Putting Chi­nese diplo­macy into frame

A look into the past of an ac­ci­den­tal po­lit­i­cal pho­tog­ra­pher who man­aged to get up close and per­sonal with some of the world’s most high pro­file lead­ers

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI - In Shang­hai


Xu Gen­shun may al­ready be 67 this year, but the mem­o­ries of his pro­fes­sion as a po­lit­i­cal pho­tog­ra­pher are still as in­tact as the poignant im­ages he once shot.

For ex­am­ple, he still fondly re­mem­bers the mo­ments when for­mer Russian leader Boris Yeltsin sud­denly stepped out of his car to shake hands with Shang­hai res­i­dents and the child­like smile of the for­mer prime min­is­ter of Canada Jean Chre­tien as he rode a Phoenix bi­cy­cle through a busy street in the city.

“My pho­tog­ra­phy ap­proach was to tell the hid­den sto­ries in his­tory us­ing close-ups of fa­cial ex­pres­sions, at­tire de­tails and body lan­guage,” said Xu, who has through­out his il­lus­tri­ous 28-year-ca­reer pho­tographed more than 800 vis­it­ing world lead­ers and other im­por­tant guests.

“Those photos cap­tured the dra­matic changes tak­ing place in Shang­hai back dur­ing those times and were a way of record­ing how China’s diplo­matic re­la­tion­ships with other coun­tries de­vel­oped through years.”

Born in 1949 when the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic of China was founded, Xu went through the “cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion” (1966-76) af­ter grad­u­at­ing from sec­ondary school and was as­signed to the Shang­hai Ma­chin­ery Fac­tory of Mining and Me­tal­lurgy.

He later stud­ied jour­nal­ism in Jiangxi Univer­sity be­fore be­com­ing a pro­fes­sor at the Shang­hai Univer­sity of En­gi­neer­ing Sci­ence. His ac­ci­den­tal foray into po­lit­i­cal pho­tog­ra­phy only be­gan when he started work at Jin Jiang Tower, the first five-star ho­tel in China run by Chi­nese. Jin Jiang Tower was at that time the ho­tel of choice of many world lead­ers dur­ing their vis­its to Shang­hai.

“The monthly salary of a pro­fes­sor was only 156 yuan ($23), which was not enough for me to sup­port my fam­ily. I was in­tro­duced to Jin Jiang Tower by chance and took up the role of an ad­min­is­tra­tion ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer who was in charge of re­cep­tion ser­vices for for­eign lead­ers,” said Xu of his de­ci­sion to switch jobs.

Xu soon found him­self at­tend­ing a host of for­eign af­fairs events and hav­ing to take photos of dig­ni­taries to com­mem­o­rate the oc­ca­sion. Be­cause of his role in the ho­tel, Xu said that he man­aged to cap­ture im­ages that were dif­fer­ent from what was nor­mally seen in the me­dia.

“Be­ing given such op­por­tu­ni­ties al­lowed me to record can­did mo­ments of many pres­i­dents and pre­miers. The im­ages I man­aged to cap­ture were quite dif­fer­ent from the stereo­typ­i­cal se­ri­ous and set-up shots printed in news­pa­pers or seen on tele­vi­sion,” said Xu.

Ex­cited by the fact that he had ac­cess to high pro­file in­di­vid­u­als who could in­flu­ence China’s devel­op­ment and mat­ters of the world, Xu was de­ter­mined to take things a step fur­ther — get even closer to his sub­jects in or­der to cap­ture the more in­ti­mate mo­ments. He also wanted their au­to­graphs.

“I made it a point to ap­pear in front of the lead­ers’ body­guards at ev­ery chance be­cause I wanted them to be fa­mil­iar with my face. I also made sure that I spoke with key Chi­nese lead­ers when these for­eign body­guards were watch­ing so that they would know I was not a threat,” said Xu.

His meth­ods worked, and it even led him to pre­cious en­coun­ters that few in this world could only dream of. Af­ter all, this was ex­actly how he man­aged to get up close and per­sonal with the late Cuban leader Fidel Cas­tro in De­cem­ber 1995. Cas­tro even in­dulged Xu with a chat and gave him a ci­gar.

Part of his job also in­volved tak­ing pic­tures of the wives of po­lit­i­cal lead­ers and Xu re­called how he was as­signed to cap­ture a group photo for a num­ber of first ladies in Shang­hai’s Xin­tiandi area dur­ing the APEC sum­mit many years ago. Xu added that the women were duly im­pressed with the speed at which the photos were printed and pre­sented as gifts within just half an hour, a feat made pos­si­ble only with the help of gov­ern­ment staff.

“In my eyes, there is no group of women that can be on par with first ladies. They are ex­traor­di­nar­ily elegant and beau­ti­ful,” said Xu.

“The style I used to record the in­ter­ac­tions be­tween the lead­ers and their wives are dif­fer­ent from the usual. I tried to cap­ture those in­ti­mate mo­ments where the lead­ers and their ladies were in a re­laxed set­ting, such as close-ups of them whis­per­ing and mak­ing eye con­tact.”

In 2007, Xu started sort­ing out the pic­tures he had taken to cre­ate a book ti­tled State Guests in Shang­hai and First Ladies in Shang­hai which was pub­lished a year later. Han Zheng, for­mer mayor of Shang­hai, wrote the pref­ace.

“The year of 2007 was an im­por­tant year for China be­cause of the up­com­ing 2008 Bei­jing Olympics and the 2010 Shang­hai Expo. I wanted the book to show Chi­nese peo­ple the re­sults of Chi­nese diplo­macy over the last few decades,” said Xu.

In ad­di­tion to photos, his col­lec­tion also con­tains im­ages of the nu­mer­ous menus that po­lit­i­cal lead­ers re­ceived dur­ing their din­ing re­cep­tions in Jin Jiang Tower, as well as com­mem­o­ra­tive en­velopes and stamps bear­ing their au­to­graphs.

“I am plan­ning to pub­lish sev­eral edi­tions of the menus that I have col­lected. I think cui­sine is an in­te­gral part of Chi­nese cul­ture and the type of cui­sine served to for­eign lead­ers re­flected the eco­nomic and liv­ing stan­dards of China at that time,” said Xu.

“I also hope that I can co­op­er­ate with chefs in ho­tels or restau­rants to recre­ate the dishes on the menus for the pub­lic.”

Till to­day, Xu spends most of the day work­ing in his 100-square-meter stu­dio sort­ing vol­umes of doc­u­ments and old photos that span 10 large tai­lor-made leather suit­cases and sev­eral shelves. His col­lec­tion in­cludes en­velopes au­to­graphed by over 400 world lead­ers, thou­sands of pho­tographs of these lead­ers and their wives, and 280 din­ing menus.

“These photos I have shot, the menus for the for­eign guests and the sig­na­tures I have col­lected, they are all part of his­tory — they are the wit­nesses to the devel­op­ment of Chi­nese diplo­macy and the rise of Shang­hai.”

Cheng Si con­trib­uted to this story.


For­mer US Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton and his wife Hil­lary Clin­ton meet with a group of district of­fi­cials at the Shang­hai Li­brary in 1998.


Xu Gen­shun stands at his stu­dio in Shang­hai. Xu has through­out his 28-year-ca­reer taken photos of about 800 vis­it­ing im­por­tant guests.

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