there. These rural homes are probably no more than 5-10 years old.

One of my favorite perspectives in understanding China is the China A/China B theory developed by scholar Nicolas Bequelin. While it is by no means a perfect theory, the gist of it is, there are two countries in one.

Despite the rudimentary infrastructure in rural China, advertisements and billboards are alive and well.

As he puts it: “There really seem to be two Chinas today … China A and China B. China A is all the major big cities where business [people] and foreign governments go: Beijing, Guangdong, Shanghai, Shenzhen. … [It’s] modern and confronting a lot of the problems that developed countries are facing: … problems of urbanization; too many cars; social problems; the rise of criminalization; the education, health system; the judicial system; lawyers and etc. These are some of the problems for developed, rich or getting-richer countries…”

Strawberries growing inside of green houses.

“Then you have China B, the undeveloped or developing China, the China which is the vast majority of the country, the majority of the population and the majority of the land mass. This China in development is still very poor, not getting very much better, because all the economic growth is concentrated in the cities, and they face developing countries’ problems: not enough water, land, economic resources, infrastructure; a very low education.”


But despite this disparity in development, it’s hard to see it in people’s faces. You see smiles, you hear laughter. I know my experience is not a representative sample, but my sense of China B is that it isn’t a place without hope. Actually, it’s exactly the opposite.

The Countryside and It’s People

A smiling man next to a sign that reads “fresh strawberries.” The farms in this area are mostly green-house organic forms, some even hydroponic.

Maybe it’s in my mind but people are friendlier and more welcoming in the countryside. Maybe it’s like the whole brash New Yorker or smug Angeleno versus the Midwestern charm or the Southern hospitality thing. Whatever it is, the countryside offers a whole different respite from the cyberpunk intensity of the cities.

Three young men, zooming down a country road on a trike.

An entrepreneurial spirit is live and well in the countryside too. You see people selling foods, drinks, and knick-knacks everywhere. I didn’t realize consumerism and consumption was so strong even on the out-skirts of farm country. One way of looking at it would be that China B has been the economic engine that drove China A for the last thirty years. Without its people and its labor, China A wouldn’t have happened so quickly.

I’m guessing they live in the houses in the back, but they bought a bunch of drinks wholesale, and they are reselling them to us tourist driving by their homes during the holidays.

I’m so glad I went with the Zeiss 35mm f/2.8 + Sony A7 combo. Before I left Los Angeles, I considered bringing my Zeiss 55mm f/1.8 for street shooting. But I’m glad I didn’t because I never needed the wide aperture. The 35mm f/2.8 was lighter, more nimble, and had enough coverage for me to crop after the fact.


A man cooking something delicious on the side of the street.

I’m not a street photographer by any means but a short car ride with my camera figuratively transported me to another time and place. It wasn’t the modern China that I was familiar with, but it was something I’m glad I got to see. It feels odd looking at these photographs now because I’m sure I will never meet any of these people ever again. But for 1/300 of a second, we shared a moment that’s will be forever preserved here.

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