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China Story|Zhang Jie: The Bell and Drum Towers in Beijing

2018-04-03 16:41:06  source: PHOTOINTER [Original]  author: Zhang Jie  editor: 斫子 Su Yuezhuo

The Bell and Drum Towers in Beijing, which was once the time-announcement center of the capital of Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties, has been known for its history of over 700 years till now. Hutongs and courtyards surrounding the tower are significant parts of the styles and feature of the ancient Beijing. This region was also crowned as "the place worth visiting most before its disappearance" among the Asian Stars elected by Time magazine.


I bear a special feeling towards the Bell and Drum Towers area. From the end of 70s to the beginning of 80s last century, I accomplished my 5-year schooling there. I always recall those days which were never short of happiness and bitterness among neighbors, grey tiles and tree branches in hutongs.

I have lived in Beijing for more than 50 years. During these years, some scenes and things that I’m quite familiar with have been constantly changing. As a photographer, recording what's happening right there in front of me is not only my obligation, but also my responsibility.

Since March 2010, I started successively taking some pieces of recordings in the Bell and Drum Towers region, while from 31st December 2012, I began to record them with an increased quantity and scale. So far, my HD has stored 4T’s data files in the past 8 years, which include more than 2000 finished images that completed my series works of Bell and Drum Towers. This group pictures mainly focus on the demolition and relocation of the 66 courtyards in Zhonglouwan region. Besides, Nanlouguxiang, Beilouguxiang, Houhai Bar Street, Lingdang Hutong, Fangzhuanchang Hutong, Heizhima Hutong, Doufuchi Hutong, Zhaofu Street Hutong, Zhongtao Hutong, Yuge Hutong along with some other streets, lanes, courtyards around the Bell and Drum Towers are also involved in my works.

Shooting was quite difficult in the beginning. Residents here were no longer similar to each other as were in my high school days. There were local, outsiders who came to Beijing to make a living, and foreign friends who simply like hutong culture. And all of them bring in new cultural elements to the hutongs. Also there formed an atmosphere of mixed cultures; different knowledge of photography, as well as varied photographic acceptance. There was a moment when I feel the difficulty in hold the sense of propriety, especially when the residents are unwilling to bear with the professional photographic devices.

In order to minimize the misunderstanding and the disturbance to residents' daily life, I chose a small camera, and took the initiative to chat and smoke with them. Gradually, I became quite an acquaintance there, befriended many of them, and could even sit down to drink with them...

When it comes to the summer of 2014, I felt more urgency to hurry my recordings near the Bell and Drum Towers with the accelerated demolition and relocation in this region. So, I often carried a camera around and took photos of the scenes, which turned to be an important part of my life. I enjoyed the whole process and would visit there two or three times a day.

I am in favor of Donovan Wylie’s argument in photography, which is to become an independent observer even when you’re in a certain scenario. I like photographing, especially for those natural and undisturbed.

You might experience mixed feelings when tracing along the threads in your memory:Familiar things have all changed. Between different dialects, you could hear outsiders talking about housing prices, recent money-making and less old cordial greetings like "Have you eaten, sir/ma’am?" of Beijing locals. Drum Tower quietly witnessed the fade-out and rise-up of the noises and buildings here. The occasional pigeon whistle and the scooter bell-sound made me doubt that if it is still my home.

Up to now, the Project of the Recovery and Regulation of Bell and Drum Towers Square has come to an end. After the project, I renewed my expectations and doubts about the cultural ecology surrounding the Towers. Just as Mr. He Yong sung in "Bell and Drum Towers": "We’re seemingly painting its face when the Towers gather the dust..."

As a local who grew up in Beijing, also as a photographer living in Beijing, it is the least I can do as to record changes of our beloved Bell and Drum Towers and leave the old Beijing something to be remembered by us.

Recording the history with the lens is my best choice.

The photographing of more nostalgic and memorable places like Bell and Drum Towers is still ongoing.


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