• The Oracle of the Uninhabited Land: Zhuang Xueben Foreword In the last two decades of the 21st century, photographer Zhuang...

    The Oracle of the Uninhabited Land: Zhuang Xueben



    In the last two decades of the 21st century, photographer Zhuang Xueben (1909-1984), who had been buried in oblivion for many years, gradually became a phenomenal figure in the Chinese photography and anthropology circles. Just like in Exile's Return, people were surprised to find that this "unfamous", humble and kind photographer, who had been dismissed from public office in middle age due to the so-called "historical issue", remained obscure all his life and had a lonely, dreary life in old age, actually was a daring pioneer at the most turbulent time in China. During the Anti-Japanese War, Zhuang once trekked alone in the southwestern mountains and the northwestern wastelands where traffic was blocked, the territory was divided by chieftains, and the bandits were rampant. Just like a saint inspired by an oracle, Zhuang was determined to use the power of images to save the culture of the nation and rediscover the northwest.
    The obsolete and solemn wasteland was empty and uninhabited, and the snow-capped peaks in the distance seemed to be isolated from the world. This young man who had grown up by the Huangpu River gazed in awe at the wild scenery, using his camera to capture the moment of light and shadow. Facing the unknown journey with very limited resources, he had never been frustrated by the reoccurring setbacks and scarcity but was completely drawn by the inspiration when the film was developed. In this lonely journey, Zhuang had been looking for the miracle of life, and eventually saw this miracle happen with his own eyes: the photos that captured the beauty and dignity of the wild were developed, telling a story of the frontier that had been eroded by time.
    In the past ten years, as the research on Zhuang Xueben's "Ten Years Westward Journey" went deeper, the academic circle gradually realized that Zhuang had conducted systematic investigation and research in many fields such as human geography in western China, frontier chieftains, religious system, folk culture, costume art and so on. The results of his research are comparable in academic value to the achievement of the ethnologists or anthropologists of the same era. Zhuang took precious photos of Minjiang Gorge, Songpan Grassland, the Tibetan ethnic regions in Gansu, Qianhai and Tibet, the Yi ethnic region in Xikang Province, Lugu Lakeside, Indian commercial port...some of the photos have even become the only ethnographic images because of their rarity.
    We are certainly impressed by Zhuang's academic achievement, and his well-deserved title, the "Pioneer of Documentary Photography". But when we go through the valuable pictures he left, we are more touched by his lonely journey, his perseverance and his determination. He once experienced the baptism of the uninhabited land in his prime and recorded the trajectory and dream of his young soul with cameras and film. And his dream, which continuously developed and grew through tenacious and unyielding creation, had finally been turned into a photographic epic of the ethnic groups within China's western borders in a bygone era.
    Zhuang’ s photos need to be gazed at. He endowed the people of the borderlands with the power of civilization and dignity with his lens. All the people he captured: the handsome Khampa boy, the innocent Gyalrong girl, the contemplative living Buddha in Golog, and the dignified Tibetan nobles, are forever young and immortal in his photos. They can transcend the boundaries of time and space, proudly meet our eyes and communicate with us through photos. Zhuang left the Chinese people today an invaluable heritage: the perseverance to pursue freedom, dream, and humanity. As a result, the world that had been silent for thousands of years begin to make a sound, and those people and things that were always obscure in the depths of time finally emerge in front of our eyes.




    Curator:Zhu Jingjiang



  • CURTAOR:Zhu Jingjiang Zhu Jingjiang, whose ancestral home was in Sichuan, was born in Beijing. He studied at the Law Department...
    Portrait of Zhu Jingjiang

    CURTAOR:Zhu Jingjiang


    Zhu Jingjiang, whose ancestral home was in Sichuan, was born in Beijing. He studied at the Law Department of Peking University, the Department of Directing at Beijing Film Academy, and the Department of Sociology of Peking University, and received a doctorate in cultural anthropology. He is currently the director of the Visual Anthropology Research Center at the Minzu University of China, a professor at the School of Ethnology and Sociology, and a doctoral supervisor in anthropology. He also serves as the vice president of the Visual Anthropology Branch of the Chinese Ethnological Association, and a director of ethnographic documentaries. In the early years, he participated in the founding of CCTV's columns including World Film Report and the annual World Film Review. He has produced hundreds of documentaries about film and culture. He is mainly engaged in teaching and research in visual anthropology and related fields. In the past two decades, he has published more than 50 academic papers and hundreds of articles. His published monographs include Chinese Independent Documentary Archives, Inspiration by the Field: The Diachronic Study and Theoretical Research of Anthropological Visual Ethnography, In the Wild and Watching: A Record of Thoughts on Visual Anthropology, The Memory and Journey of an Anthropologist, and Looking Back at Homeland: The History of Chinese Visual Ethnography. He has conducted several national-level teaching and scientific research projects such as "Visual History of Ethnography", "Anthropology in Films", etc. He has filmed ethnographic films including Chinese Folk Paper Cutting, Blended Colours: Murals and Thangkas in Lhasa TemplesSeven Saints Temple, Winter Pasture, etc. He is the co-founder of the Chinese Visual Ethnographic Photo Biennale, and the Beijing Ethnographic Film Festival, and the judge who reviews shortlisted entries of several documentary film festivals and photography exhibitions. In recent years, he has conducted in-depth research on Zhuang Xueben's work on visual anthropology and has published several papers.

  • ARTIST: Zhuang Xueben (1909-1984) Zhuang, born in Pudong, Shanghai, was a photographer, ethnologist, and a well-renowned Chinese frontier photographer of...
    Portrait of Zhuang Xueben

    ARTIST: Zhuang Xueben (1909-1984)


    Zhuang, born in Pudong, Shanghai, was a photographer, ethnologist, and a well-renowned Chinese frontier photographer of the 20th century. During the 1930s and 1940s, he traveled through China to photograph the minority people living in provinces like Sichuan, Xikang (later incorporated into Sichuan), Qinghai, and Gansu. His works had been published in popular periodicals and pictorials of the Republic of China era, including The Young Companion, The China Pictorial, The Eastern Miscellany, etc. In the 1940s, the academy accorded him for his contributions to ethnology. He was a member of the China Border Research Society and the Chinese Ethnological Association. He was appointed alternate director of the Chinese Ethnological Association in 1948. However, after 1950 he experienced ups and downs and gradually stopped photography creation and academic activities. Unfortunately, his accomplishments in photography were not well-known during the second half of the 20th century.


    In the early 21st century, the photography community in China recognized Zhuang's works. They started collecting, analyzing, displaying and studying the photographs of Western ethnic groups that Zhuang took in the 1930s and 1940s, scattered in many places afterward. Later, he was honored as a master photographer and a pioneer of visual anthropology. Zhuang was not accoladed with honors for his incredible photography works until his death. The recognization of Zhuang’s works also revealed the photography community in China gradually began to acknowledge the photographers who had ethnographic works. In the last decade, the academic community began to recognize the achievements of Zhuang in the field of ethnology. Also, they reassessed his published works and papers on ethnology. Zhuang could now expect a fair assessment of these works in regard to his contribution to ethnology, in spite of his somewhat short career in this area.


  • Zhuang Xueben, Jiarong Girl (Li County, Sichuan), Paper, 46.2x45.2, 1938. Courtesy of Guangdong Museum Of Art

  • Zhuang Xueben, Native social occasion , male and female flirtation without avoiding other people (Qinghai Turks), Paper, 46.2x45.2, 1936. Courtesy of Guangdong Museum Of Art

  • Zhuang Xueben, The majestic and exquisite Muli Buddha (Muli, Sichuan), Paper, 46.2×45.2, 1939. Courtesy of Guangdong Museum Of Art

  • Zhang Xueben, A line of Mosuo noblewomen on the journey (Yongning, Yunnan), Paper, 46.2x45.2, 1939. Courtesy of Guangdong Museum Of Art

  • Zhuang Xueben, Qiang people crossing the rope (Lixian, Sichuan), Paper, 46.2x45.2, 1934. Courtesy of Guangdong Museum Of Art