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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #30 (July 20, 2004), page 14.

A visual trek through 26 years of life in China

China Remembered

By Yasuto Kitahara

Harper Design International, 2004

Paperback, 185 pages, $24.95

By Dave Johnson

It is always a delight to foray into unknown and exotic worlds as an armchair traveler. It requires no passport or visa, only the time and quietude to curl up with a good book, magazine, or video. Here’s a visual jaunt that will take you down the alleys of crowded cities, up into the icy mountains, and across the arid highlands of mainland China via a collection of remarkable photographs taken by Yasuto Kitahara, a Japanese educator and photographer.

A geography teacher, Kitahara visited China for 26 years in search of teaching materials. During his journeys he took over 10,000 photos from all 28 provinces. As he wandered, snapping shots and rubbing elbows, he became intrigued with how folks lived in the world’s fourth-largest country. His self-assignment to take pictures for his students grew into an ambitious mission to visually document an ancient culture in a land that is experiencing dramatic change.

China Remembered is the result. It is perhaps the most comprehensive portrait of the nation in print today. It is also a beautifully designed paperbound coffee-table book I recommend to budding Sinophiles and to anyone who enjoys images of everyday life on the planet.

Between fold-out endpapers that are clever replicas of bamboo walls are photos that reflect the moods and loveliness of Chinese art, and sizable captions that introduce China’s history, geography, culture, and cuisine. A few pages of life-sized slides add an informal touch that gives the viewer a peek at Kitahara’s detailed process of documenting life in this fascinating country.

The book is well-organized into six main chapters: "People," "Architecture," "Culture," "Nature," "Society," and "Life."

As we meander through the streets, along the paths, and down the rivers, we encounter a mother from the Nashi Region in her traditional dress with her child on her back, three laborers catching a lucky ride on a truck bed in Chengdu, women selling wool yarn at a bazaar in Kashgar, and a group portrait of the villagers of Hetian.

The chapter on architecture is particularly informative. It includes formal shots of palaces and governmental buildings but also snow-clad canals, grimy alleyways, and the simple dwellings of the vast majority of Chinese citizens.

The "Culture" section takes the viewer from the famous terra cotta soldiers to heaps of spices and vegetables at open-air markets; "Nature" is a breathtaking panorama of glacial peaks, river valleys, and herds of shaggy yaks; "Society" records life under Mao, Taoist ceremonies, and bright-eyed school kids romping and showing off; and in "Life" the photos are a catch-all mixture of the other topics fused into a singular theme — living in the land of the sleeping dragon.

It is a rich assemblage of plump, round, creased, or haggard faces, houses with large-tiled roof-tops or small-tiled Islamic pillars, stone gates with moon circles, a Great Wall winding toward Xian, pandas nibbling greenery, and tranquil Buddhas gazing down from mountain niches. It is also a textural delight with pages of antique linens, flamboyant calligraphy from the Maoist era and impressionistic snow-clouds as backdrops and stylistic companions for the photographs. When you put the book back on the coffee table and get up from your armchair, you’ll feel like you’ve been on the adventure of a lifetime, or more accurately, billions of lifetimes.

Kitahara was born in Nagano, Japan, graduated from Tokyo Bunrika University in 1951 and taught in high schools until his recent retirement. Still fascinated with China, the indomitable educator and shutterbug continues to travel to the country. His most recent trip was made in February, 2002, when he brought his students to Beijing.

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