THE urban transformation of China in the past few decades has been given rise to countless books, articles, and arresting testimonies. An Era Without Memories documents this in photographic form, showcasing the process and impact of China’s urbanisation. 130 disparate images from contemporary photographers across the nation have been pulled together by author and professor Jiang Jiehong, revealing both the wonders and horrors of this unprecedented development.

Wang Qingsong competitionWang Qingsong Competition

Titled Ephemeral Cities, The Otherness of the Real, An Alienated Home, and Memories Invented, the book’s four chapters create a strong narrative arc that Jiang works from. His detailed (but never excessive) text throughout the book gives all of the works a valuable context and background, allowing the reader to delve deeper into the themes and questions raised in each image.


CHEN Shaoxiong, Street, no. 4, 1998Chen Shaoxiong, Street, no. 4, 1998

The photographs in Ephemeral Cities are mostly what one would expect when leafing through a book of contemporary Chinese urban photography. Vast cement landscapes, construction equipment, and swaths of demolished buildings echo the ghost cities and old buildings so quickly built and destroyed across China. Notable are Shao Yinong’s photographs of abandoned landmarks from the Cultural Revolution and Rong Rong’s images of glamorous Western pin-up girl posters strewn across concrete rubble. Not only do they point to the shift in China’s politics over the years, they also give a haunting sense of the human presence that used to fill those spaces.


Chen Qiulin I am an angel no 2Chen Qiulin I am an angel no 2

In the next section, The Otherness of the Real, Jiang explores the strange simulacral quality of Chinese cities. Bright flashing lights and futuristic architecture embody the ideal of the modern city, shown in Miao Xiaochun’s sleek, highly saturated images. Wang Qingsong’s carefully staged photographs exaggerate various aspects of city life, for instance seen in the deluge of advertisements and bills in Competition (2004).

JIANG Zhi, Rainbow, no. 1, 2005Jiang Zhi, Rainbow, No. 1, 2005,

Despite the jubilance of modernity and progress in many of the pictures, photographers such as Hu Jieming are mindful of the homogenisation this brings about. Illustrated poignantly through his series Somewhere, Hu manipulates images of Chinese cities to house world famous landmarks such as the Great Pyramids, or blending the towering skyscrapers of Chicago and Shanghai.

Chi Peng Sprinting Forward No2 2004Chi Peng, Sprinting Forward No2 2004

Hu’s work allows for a seamless transition into chapter three, An Alienated Home. Houses slated for demolition, traditional architecture juxtaposed against shiny new structures, and the homogeneity of new apartment blocks reveal a sense of estrangement from the once familiar and a nostalgia for the past. Much like the first section, the images are not particularly fresh or eye-opening in the decade-long discourse on China’s urbanisation, but are still a necessary inclusion.

Perhaps the most outstanding are Yao Lu’s set of photographs. At first glance, they appear to be traditional Chinese landscape fan paintings, delicately rendered with a fine brush. Yet, upon closer inspection, one realises that the soil is composed of concrete and foliage has been replaced with green construction netting. They are a fresh take on the usual interplay of old and new, traditional and modern.

Shao Yinong and Mu Chen Assembly Hall Shenbian 2004Shao Yinong and Mu Chen, Assembly Hall Shenbian 200

A series of more fantastical images follow, embodying the idea of Memories Invented. As artists reimagine what was lost through environmental transformation, they also play with the multitude of possibilities present in the idea of urban China. The photographs in this section are the book’s most staged, and reflect the artists’ constructions and interpretations of their changing landscape. Chen Man’s comic book pop culture stereotype of a young Chinese girl is poised and ready, about to dive into the Three Gorges Dam.

The image is rendered in the social realist style of propaganda posters, synthesising China’s recent history, current state, and the image it projects into a one complete work. In Chen Qiulin’s I am an Angel, a dancer from past propaganda performances revisits emblems of the revolution, such as the public stage and old communal homes. Yet, she simply finds them empty and abandoned, and stands wistfully among the rubble.

ZHUANG Hui and DAN'er, Yumen, abandoned factory, 2006-09Zhuang Hui and Dan’er, Yumen, abandoned factory

While many images brim with hope and enthusiasm, a tinge of nostalgia and doubt continuously runs throughout the book. This is already made plain from the very beginning, in the book’s title. An Era Without Memories reminds the viewer of the uncertainties, hopes, and fears of this generation. China’s unprecedented development is precisely that: unprecedented. They see their world change right before their eyes in an unparalleled speed, with no historical model to follow. Thus, they can only reflect on what has already happened, try to grasp the speed at which things are changing, and imagine what the future can be.

by Louise Lui

An Era Without Memories Chinese Contemporary Photography on Urban Transformation by Jiang Jiehong is published by Thames & Hudson 2015 (£29.95)