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Essays

A Haunting Photograph Revisited

In late spring 1999 I spent nearly four weeks traveling from Nanjing, where I was living at the time, overland through Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Fujian, Guangdong and Hainan. Fodor’s had hired me to update some chapters in their China travel guide, and after a year of fieldwork the opportunity to do some solo travel–and get paid for it–was a welcome opportunity.

While most of my memories of that trip have faded, a select few are still very clear. I can’t remember how many cities I visited, where I ate, or when I returned to Nanjing.  Even now, however, I still clearly remember enjoying the tastiest jiachang dofu at a restaurant in Xiamen, a magnificent sunset on the boat ride from Guangzhou to Haikou, and great fun tooling around Meizhou on the back of a motorcycle. I even remember the heavily accented Mandarin spoken by the friendly motorcycle driver.

Contrary to marketing campaigns for tourist destinations that promise “memorable” or “unforgettable” experiences, humans are really good at forgetting. We have remarkably little control over what aspects of everyday life our brains will latch onto—which tidbits it will fish out to become future memories. In fact, we forget most of the details of our lives. I didn’t realize at the time which moments of my trip would be memorable and which things would fade away.

One image from my southern trip has, however, stayed with me. It is a black and white photograph of a young woman I saw in the Jiangxi Revolutionary Martyrs’ Memorial Hall (江西革命烈士纪念堂) in Nanchang, Jiangxi. The woman, in her mid-twenties stands in what looks like a small garden behind some western-style buildings. Her short-cropped hair and mandarin-style clothing place her in the Republican era of the 1920s or 1930s. In the photo she is posed next to a Western-style marble statue of a woman who appears to be dancing. Her right arm linked with the statue’s and other propped on her hip, the woman in the photograph projects confidence and idealism.

The day I visited the Martyrs’ Memorial was overcast and grey. I had been feeling sick, was staying in a dingy hotel, and probably wouldn’t have even bothered to visit the museum had it not been for the fact that it was in the Fodor’s guide and I needed to check it out. Back in 1999 the museum was curated in basically the same way I imagined it had been at its opening. A bleak stone interior with photos and busts of revolutionary martyrs lined the walls. Brief texts provided details of the circumstances under which each met his or her end.

Perhaps it was a combination of the weather, my mood, and the environment of the museum, but when I came upon the young woman’s photo I was very moved by it. Over the years I have forgotten the details. I only remember looking at the photo and trying to imagine what her life had been like at the moment the photo was taken. What was she thinking, where was she, and what dreams did she intend to project in posing with the statue? I was moved most of all because she died shortly after the photo was taken. Of course, the martyr museum was designed and organized to produce this affect. At the time I thought of taking a photo of her photo.  I neither remember why I wanted to, nor why I ultimately didn’t take a photo. Of course that was back in the days when film came in rolls so maybe I was trying to save my shots.

I thought about the young woman’s photo as I walked through Nanchang back to my hotel later that afternoon. She seemed so confident and idealistic and had died, I presumed, with that idealism intact. The thing I thought about most was the question of being a martyr. Well, perhaps that isn’t quite accurate. I was impressed by the fact that she presumably had such a commitment to her goals that she died for them. It was a context very alien to my daily life. In her final moments did the woman in the photo reconsider?

That was eleven years ago.

Over the years, I have thought about that woman standing next to the statue. I’d be lying if I pretended to remember exactly when. I don’t. I do know, however, that the photo came to represent a definition of idealism. To me it displays youthful optimism for a better future and individual confidence in being able to change the world. Because I know she was killed shortly afterwards, however, the image also evokes an ambivalence about the value of individual sacrifice for collective goals, and the power of the state to ruthlessly silence opposition.

The woman in the photo was May 4th and June 4th. She presented me with a conundrum, because her personal sacrifice seemed so pointless from the standpoint of contemporary China. Few people visit the memorial hall and even fewer remember. Perhaps that was another reason my encounter with the photo was so powerful. There is nothing so moving as visiting a hall of forgotten martyrs.

Each time I remembered the image, I wished I had reproduced it. I wanted to remember the photograph’s details and recapture the moment when I first encountered it. I imagined that I could refer to the image in my class lectures an example of the May 4th. I knew, however, that it was unlikely I would ever travel back to Nanchang. I once even checked to see if the museum had a website with it’s photos online.

A week and a half ago I went back to Nanchang to make the trip to Gao Village. A few days earlier I realized where I was heading, and that I would unexpectedly have a chance to revisit the photograph.

On my first day in Nanchang, I asked my host, professor Zhang, if the Martyrs’ Memorial Hall was still open. I was surprised when he dismissed my interest for a “place that nobody goes anymore.” On a day tour around town with Zhang and some of his students, he showed me Nanchang’s new bridges, grand avenues, and bustling shopping districts. Nanchang has grown a lot in the past decade and is quite an impressive city. A stop at the Memorial Hall was not, however, on the itinerary and when I inquired about it he assured me that it was closed. I expressed my disappointment and shared with everyone in the car the story of my earlier visit.

The next morning professor Zhang’s students met me for a day walking around town. One of them told me she had good news. After hearing my story in the van, that night she inquired about the museum’s hours and learned that it was still open and we could visit that day. Jumping in a taxi we drove straight to the memorial.

I was surprised to find that the Memorial Hall had been recently renovated, with vibrant colors, refreshed photos, and state-of-the-art lighting. It was still as sparsely visited as I remembered, but the students explained that school groups still regularly visit as part of their patriotic education. Immediately we fanned out in the museum to locate the photo. Barely two rooms in, I recognized the image of the woman standing next to the statue. The students were satisfied that we found it so quickly, and together we read the museum’s text about the woman and her husband who was killed a year before her. I didn’t remember any of the details from my first visit.

Her name was Wang Jingyan (王经燕). She was born in Yongxiu, Jiangxi.  In 1919 she married Zhang Chaoxie (张朝燮), cut her hair and unbound her feet. In 1923 she tested into the teaching department of Jiangxi’s first provincial middle and high school for women. It was there that she first began to participate in various political organizations for young women. By 1925 she already had three children when she traveled to Moscow to study at Zhongshan University. Two years later, before returning home, she learned that her husband had been killed. In November of 1927 she returned to Jiangxi and in order to avoid capture during the white terror she assumed an alias and hid undercover as a homeschool teacher. In June, when the provincial party organization was attacked she was apprehended, put in prison and interrogated.  She died in prison at 26 years old.

The photo’s caption explains that the photo was taken in 1925 when she went to study at Moscow Zhongshan University.

After an eleven-year wait, I think I’ll be using Wang Jingyan’s photo in my next Chinese history class.

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