The Poor in Spirit
by Yang Yakang (Unicorn Publishing, £30.00)
This is an impressive album of reportage on the Catholics of the Patriotic Catholic Church in China, running to 168 pages with 70 images.
The artist’s work bears comparison with the great masters of this genre, Walker Evans, Cartier-Bresson, Werner Bischof, George Rodger, and Marc Riboud. The images were made between 1992 and 2001 in a remote area of Shaanzi.
The images are often haunting, expressing certainly a life of poverty, but a life that is very far from lacking in spirit. The Gospel passage alluded to says the humble are the heirs of heaven. The images here are also heirs to a great tradition.
Admirable as the images are some comment has to be made on the accompanying essays. In this the artist is said to be a “baptised Catholic”, interested also in the religious life of Tibet. But being a cradle Catholic is far from being one now.
Both the Church and Tibet are, for the Chinese government, sensitive issues. One of the writers admits that the history of the Catholic faith has been “up and down “ since 1948. Despite reservations on the presentation of the artist, the images themselves are of exceptional quality.
A critic observed of his Tibetan images that the artist does not concern himself with the transcendental aspect of religion. He simply observes real life, “showing simple truths through photography”.
But is this possible for an artist? The images recall religious life in Catholic Europe, but in the 1940s. This is inevitable, as the revolution has served in a way to cut them off. But yet here we can see that some of their practises that emerged from Vatican II were adopted by these Catholics.
The author of the captions (who I take is not the artist) does not always seem clear in his own mind what the images are showing. But these can be read by the readers in the light of his own insights into art and religion.
So pay no attention to the essays or the captions, which are brief. But read the images themselves. They truly reflect the soul of Catholic China. Images say more than words, as is only to be expected for an artist of this standing.
Most of the Bibles printed in the world today are printed in China. Yet the government has been dismayed by the growth of evangelical Protestant groups in recent years. The expansion of Christianity in the country has mainly been seen in Protestant evangelical churches.
In a population rising to almost 1.5 billion, Catholicism is a minor religion, with an estimated 10-12 million adherents. This book reveals some of those people, albeit under state control – accepted by the recent accords between China and the Vatican.
President Xi Jinping has introduced a programme to “Sinicise” all faiths, insisting that religion must be “Chinese in orientation”. It is the duty of the government authorities to “provide active guidance to religions so that they can adapt themselves to socialist society”, he insists.
There are no government officials in these images (that I can see), but the calm devout people shown are facing a future as complicated as their past was.