The inside of ‘Community Fire’ • Courtesy

She Huo means “community fire” (‮*❊$‬چ), and is linked to the indigenous beliefs and folkways of the Han people, marking the celebration of the Lunar New Year, also known as the Spring Festival, the high holy day of the Chinese calendar. It is a time of family reunions, festive meals, performances, and rituals to pray for good harvest and beneficent rain.

China-born photographer Zhang Xiao 张晓  began documenting the customs of She Huo in 2007, with his most recent photos dating from 2019.

My favorite images are the early ones dated to 2007, in which costumed performers in gaudy Peking opera finery parade through crepuscular barren villages like ghostly apparitions.

In the 12 years since he started documenting She Huo’s development, the festival has transitioned from a rural folk art to the crass commercialization of traditional craftsmanship of silk and bamboo, to garish colored lanterns featuring whimsical modern subjects like lanterns in the form of kids on motorbikes or incongruously atomic energy symbol shaped lanterns. Traditional art forms are constantly updated.

Sadly, the new replacements are giving way to disposable, mass produced decorations in color schemes our ancestors would deplore. Anyone who has been to the California Gold Rush temples in Marysville or Oroville to see the 19th century temple regalia in their storerooms and has marvelled at the intricate carvings and Qing dynasty workmanship, will realize the decline in todays craftsmanship.

Where communities once used antique costumes and props handed down for generations,  now new regalia is mass produced in mylar, plastic and tinsel with fluorescent color which  are purchased online on TaoBao, China’s e-commerce Amazon equivalent.

All of this  destroys traditional arts and crafts while creating new economic opportunities.

Zhang Xiao also laments the inevitable decline in traditional folk art giving way to the glaring shlock of the new. He has a keen eye for humor and absurdity. In one series, goth-like performers in dynastic costume and highly made up with cleavers and hatchets to the head and realistic gushing theatrical blood, smoke cigarettes in a field. Oversized mask heads with goofy smiles wrapped in plastic bags hang from trees like surreal fruit.

China is the manufacturing workshop of the world, almost everything in our times is made in China. Fast fashion, electronics, and Christmas decor have been commodified and Lunar New Year is no exception. The manufacture of She Huo products is a major industry, bringing new wealth to rural villages in China’s Shaanxi province.

This bilingual catalogue is cloth and paper bound, with red stitching reminscent of traditional Chinese books. The text is printed in red ink on golden yellow paper.

Zhang Xiao is a photographer of sensitivity and irony, documenting this new cultural devolution. He was born in China in 1981. He is the recipient of many international awards and included in solo and group exhibitions at the Ullens Centor for Contemporary Art, Beijing, Shanghai Center for Photography, and Musee du Quai Branly, Paris.

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