In his project Community Fire, the photographer Zhang Xiao takes a local, hometown look at Shehuo (社火), a Chinese Spring Festival tradition celebrated in rural northern Chinese communities, including temple fairs, dragon dances, and storytelling. Shehuo—literally, “community fire”—is devoted to the worship of land and fire, and boasts a history of many thousands of years. During the festival, people hold ceremonies, pray for the next year’s good harvest, and confer blessings of peace and safety for all family members.
However, what was once a heterogeneous cultural tradition with myriad regional variations has largely become a tourist-facing, consumption-oriented enterprise. In the early 2000s, Shehuo received an “intangible cultural heritage” designation from the People’s Republic of China, resulting in increased funding in exchange for greater government involvement. While transforming the practitioners’ relation to Shehuo, this change expresses itself most visually in the
way Qing dynasty–era costumes and props have been replaced with newer, cheaper products from online shopping websites. Zhang’s photographs capture how these mass-produced substitutions have transformed the practice of Shehuo. Through
a colorful and fantastical blend of portraiture and ephemera that documents the blurred edges between the everyday and the absurd, Community Fire is a dynamic visual exploration of one of China’s oldest traditions.
Zhang Xiao (born in Yantai city, Shandong province, China, 1981) graduated from the department of architecture and design at Yantai University in 2005. Zhang has participated in several solo and group exhibitions, including at the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing; Fotostiftung Schweiz, Winterthur, Switzerland; Lianzhou Photography Museum, Guangdong, China; Shanghai Center of Photography; and Musée du Quai Branly, Paris. Zhang currently lives and works in Chengdu city, Sichuan province, China. He is the winner of the Robert Gardner Fellowship in Photography from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography at Harvard University.
Ou Ning is a writer, curator, filmmaker, and activist based in Beijing.
Community Fire by Zhang Xiao
Copublished by Aperture and Peabody Museum Press
Photographs by Zhang Xiao
Texts by Ilisa Barbash and Zhang Xiao
Essay by Ou Ning
Bilingual in English and Chinese
7 1/8 x 9 1/4 in. (18 x 23.5 cm)
US $65.00 / CDN $88.00 / UK £50.00