China in Pictures: Telling the Whole Story

Heung Shing Liu (L) with Orville Schell. (Elsa Ruiz/Asia Society)

NEW YORK, November 23, 2008 - In assembling China: Portrait of A Country, a photographic record of contemporary Chinese history, Pulitzer-Prize winning photojournalist Heung Shing Liu sought to capture both the intense human suffering and the triumphs that have created modern China. Speaking with Asia Society Center on US-China Relations Director Orville Schell after a film presentation of images from the book, Liu offered both a rationale for his choices and an intimate account of his own experiences living through a period of drastic change.

2009 marks the 60th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China—the culmination of a nation’s journey from widespread poverty and foreign subordination to a position of global economic and political power. With China: Portrait of a Country, Liu intended to confront China’s painful past, which is often superseded, he claimed, by glowing acknowledgements of the country’s recent economic success. Far from being simply a compilation of images chosen for aesthetic reasons, the book focuses instead on photographs that tell the full complex history of the People's Republic—incorporating propaganda, politically sensitive, and emotional images into one narrative.

In closing, Liu compared today's China to a mandarin duck that appears to be serenely floating on the surface of a pond—until closer inspection reveals that it's paddling furiously underwater. "I edited this volume with Chinese readers in mind," Liu said, reiterating the need for the Chinese people to confront their recent past.

Listen to the complete program (1 hr., 20 min.)