Thursday’s Picture of the Week: China

Vis a Vis magazine cover

Behind the scenes: It’s 1981 and Jeffrey is photographing in Beijing, China. On this day he’s intent on capturing the beauty of the Summer Palace, the former warm-weather residence of China’s imperial rulers.

As Jeffrey crosses a narrow covered walkway, intricately carved and painted with imperial scenes, he notices an elderly gentleman sitting on one of the wooden railings. The man, who seems content to do little more than take in the day’s events around him, is dressed in a Mao jacket and a traditional cap. He is also wearing some of the most exquisite glasses Jeffrey has ever seen.

Photo of the summer palace in Beijing, ChinaThe spectacles rest slightly askew on the man’s nose. The etched hand-tooled silver that frames the circular glass is worn to a salient patina; the crack in the upper left-hand lens holds a story from long ago.

Jeffrey cannot take his eyes off the man whose face perfectly symbolizes traditional China. When the man glances up, Jeffrey asks—through his interpreter—if he would mind having his portrait taken. “Please be sure to tell him how much I admire his glasses,” Jeffrey adds.

The man’s eyes twinkle from beneath their narrow openings. Then his soft, gravely voice begins wrapping Jeffrey in staccato Mandarin, almost as if the man has been waiting his entire life to share this moment. Jeffrey, who has studied a little Chinese, can only understand part of what he is saying, and must wait patiently until his interpreter finally relays the story.

“He says that he is 84-years old and these glasses have been in his family for two generations. His father wore them most of his life, then when he died, they were passed on to him. He said he would be willing to sell them to you for ten dollars.”

Jeffrey is horrified by his offer, imagining all the things that have passed through these lenses. He takes a moment, then simply says to his interpreter,

“Tell him ‘thank you very much for your generous offer’, but I will pay him double if he promises to never sell these glasses; to always keep them in his family.”

The man squints his eyes in delight, then agrees. Finally Jeffrey creates his portrait. A few years later it becomes the cover of Vis a Vis, United Airlines’ inflight magazine, when they publish a 10-page portfolio featuring Jeffrey’s China photographs.

This photograph was created with a Nikon FE camera, a Nikon 85mm lens and Kodachrome 64 film.

Photo of rowboats at the Summer Palace in Beijing, China

PS: The answer to Tuesday’s challenge is Tibet (November 8th post). You’ll have to wait to hear Jeffrey’s stories to fully appreciate his reasons.

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29 thoughts on “Thursday’s Picture of the Week: China

  1. What a wonderful story, Becky. Yes, those of us from the West hardly pause a second in our quest to acquire. Even more than 15 years after adopting our two children in Russia I still feel guilty about how little I paid for a beautiful matrushka doll at the street market. It had 12 or 15 little dolls inside (can’t remember because I have so many now). Even when I paid about US$50 I knew it would have fetched ten times that in the States. The details of the Firebird on the largest doll were so complex I knew that I was buying art and not just a souvenir. Since that first purchase, I’ve bought more Russian enamelwork and, of course, have paid several hundred dollars for a matrushka. But nothing I’ve bought since our first Russian purchase has ever compared.

    When I’m traveling, I rarely bargain although I know many Americans go after it like a dog and a bone. But if I can afford to travel to these distant locations I can afford to pay someone the true worth of their art.

    • Jullie, thanks for your comment. I’ve been out of town and without wi-fi, so I’m only responding several days later. I appreciate you sharing your story about adopting your Russian children. That country has many exquisite artists. I can picture the matrushka dolls perfectly, and I know what you mean about wanting to pay the artist what he/she deserves. You are the kind of traveler that gives Americans a good name.

  2. Fascinating special on PBS last night on the caves of Tibet and the religions of the region. I’ll be interested in hearing what Jeffrey has to say.

  3. Oh, my god, those glasses are exquisite! I’ve never seen anything like them. I’m glad Jeffrey responded by giving him double to never sell them, but it breaks my heart to think that this irreplaceable family heirloom could be let go for a mere ten bucks; when you’re poor, you can’t afford sentimentality or holding on to what may be your dearest possession. Food comes first. The fact that as a society, as a world, there are so many millions of people in just the position of this gentleman, and would act exactly the same way, out of necessity, means we are doing something very, very wrong—in not taking care of each other.

  4. This is my first visit to your blog and I am delighted by Jeffrey’s pictures. The story behind this one is aming and beautiful. What a wonderful way to open my eyes to the world beyond the narrow scope of my own here in USA Virginia.

    • Welcome, Carol! I’m so glad you found my blog and have enjoyed what you seen/read. It gives me great pleasure to share Jeffrey’s stories from around the world. Hope you stop by again to see what else is in store!

  5. Another beautiful story, Becky . . . Once again Jeffrey’s humanity shines through. FYI ~ We were in Beijing in Nov. 1999, just before traveling to Nanchang to adopt our daughter.

  6. I remember the Summer Palace well, in fact I lived within walking distance during my internship at the Xi Yuan Hospital in 2000. One story that has lingered is the story about the Dowagger diverting funds meant for defense to the construction of a marble tea house! Gotta love the audacity…

    • Cathy, I think I need to know more about your adventures in China and your internship at the hospital. You probably have a few (hundred) stories up your sleeve from that experience. It’s funny, you are the second person today who has told me about being in China in 2000. I was also there that year–but not Beijing. Anyway, I’m glad you enjoyed the story. I always appreciate seeing you here!

  7. Becky, thank you for this. I shall remember it when my glasses get out of adjustment and I feel like griping about it. It’s wonderful to be in a country where so many things are easily disposed of and purchased anew, but it also has contributed to our loss of a sense of true value and what matters in life….

    Candice (from She Writes)

    • Thank you, Jean! I appreciate you swinging by my blog to check it out. I took a peek at your website. You have been one busy woman! Very impressive. Thanks again for taking the time to leave me a comment and let me know you were here!

  8. That story warms my heart. I have heard of tourists in Paupau New Guinea purchasing an orchid stem skirt right off the girl wearing it; for $2. It is horrible the lengths we go to sometimes to collect and consume. I love the way Jeffrey turned this offer for the glasses around and probably changed the mans view (no pun intended) about Americans. Thanks for sharing the story Becky.
    As always, I enjoy reading them and seeing the amazing photos. @africainside.org

    • Glad you enjoyed it Lori. I think people get so caught up in the excitement of traveling and experiencing other cultures, they feel the need to bring something home to remind themselves of it, but often lose perspective in the process.

  9. What an incredible story. I’m so glad Jeffrey offered him double to keep them. Those glasses are one of a kind and exquisitely beautiful, making for a truly amazing portrait. Your Jeffrey has quite an eye. I so enjoy hearing these back stories! Thanks!

  10. Wonderful story. The old man has something unique in his look. I noticed this photo long time ago in your blog header. Every time I visit blog, my attention automatically goes to this portrait. Thanks for sharing his story.

    Becky i have a question regarding that second photograph. I hope Jeffrey took this photograph through that old man’s exquisite glass, Am I right?

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