This week’s Photogenie theme is titled "Code of Belief". Through visual stories, our curators concern themselves with topics such as religion and its influence on culture. Paganism, without its prior negative connotations, is a term used to describe religions other than one of the main world religions such as Christianism. As it was practiced widely by people living on the countryside, Paganism related to agrarian interests, for instance the cycle of seasons and fertility. According to the Historical Dictionary of New Religion Movements, “scholars often describe the present-day forms of Paganism as ‘neo-Paganism’ since it is not possible to establish a continuity between modern and ancient practices.” Furthermore, it is explained that “it is difficult to disentangle Paganism from witchcraft or wicca” – thus, Paganism can be seen as an “umbrella term” which covers wicca, Druidism, and ceremonial magic. Paganism is often characterized by three central principles: “love and kinship with nature, which includes the observance of the solstices and equinoxes associated with the agricultural year; the Pagan ethic ‘Do what thou wilt, but harm none’; and a polarity of deity, encompassing male and female (‘goddess’) attributes.”
Zhang Xiao’s photo series Shanxi was taken in the Shaanxi Province in northwestern China, along the westside of the Taihang Mountains. The main religions in Shaanxi are Chinese folk religions, Taoist traditions and Chinese Buddhism, and a great portion of the population is involved in the worship of nature deities. The series documents old customs and ritual practices that originate from Paganism. These ancient customs are still a big part of Shaanxi’s culture and can be found all throughout the province during the Lunar New Year. In the photographs one can see people with painted faces wearing colorful elaborate costumes representative of Gods walking or riding horses in processions around the province.
In the foreword of his photobook, Zhang Xiao claims that when he first witnessed the participants line up and parade around the village, he kept asking himself if he had entered into some kind of wonderland – he thought what he saw was “too bizarre and illusionary” to be set in the real world. He adds that these masked individuals who usually live monotonous rural lives, were suddenly transformed into something quite extraordinary – “appearing no longer as mere peasants, but as powerful Gods from ancient mythology.” While gazing at these events, Xiao hoped he would never wake up, as he felt he had entered this picturesque dream state where the atmosphere was filled with joy and happiness.
Merely examining these photographs, one can also feel as though entering a hypnagogic state. The surrounding haziness, the colorful garments and the communities who seem in blissful trance make it appear as though we are gazing at someone’s dreams or perhaps our own. With these photographs, one can witness how paganism and ancient rites are still a huge part of people’s lives in a country that one now growingly relates with hypermodernity, and a fast-paced lifestyle. Despite China being one of the largest economies, these ancient customs still remain and build the culture and shape the individuals who live it. It is therefore interesting to see that even if you’re not religious, religion will always be part of your culture and thus part of you.
About the artist:
Zhang Xiao was born in 1981 in Yantai city, Shandong province, China but currently lives and works in Chengdu city, Sichuan province, China.
Zhang Xiao graduated from the Department of Architecture and Design at Yantai University in 2005. He was a photojournalist for Chongqing Morning Post and then in 2009 became a photography artist. Zhang’s work has been exhibited all over China and also overseas. He has also been granted several awards, including the Three Shadows Photography Award in 2010 and The Photography Talent Award (France) in 2010. Zhang Xiao claims that he does not like to ask anyone to pose in his photographs and rather observe “their natural behavior and shoot the photographs.”
Check out photographers full body of work at http://www.zhangxiaophoto.com/
Chryssides, George D. 2012. Historical Dictionary of New Religious Movements. Vol. 2nd ed. Historical Dictionaries of Religions, Philosophies, and Movements. Lanham, Md: Scarecrow Press.
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Written by Rita Bolieiro