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China's Vanishing Worlds - Countryside, Traditions and Cultural Spaces (The MIT Press)

Just a few kilometers from the glittering skylines of Shanghai and Beijing, we encounter a vast countryside, an often forgotten and seemingly limitless landscape stretching far beyond the outskirts of the cities. Following traces of old trade routes, once-flourishing marketplaces, abandoned country estates, decrepit model villages, and the sites of mystic rituals, the authors of this book spent seven years exploring, photographing, and observing the vast interior of China, where the majority of Chinese people live in ways virtually unchanged for centuries.

China’s Vanishing Worlds is an impressive documentation in images and text of modernization’s effect on traditional ways of life, and a sympathetic portrait of lives burdened by hardship but blessed by simplicity and tranquility. The scars of China’s recent history and the decay of centuries-old traditions are made visible in this volume, but so is the lure and promise of technology and another life for young people. In the next twenty years, an estimated 280 million Chinese villagers will become city dwellers, leaving their ancestral homes in search of urban jobs and opportunities.

In striking and evocative color photographs, we see picturesque villages set against a background of rolling hills, planned centuries ago according to the principles of feng shui; a restaurant with bright pink resin chairs and a wide-screen television; traditional buildings preserved by the accident of poverty and isolation; ramshackle rooms decorated with portraits of Chairman Mao; backpack-wearing children walking to school; festivals with elaborately costumed performers; old men playing cards; buyers and sellers at open-air markets. China’s Vanishing Worlds offers readers a rare opportunity to glimpse China as it once was, and as it will soon no longer be.

“This is a beautiful and unusual book. I know of no parallel volume that both promises and sustains such a thorough exploration of China’s still attainable built past, and its all-too swiftly vanishing present. As the authors note, what they have been striving to trace in China is ‘a special type of luxury,’ one that confers ‘the privilege of seeing beauty that others cannot see or have not yet noticed.’ That is a lofty goal, but certainly the authors come very close to attaining it.”

Jonathan Spence, Author of The Search for Modern China, Sterling Professor of History Emeritus, Yale University

"A learned and loving photographic and verbal portrait of a disappearing China: the diverse people, landscapes, and buildings of the vast and seldom-visited hinterland of villages and small towns. Messmer and Chuang have traveled the length and breadth of the country to bring us vivid images of landscapes, buildings, and lifeways. At first glance, the China they picture for us seems untouched by modern development, but on closer inspection their portraits reveal telltale signs of a transition that is destroying the rich legacy of the past. Their work reminds us of the past, informs us of the present, and warns us of the future."

Andrew J. Nathan, Class of 1919 Professor of Political Science, Columbia University


"Messmer's camera is focused on villages and peasants that have been forgotten by the progress of urbanization. This is the other reality of China. The portraits of lonely and pensive old people and images of lonesome and bored children are the most impressive in this book. The scenes that were shot in middle to long distance especially stress the desolate feeling between people and the environment. It seems that everything pauses at a certain moment in the past. This book as a whole conveys a lonely and melancholic atmosphere."

Li Xianting, art critic and curator of contemporary Chinese art

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