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This project grew out of a curiosity to find out what Chinese people think about their country 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.
We Chinese grew out of a curiosity to find out what Chinese people think about their country 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. 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 vague assertions about the collective character of billions of individuals that make up the country.
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 emerge naturally.
M. Scott Brauer was born in 1982 in Landstuhl, Germany, to American parents. Currently based in the United States. Graduated with honors from the University of Washington with dual degrees in philosophy and Russian literature and language in 2005. Interned at Black Star and VII New York in 2005. Worked for daily newspapers in 2006 and 2007: the Northwest Herald in suburban Chicago, and the Flint Journal in Flint, Michigan. Moved to China in 2007. Represented by Invision Images, Aurora Select, and On Asia.
Clients include: The New York Times, Fader magazine, the Wall Street Journal, Time Asia, That’s Shanghai, Epsilon (Greece), Vision magazine (China), Lufthansa, Bosch, Amity Foundation, Pfrang Association, Colorlines, World Magazine, Map Magazine (China), AM New York, and XAOC magazine.
Awards include: Grand Prix – Feztiv Art Shanghai 2010, Awards of Excellence (2) – The 2010 Visual Culture Awards, Honorable Mention – Sports Action – Atlanta Photojournalism Contest 2009, The Visual Culture Awards: Portrait Award of Excellence, Founder’s Honours 2008.
Exhibitions include: Giving Trees (25CPW in New York, 2010), Scene on the Street (2010, Vermont), Jue Art and Music Festival (2010, Shanghai/Beijing), Feztiv Art at Art + Shanghai 2010, Visual Culture Awards exhibition 2010, Daniel Cooney Emerging Artists Auction 2010, Look3 Your Space 2009, The Gjon-Mili Award Exhibition (Prishtina, Kosovo) 2006, The Ian Parry Scholarship Award Exhibition (London, England) 2005.
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” or “我们中国人”). I didn’t care about what the Chinese people thought about horror movies or hamburgers, I wanted to know what the person I was talking to thought himself or herself about these things.
The nature of the project required both quick work and many hours spent walking on the street. The bulk of the people were found walking along streets in Nanjing, the recent-historic capital of the country, and Beijing, the current capital. I took public transportation or a bike to a location with a lot of foot traffic and started walking with questionnaire in hand and camera on my shoulder. I approached anyone I passed who wasn’t obviously busy or engaged in a conversation and asked if I could take their picture. Before taking the picture, I showed them the questionnaire and explained that I was working on a project about China and it’s people and whether they would be willing to give me their name and answer two questions. If they were indeed willing to be a part of the project, I took their picture (all at the same focal length and approximate distance) and waited while they filled out the questionnaire. For most people, the entire process took less than 10 minutes. Many, many people I approached politely declined to be part of the project.
I don’t want to make claims that the responses and portraits in this project offer a sweeping view of the Chinese population’s current outlook. The polling was hardly scientific; I found someone that looked interesting and asked if I could take their picture. For every person included in the project, between 5 and 15 people refused to answer my questions, give their name, or be photographed. Many just said “No,” others ignored my questions, and others would get halfway through the questionnaire and then decide not to continue.
The people of We Chinese are overwhelmingly young. Only a few of the people included are above age 60, and of those, only 1 is female. This is not for lack of trying. Elderly women were the most unlikely to agree to be photographed, young women (aged 20 or so) were the most likely to agree to be photographed.
Because I made the pictures during daylight hours in areas accessible by public transportation and used a written questionnaire to record my responses, the project is further limited in its scope. Those in the final project are people who are literate, weren’t working at the time of the photo, and have the means to be in the center of cities where the cost of living is very high. On more than one occasion, a person couldn’t participate because they could not read or write.
I’m also concerned about the nature of the responses. Speaking one’s mind about national issues isn’t always safe in China, especially when speaking with a foreigner. Very few of the responses are negative. It’s difficult to know whether that means that I managed to find an overwhelmingly optimistic cross-section of China, or that people don’t think about these questions, or that these questions were the wrong questions to ask, or, perhaps, the subjects guarded their answers. Nevertheless, I hope the project and the answers to these questions offer a small view into what the contemporary urban Chinese population thinks about their country and their future.
Additionally, the second question, “What is your role in China’s future?” was sometimes interpreted as, “What do you think about China’s future?” The original Chinese on the questionnaire was, “您对中国的未来有什么样的角色?” This came to light about halfway through the project, and I decided to go forward without changing the question.
Design, photos, and concept by M. Scott Brauer. Translations by Heidi Wickersham. The site is built using WordPress and the design started from the Whiteboard framework blank template. The font used is available at Font Squirrel.