An Instantaneous Torrent: Sha Fei and China at War
Artists: Sha Fei
Curator: Cai Tao
The Jimei x Arles International Photo Festival has organized this Tribute section in honor of the 110th anniversary of Sha Fei’s birth. His pictures allow us to re-examine this period of adversity in modern Chinese history and re-visit historical scenes that have faded from living memory.
After the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Sha Fei led his comrades in establishing the first photojournalism corps in the National Revolutionary Army’s Eighth Route Army. This corps left us vivid images of soldiers and civilians fighting and living in the Shanxi-Chahar-Hebei border areas, but its members also created Jinchaji Huabao (The Shanxi-Chahar-Hebei Pictorial), the first photography publication for the liberated areas. The professional team and experience they built in wartime would set the tone and lay the foundation for propaganda photography after the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949.
Viewers today might be very curious to know why a well-paid radio operator and a lover of art photography would suddenly abandon his bourgeois lifestyle and, in just a few short years, become a key figure in the history of modern photography and revolutionary art.
This unknown radio operator found himself right in the center of the Chinese modern art movement. Several of the artists from the Situ family in Kaiping, Guangdong, had had a sustained and intense influence on him; in particular, Situ Qiao and Situ Huimin made avant-garde experiments in foreign-style painting and film, respectively. In 1935, Sha Fei joined the Black and White Photography Society (Heibai Yingshe). His good friend Li Hua, who had just graduated from the Guangdong Provincial Wireless School, also organized the Modern Print Society, which had a broad international vision and were actively building a propaganda network that covered urban and rural areas; it represented the most avant-garde aspects of the modern art movement.
Associate Professor, Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, was formerly a curator at the Guangdong Museum of Art. His research interests include modern art and artistic flow between China and Japan, war and visual culture, the art history of New China. He has curated The South：Tan Huamu’s Pictorial Diary(2018), Floating Avant-Garde: The Chinese Independent Art Society (1935) and Modern Art in Guangzhou, Shanghai and Tokyo (2007), Guangzhou Photo Biennale(2005, 2007, 2009). He was a visiting scholar at Harvard-Yenching Institute in 2011 and the Invitation Fellowship Program（JSPS）in Kyoto National Museum in 2010.
Sha Fei (May 5, 1912 – March 4, 1950) was born Situ Chuan in Guangzhou, though his family was originally from Kaiping, Guangdong. In 1926, he joined the Northern Expedition, serving as a radio operator in the National Revolutionary Army. In 1932, he served as a radio operator at the broadcasting station in Shantou, Guangdong. In September 1936, he enrolled in the Shanghai Fine Arts Academy.
After the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War on July 7, 1937, he rushed to the front lines in northern China. In September 1937, he served as a national news service photojournalist in Taiyuan, Shanxi. In December 1937, he joined the Eighth Route Army in Fuping, Hebei, subsequently serving as the deputy director of Kangdibao (Resisting the Enemy News), the director of the Photography Office of the Department of Propaganda within the Political Department of the Shanxi-Chahar-Hebei Military Area, the director of Jinchaji Huabao (The Shanxi-Chahar-Hebei Pictorial), and the director of Huabei Huabao (North China Pictorial).
The North China Military District Military Court sentenced Sha Fei to be executed in Shijiazhuang on March 4, 1950, for shooting a Japanese doctor. In May 1986, the Beijing Military District Military Court re-examined the case and determined that Sha Fei was suffering from mental illness when he committed the crime and could not be held responsible for his actions, thereby overturning the previous court’s judgment.
Sha Fei, The Eighth Route Army Fighting on the Great Wall, 1937. Courtesy of Ms. Wang Yan, Thanks to the Art Museum of Beijing Fine Art Academy.
Sha Fei, Lu Xun and Young Woodcut Artists, 1936. Courtesy of Ms. Wang Yan, Thanks to the Art Museum of Beijing Fine Art Academy.
Sha Fei, Painting Political Slogans on the City Wall, 1945. Courtesy of Ms. Wang Yan, Thanks to the Art Museum of Beijing Fine Art Academy.
Sha Fei, Defending My Nation, Defending My Home, Courtesy of Ms. Wang Yan.Thanks to the Art Museum of Beijing Fine Art Academy.
Sha Fei, Golden Rice, Golden Childhood, 1939. Courtesy of Ms. Wang Yan, Thanks to the Art Museum of Beijing Fine Art Academy.
Sha Fei, General Nie Rongzhen with a Japanese Girl, 1940. Courtesy of Ms. Wang Yan, Thanks to the Art Museum of Beijing Fine Art Academy.