Li Tian-Bing photographed by Boat Zhang
Futian Village is located in the south of Fujian province. It is remote and inaccessible, and communication with the outside world is difficult – it had no electricity until two years ago. In 1946, an 11-year-old boy named Li Tian-Bing left the village without telling his mother. He took the family’s only cow to Zhangzhou city, over 100 kilometres away, and exchanged it for an old-fashioned British-made full-frame camera, rather than the 70 large sheep that it was worth. His actions earned him a fierce lashing from his mother’s tongue. But for the next 60 years, Li travelled across the southwest of Fujian province with his old camera, photographing the residents of more than 300 villages. He estimates that he must have walked over 220,000 kilometres on foot; he cannot remember how many pairs of sandals he went through. Li also created his own method of exposure, using natural light to develop and even enlarge photographs. This feat earned him a place in the Guinness Book of Records.
Today, we are searching for Li Tian-Bing. Our car speeds through Fujian province and passes a funeral procession, all dressed in mourning clothes. Once we enter Hua’an district, the air becomes wetter and the mountains in the distance are shrouded in mist. This small town has a population of only 160,000, and is divided down the centre by a large river. There is a railway that hugs the hillside, and the train can be heard occasionally as it whistles past. Provincial life in Fujian moves slowly. At noon, old women sell loquats at the road- side, and in the evening, families set out their folding tables to play mahjong.
The next morning, we follow Li Tian-Bing’s son, Jin-Cheng, into the mountains to look for his father. “If you had come here two years ago you wouldn’t have been guaranteed to find him,” he warns us. “He often carried his camera around the mountains, taking photos.” The winding mountain road continues to rise and a thick veil of fog settles around us. A night of heavy rain has caused some landslides and we drive carefully around the debris and fallen trees. More than two hours later, we finally arrive at Li’s home, a shabby-looking mud house with a traditional woven-leaf raincoat hanging on the door. Out front, a pig is gobbling up its dinner. There is a little pink telephone, a broken old TV and a wooden door with the words “happiness” and “hope” pasted on it. Nearby, Li is crouching in the corner, feeding a chicken.
Li’s photos are mostly formal portraits, from an era in which most people would only ever be photographed for a formal portrait, but he has also taken candid photos of thousands of babies and young people. His photographs have what Walter Benjamin called “aura”.
Do you still take pictures?
No, I don’t. I don’t have any film. Even if I did take photos, only old people would like them. Times have changed – young people like colour photographs now.
Why don’t you use a different camera?
I wouldn’t be able to get used to it.
How much did you charge for a photo?
The price varied over the years. At first, no one had ever seen a camera, and people were afraid that being photographed would take their soul away. So I didn’t charge. Some people thought that me taking their photo would make them one year younger, so I took 100 photos of a man to show them it wasn’t true. When the crowd saw that the man was fine, they all fought to have their picture taken. I began charging later, at first just one or two mao, then later one yuan. Now an inch-high photo costs about 15 yuan [about $2]. Before liberation, I used to exchange photos for food – rice or sweet potatoes. I would also exchange photos for labour: I take your photo, you plough my field, plant seeds for me. After Deng Xiaoping came to power [in 1978], it was easier to make money. At the time, the average wage in the region was 38.5 yuan a month, whereas I could make 100 to 200 yuan a day.
Where did you go to take photos?
Zhangping, Hua’an, Nanjing...
Did you walk to all those places?
Yes. Walking to Nanjing takes about a day.
Where did you get your photographic film and paper?
I bought them in Xiamen and Zhangzhou. It took me three or four days to walk there to buy them, and then I carried them to the villages. I would take photos in the morning and they would be ready by the evening.
The photos were ready in one day? That’s faster than in a shop.
That’s right. I carried all the chemicals and photo paper with me, so after I took the photos I began developing them straight away, and then the pictures were ready for people to take away.
Where did you learn how to do all this?
An English photographer came to our hometown in Fujian to help the KMT (Chinese Nationalist Party) take ID photos. I went to watch him work every day, so he asked me to help him carry his equipment, and I slowly learned how to take photos. I bought this camera from him.
Were you successful at first?
Not at first, no. The idiot at the Zhangzhou camera shop sold me expired film. He lied to me and told me I could still use it, but the photos that came out looked black and dirty. I told my relatives in Zhangzhou that he had sold me film that was several years out of date. I found four people to go and sort him out, so that he would not dare sell expired film again. After that, he was always very trustworthy and didn’t cheat me again.
Have you ever been part of exhibitions outside the village?
Yes, the organisers put me on a plane and gave me really nice accommodation, and even gave me a little money for expenses. The time I went to Shanghai, the nice room they booked for me must have cost at least 500 yuan a night, but when the organisers saw it they said it wasn’t good enough and wanted to put me in a place that cost 800 yuan a night. I said there was no need. I also had dinner with many people, including many foreigners. But I feel that the world outside the village is too busy – it’s better to stay at home. I have a great affection for this old house. I couldn’t leave it.
Are you still interested in travelling around and taking photos?
People are like that – they love the place where they are born, and aren’t accustomed to the ways of other places. I used to have to travel, taking photos to make money. But now that I’m old I don’t want to leave this place.
Right, Xing Fu (“Happiness”) Sign from Li’s house. Photography by Boat Zhang. Left, four sisters photographed by Li Tian-Bing, Ma Hang (1967)
Do you think that your photos are works of art?
[Laughs] All I do is take photos for people. If they want an inch-high photo, then that’s what I give them. If they want a group photo then I take a group photo. If they want a portrait then I take their portrait. I just take photos, that’s all.
Have you kept all the photos you’ve taken?
Mostly no. I gave them to the people who bought them! With the ones I still have negatives for, I could develop them again and keep a copy for myself. My son helped me stick all the photos I have onto a board and I asked him to keep it somewhere for me. I’ve also kept some myself, and I have some self-portraits I took when I was younger. I can show you.
Talking to Li, and looking at his photographs, is fascinating. The relationship between him and his camera is like the relationship between a peasant and his land, the carpenter and his tools, the writer and his pencil.
Local villagers composed a folk song in Li’s honour. “Today is the first day of the first month,” it goes. “The mountain village farmers are happy, adults and children are wearing new clothes, waiting for master Li Tian-Bing. A forest road deep in the mountains, peaks climbing right and left, sharp- eyed children cheering with joy, master Li Tian-Bing has arrived. A podium in the centre of the village, boys on the left, girls on the right, the elderly in the middle, a whole family sits together, and suddenly, ‘click’ – the smiles are captured by the lens. Master Tian-Bing is truly great, and in his dark little hut he develops the photos without a timer, and the smiling faces slowly appear. Master Tian-Bing is very great, wind and rain cannot stop him, he endured a thousand hardships to deliver our photos, the poor people all respect him. Master Tian-Bing is so courageous, daring to walk on his own in the middle of the night, daring to climb high mountains and enter dense forest, he isn’t even afraid when he comes upon a tiger.”
Now Li lives alone on the side of a mountain. After the media and art world “discovered” him, and brought all their noise and bluster into his life, and then faded away again, he will continue, rooted in his beloved Futian village. He has captured weddings, family portraits, graduations, funerals, births, old age, illness and even death. Never mind art; all of life is there, at his fingertips. §
Vetenary students photographed by Li-Tian Bing, Ma Hang commune (1978)