Selling a Diverse Nation: Ethnic Minorities as Portrayed by Contemporary Chinese Photographer Chen Man


Photography Chen Man, Styling Lucia Liu.
Wan Bao Bao wears dress Emporio Armani. Jacket DaoYin. MAC Mixing Medium in Shine. MAC Chromaline in Pure White. The Whatever The Weather Issue, no. 317, Pre-Spring 2012.

Chen Man (b. 1980), a contemporary Beijing-based Chinese artist, often proudly describes her own art as nationalistic; however, her productions remain consistently more well received amongst international audiences than at home. Perhaps most telling of the truly international scale of Chen’s success is her new position as a photographer and visual director at i-D, a British magazine dedicated to fashion, music, art, and youth culture founded by former Vogue art director, Terry Jones. As with many of her works, Chen’s series of covers for i-D’s “Whatever the Weather” issues, each titled Rise and Shine, contained implicit social critique along with innovative reconstructions of traditional Chinese fashion. In this case, the issues published in Pre-Spring 2012 featured unconventional, avant-garde variations of Chinese ethnic minority (少数民族 shaoshu minzu) costumes.

This article argues that this series was an exploration of the current limits of Chinese ethnic minority culture to harmless display, performance, and exhibit, thereby addressing the problems of ethnic representation in advertisement. It was reconstruction of what it means to represent China, in emphasizing extreme variations in skin color, heritage, and other biological traits, thus stressing the uplifting power of individual autonomy, as well as ideological, individualized transformation rather than technological improvement. Chen’s depictions of Chinese ethnic minorities is a rare case given the processes of globalization and the modernizing aspirations of the Chinese government, which has historically marginalized ethnic minorities to remain uncivilized, tourist spectacles in favor of a Han majority. This implores a closer look at how Chen provides a solution to formulate a new diverse cultural consciousness and individualist subjectivity, given the seemingly contradictory nature of China’s new post-1979 steadfast collective identity and introduction of an individualistic materialism with a consumer-driven economy.

To read the full article, view The Collegiate Journal of Art, 2014, pages 31-44.
View the full archive of Chen Man's work for I-D here.