The New China by Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1959

While Joachim Heldt and Rolf Gilhausen were documenting China in late 1958 for Stern, another great photographer was also in China. In 1958, LIFE asked Henri Cartier-Bresson to return to China, a country he last covered in at the outbreak of the Communist takeover in 1949.

Cartier-Bresson was largely sympathetic to the Communist cause and as such was invited to photograph the country by the Communist regime. He was mostly embedded with them on a guided tour and while his photographs do not present a critique of the Chinese Communist Party, he nonetheless witnessed the backyard furnaces and communal construction projects of the Great Leap Forward. Uniquely for him, he also took photos in color (he never warmed to colour journalism and later destroyed virtually all of his colour transparencies).

Cartier-Bresson travelled 7,000 miles in four months. He recalled the journey and hiccups with his itinerary and minders:

My visa, granted by the Chinese Embassy in London, was written in Chinese characters. Having assumed that the date inscribed corresponded to the date of entry, I had not bothered to have it translated. Had I done so, I would have discovered that it was the date of expiration. Therefore, when I landed in Peking, no one was at the airport to meet me. The Deputy for Cultural Relations had assumed I had changed my mind. In the new China as in the old, the ceremonial welcome is obligatory. First the bouquet, then the speech, both enveloped in many smiles.

The fact that I arrived unexpectedly and had to telephone the Ministry of Culture was embarrassing to both parties, hence a breach of Oriental etiquette. A delegation was rushed to the airport, the welcoming ritual was performed and the situation was saved. Nevertheless, I took care to start my first conference with the Third Deputy Chief of Culture with an apology concerning my ignominious arrival, before touching on the subject of my visit.

Knowing the Chinese love of rationality, their appreciation of forethought, I chose my words with precision as I explained my aims: to compare this new China to that of my first trip, then to understand the “why” behind the system and methods of the People’s Republic, finally to express the “because” in visual terms. In contrast to the story of a crisis photographed in 1949, this would be an essay on China today. My work depended on contact with people and while I would listen to the official viewpoint, I would need the surprise of reality, a reality flavored neither with vinegar nor honey but one which would recount the past, the present, the failures, and the achieve-ments. I enumerated the problems which interested me and together we charted my course on the map of China.Since the richness of reality in photography is in the element of surprise, I requested time to sniff out the atmos-phere, to try to understand the nation and her peoples. But it was understood that once my itinerary was set, I could not change my mind.

From Peking, I would go to Manchuria, now called the Northeast Provinces. This industrial region, having been stripped by the Russians in 1945, was being rehabilitated by the People’s Republic with the help of the Communist Bloc. Then, down to the Sanmanchia Dam, one of several monumental projects, just off the drawing boards, destined to control the forces of the mighty Hwang-Ho (or Yellow River). From there, westward to Lanchow, gateway to the West, China’s promised land. Yumen, an oil city in the Gobi Desert with something of the frenetic atmosphere of a gold-rush town, would be the first stop in the West.

From Yumen to Urumchi, capital of the Sinkiang Province, would be my only trip by air because the railway lines were still under construction across that part of the Gobi. Turning east, I would visit historic Sian, then the new industrial center of Chungking where I would see the results of Communist efforts to decentralize industry from its traditional sites in Manchuria and the coastal regions. A three-day boat trip would take me through the gorges of the Yangtze River to the steel center of Wuhan, then to Nanchang, and finally to Hunan Province, Mao Tse-tung’s birthplace. Shanghai and finally Peking again would complete the trip. Although I did not know it as I planned the itinerary, I would also see the first of the communes, which almost overnight were imposed on the peasantry, the most drastic agrarian revolution in the world.

“Were you able to work freely?” has been a frequent question since my return. I was given full cooperation and courtesy in the factories. But, on the streets, having a white complexion and blue eyes as well as being a photographer is almost like walking naked. Most people would ignore me, but there were times when I felt sure that the subject in my lens thought he had been chosen as an insult to the Chinese people. For instance, I learned that angry letters had been sent to Peking to denounce the foreigner who photographed laborers carrying crates suspended from poles slung across their shoulders to barges on the Yangtze River, where the steep banks demand either massive cranes or human legs. The inferiority complex of the Chinese would not admit that their industry -still in swadding clothes —had not produced sufficent cranes to replace human beings. One of my most difficult problems was the fact that the Chinese consider candid or street photography to be an invasion of privacy. They do not like to be caught unawares. Forewarned, no one would object, but this would have hurt my sense of realism.

It was the job of my interpreter, Yu, to smooth my way. He would often draw me aside and scold: “You are becoming all red and it is very obvious. Do not be so agitated. I have told everyone that you are very polite. Be as we are. Use soft words.”

Yu had been assigned to me by the Cultural Relations Ministry and obviously was responsible for my behavior if not for my understanding. He said he was generally assigned to trade union delegations and was a “greenhorn” in matters of esthetics. He was right. I enjoyed many a tussle with him over the relative merits of those square cement constructions built since the “Liberation” and the graceful pagodas of the past.

Cartier-Bresson’s photos were featured in many magazines around the world. Both LIFE and Paris-Match (January 5, 1959) devoted nine spreads to the story in a mix of colour and black-and-white. Queen magazine (a precursor of Harper’s Bazaar) gave it the cover and five black-and-white spreads in its January 6th issue. Epoca gave it three spreads and a cover corner in its January 4th issue.

In LIFE, Cartier-Bresson’s images subtlely contradicted the text that was put next to them by the conservative magazine: where the article saw a nation of faceless industrial workers, the photographs showed individuals; where the article found a harsh, manipulative social order, Cartier-Bresson’s images showed satisfied people in orderly spaces.

The lede photo above was the only image that appeared in all four publications. LIFE had it somewhat buried, but both Queen and Epoca had it on their opening spread. Paris-Match had it on its fifth spread: while Cartier-Bresson was in China, the very first order organizing the villages into communes was announced as part of the Great Leap Forward and Paris-Match’s tagline on the page reflected that.

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