Earlier this month, China celebrated a new national holiday verbosely named The 70th Anniversary of Victories in the Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World Against Fascism. While media coverage of the festivities focused on the military pomp that aimed to show the the country’s modern armed forces, Chinese veterans who fought in World War II were part of the parade that passed through Tiananmen Square.
Recognizing that many veterans are in their 90s and that there would be limited time to document those who served in the war, photojournalist Li Qiang wanted to honor them and bring attention to their contributions. “They are worth more attention and care from society. They could tell people the importance of peace,” Li explained. Traveling to various places in Henan, Hunan, Jiangsu, and Shandong provinces, Li interviewed and photographed dozens of veterans. His profiles are on exhibit in World War II Veterans at Photoville through September 20 in Brooklyn Bridge Park.
Some veterans have chosen to live simple lives in remote villages or in anonymity, but wherever he went, Li was welcomed. After one veteran passed away while Li was on the way to see him, Li came to cherish every moment with them. As they recounted their past experiences, some were brought to tears. One veteran featured in World War II Veterans whom Li calls “most impressive” is a 93-year old monk named Shi Laikong who lives in a temple in Changde, Hunan Province, where one of the fiercest battles of the war occurred, regularly prays for his comrade-in-arms who are buried near the temple.
Many of Li’s photographs place his subjects in a certain unexpected contexts for effect, he portrays the veterans with an unadorned simplicity often without anything hint of their military service or daily life to bring more attention to their spirit, facial expression and mood.
While there is contention in Taiwan over the Chinese Communist Party’s narrative of their starring role during the war when Kuomintang army of the Republic of China did most of the fighting against Japan, Li doesn’t see the need to make a distinction. With the whole country celebrating the end of World War II, he believes that all veterans should be treated equally, regardless of their background and points out that Chinese youth are able to judge history in a balanced way, separating ordinary Japanese people from militarists and the past. As for what veterans think of the holiday, Li said they are happy about the anniversary, as China becomes strong and prosperous, they are proud to see every new change in the country.
Images courtesy of Li Qiang and Yihe Image, an organization that seeks to promote Chinese photographers and communicate stories about China, in its first show outside of China.