Capturing a Vanishing China

I feel compelled to write about a one-star review that appeared recently of Tom Carter’s China: Portrait of a People.

In fact, as I write this post, Carter’s book has had 100 reviews. Eighty-eight earned five stars and eleven four-star reviews. There is only one one-star review.

My wife is Chinese and was born in Shanghai (discover the modern city) during Mao’s Great Leap Forward then was sent to a labor camp as a teen during The Cultural Revolution. When she first saw the photos in Tom Carter’s book, she said he is the first and only photojournalist to capture the heart and soul of China.

What she was talking about was the rural Chinese who have always been the invisible heart and soul of China. If it weren’t for those same rural Chinese, Mao and the Communist Party would have never won China’s Civil War.

What follows is the rambling, rant of a one star review written by someone calling him or herself Xuemin Lin.

Lin says, “Ignorance of all American who think that these photos show the reality China, you don’t know the truth. Tom Carter pictures can only show that poor farmers and rural areas. He ignoring the majority of China’s middle class and developed districts in urban life intentionally. We have a modern apartment and a beautiful new car and stylish clothes. Why Tom Carter just want to show the barefeet farmers and the minorities? His pictures make you believe we Chinese all are swarthy skin and the tooth is not good and make our homes in the mountains area. China’s economy has grown rapidly. The United States owes a debt to total billions of dollars to China. China will soon become a superpower in the world! Han people will lead Asia and then the world. So, do not believe that this book is shows the real China! Tom Carter in a planned way only want to show you the poor! I upload his video got from the Youku website so yourself can see his photos is not the good. Do not by this book I suggest!”

Lin claims that the majority of Chinese belong to the emerging middle class. Lin is wrong. China has a few decades to go until more than a billion people join the modern middle class lifestyle.

Even China’s leaders have admitted that China is not as developed as America or Europe and that China will never rival American super power status. The best China may attain is a regional military super power and a global economic super power.

To understand what I mean, you may want to read Amy Chua’s Day of Empire: How Hyperpowers Rise to Global Dominance–and Why They Fall.

It is a fact that China is modernizing at a pace never before seen in history and more than three hundred million Chinese now live in urban cities similar to Shanghai and Beijing and belongs to China’s middle class. However, that leaves about 1.2 billion people that have not yet joined that middle class and 800 million of those people still live as Carter shows us in his photos.

If China accomplishes its goal to modernize most of China and lift the majority of Chinese into the middle class, the world that Tom Carter captured with his photos will vanish. Our only reminder of that China will be his book.

What Lin’s one-star review really reveals is a shame among some Chinese that should not exist. China should be proud of its rural peasants because they have always been the backbone of China and those people deserve their moment in the sun or between the covers of China: Portrait of a People

When I visit China, I want to escape America for a few weeks but realize that I cannot escape the Golden Arches of McDonalds, or Starbucks, Pizza Hut and KFC, which is the worst thing China could adopt from America.  In addition, China has also inherited the obesity, diabetes, heart disease and cancer that come with this fast food, middle class, and motorcar culture invented in the West.

Some of America’s history captured in photos and song.

In addition, I’ve complained that China has no artist comparable to America’s Charles Russell or Bev Doolittle — great artists that captured the heart and soul of the America that existed before Europe and the industrial revolution arrived to fill the air with poison.

However, Tom Carter’s photos capture some of that world in China that will soon be lost. After China has paved over its past, without Tom Carter’s photos we would never know what that world was like.

Therefore, I ask the Xuemin Lins of China, “What is it you have against Tom Carter capturing what is fast disappearing as China becomes another middle class, smog choked clone of Los Angeles, London, Paris and New York?”

I prefer the China where people are practicing Tai Chi in the early morning fog.


Lloyd Lofthouse is the award-winning author of the concubine saga, My Splendid Concubine & Our Hart. When you love a Chinese woman, you marry her family and culture too.

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7 Responses to Capturing a Vanishing China

  1. Merlin says:

    Getting the stats to sex offenders in China might be an impossible task as any crime of that nature is usually never reported. I’ve met a few people that have had accidental pregnancies and ran to abortion hoping their parents never find out the father is a foreign bum that is not even close to being a responsible parent let alone a responsible person. Still, if at all possible, it would be interesting to compare the REAL stats (not some made up garbage like on tv).

    Yea, we lock our murderers up and use our tax money to take care of them. For example, the gangsters from the 90s were locked away and given about 10 year sentence. Well, it’s past that 10 year mark and sadly the gangs have returned to my hometown already tagging their turf. Drugs were rampant in my neighborhood before I came here. My uncle/aunt’s neighbors always smoked pot and went skinny dipping in the day. Of course they couldnt pay the bills, sold their old truck, and eventually the utilities were shut off and they moved. The guy across the road from grandma was a former drug dealer. We kinda thought he was selling to the people down the road. Well, as it turns out, one day the parole officer doing the monthly check and they found a VERY VERY small portion of powder on the floor of his car. So really I dont think that many actually change after time in lockup.

    We have the most crowded prison system in the world because we keep people in there a long time. Also, it’s pretty easy to convict somebody of a crime. What I mean is, in today’s society even if you type a bad email to somebody you could get in trouble. I’ve heard some fanatics say that US prison system is built so more people can go to jail and government can confiscate more wealth. It does sound fanatical to think the US government would purposely toss people into prison, but the US also has some strict laws on things other countries dont have. Example, not every country has underage drinking, drunk driving, or this new law of sexting in highschools.

    As for parole, yes that is true. One of the most influential criminals in history (still in prison today) has been given the chance at parole many times, but denied since he was still deemed “crazy”. I dont believe Manson ever physically killed anyone, but it was his bad behavior, lunacy, and bad influence on society that put him where he is now. Even today he stands correct on the fact that he never committed murder since as far as I know nobody has ever found evidence of him using a weapon. I believe if ever let free, he is too damn old to do much physical harm to anybody. I’d be more afraid of his followers than him since his words are his ultimate weapon of destruction and his followers are usually the young that dont know where they stand in life and just waiting for that spark to take action.

    • “Getting the stats to sex offenders in China might be an impossible task as any crime of that nature is usually never reported.”

      This may be because China’s culture is one that doesn’t like to air dirty laundry outside the family and many times members in the family won’t speak of it either no matter who is at fault. It’s cultural more than it is the Communist Party wanting to look good as many in the West want to believe. In China, to be attached to any crime even if you are the victim often taints both parties. While in America everyone seems to be a victim even the criminals.

      Robert Hart wrote something about this in his journals or in a letter (I don’t remember which). He wrote that the innocent in China often suffer and do not get any justice while the guilty in the West often go free and he wrote that in the 19th century.

  2. Merlin says:

    I believe the phrase “City Slicker” comes to mind when I read what Lin has written. Is there such a word in Chinese vocabulary? As for “middle class” what IS a middle class in China? From Lin’s description of “middle class” to me sounds more like upper class lifestyle (in China) and upper class mentality. Sure I was living a better life in US going out for pizza and movies every weekend, driving a pontiac sunfire (looks like a sports car for those dont know), lived at home in a multi-story home, had a huge lawn to cut and garden to tend, worked at a dead-end supermarket job, and enjoyed most of my free time (practically everyday) chilling with my friends either playing billiards or battling it out in Halo (Mario with weapons) on Xbox while downing 2 bottles of mountain dew and jamming to rock on the radio on the way home dodging deer along the way. To me, THAT was middle class lifestyle. If I was rich, I would’ve gone to a better university, come to China sooner, and would’ve been in a better situation than my current predicament (job, house, visa, optional gf and/or motorbike). I think it’s sad more Chinese are losing their hold on old traditions. That’s one of the reasons I came to China because it still holds onto some of its old culture. You can see old villages that have existed for decades. You can talk with people that have survived the horrors of WWII. Japan has done the same by downplaying the peasant lifestyle and living it up in the city. Now, Japan has a serious housing problem in the cities and they have to import most food products because they have a huge shortage of farm labor (I’ve only traveled through connecting flight in Tokyo, but I got my info watching US travel tv in Japan and how the farmer shortage is causing Japanese to eat more Mcdonalds because they cant grow their own healthy produce). In summary of it all, from what I hear about Lin’s description of a “middle class” I’m going to assume she’s a gold digger based on her want of casting aside old traditions in exchange for modern illnesses of cancer and diabetes. Welcome to the world of the real – Matrix (to cover my butt on this one I’m calling this a paraphrase instead of a quote since it’s been a few years since last I had my hands on a copy of Matrix trilogy so to any commentators make a note that my butt is now covered on this matrix phrase.)

    • “That’s one of the reasons I came to China because it still holds onto some of its old culture. You can see old villages that have existed for decades.”

      I agree. I’ve enjoyed my trips to China because it was a different world.

      Now, too much of the so called modern developed world and its people now look as if it and they were rolled out from the same assembly line–all plastic people eating mostly plastic food and playing with digital toys.

      Henry Kissinger in his book “On China” ( ) explains why this is happening early in the book when he writes, “American exceptionalism is missionary. It holds that the United States has an obligation to spread it values to every part of the world.” That also includes the American modern middle class lifestyle where the traditional nuclear family has evolved into strangers eating fast food, swilling liquid sugar, watching TV or surfing the Internet while having plenty of distractions via text messaging, Facebook, and video games while having hundreds if not thousands of friends that never meet face to face.

      When some of these people get bored with all the electronics, they go to sporting events such as the recent one in Toronto, swill beer, drop some acid or smoke a joint, then riot afterwards turning over cars, looting shops, beating up innocent people that were in the wrong place at the wrong time, etc.

      • Merlin says:

        Yes. I cant remember where I heard this term, but few years ago it was called “Americanization” in reference to the US spreading it’s new gen, cultural, modernized lifestyle across the globe. The difference is the Chinese only see money where in the US we see violence. The guys will bribe their way to the top of their job. The girls will just hook up with a guy 40 years older than them. In the US, our culture looks down on both of these actions. Bribery costs jail time, and couples with a HUGE age difference usually the man is thought to be a sex offender and the ID is registered in the police station where he cant live within xx meters of a school, park, or any other public place. I sometimes wonder if these older foreigners that are in China were previous sex offenders in the US that, due to restrictions on distance, were eventually kicked out of their homes and forced to uproot to a new country. Besides, working as an English teacher makes not only good money, but is quite easy sometimes. Add in there that you get to see a lot of kids…yea offers easy prey if you’re a sex offender. Businesses in China dont do much of a background check. Too much extra footwork for them and they’d have to go to the embassy to ask for criminal records. That’s why I am amazed at how easy it is for those with a BA degree to get a job while I’m still left working as a part time helper (aka paid in food or little money). Anyways my story is not part of this thread.

      • Your story might not be part of this thread but it was an interesting topic. What happens to sex offenders in China? Is there any way to get that information? It would make an interesting post to compare how China handles sex offenders compared to the US. In fact, China is learning as it goes. When Mao died, China didn’t have much if any of a Western style criminal justice system. What China has today is modeled after the German legal system and is still evolving as the Chinese identify crimes and attempt to deal with them the Western way instead of just beheading the criminal as they did in the past.

        In America, the system locks almost all criminals up with the goal of fixing them then letting them go free again, which has results in the most crowded prison system in the world and more lawyers per capita than any other country.

        I’m not sure if this is true, but I’ve read that a criminal convicted of murder in the US and sentenced to a life term in prison may end up paroled for good behavior in about seven years on average and recently at last two individuals that attempted to kill a US president but failed in the attempt (Reagan and Ford) were let out of prision.

  3. Xiaohu says:

    Ahhhh excellent post. I completely agree. This Lin gal is carrying a chip on her shoulder in making China out to be all Shanghai and Beijing. It is to ignore what China has been for the majority of her existence; a homely peasant society full of a hardy and resilient people (and I say this with all the affection I can muster). The comparison with the people who settled the American west is an apt one, it is just a shame that some people cannot find in it the same romanticism and admiration.

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