A Billion to One: Thinning the herd

Beijing photographer He Chongyue reveals a China at a crossroads

You can find a lot of things at the highway's edge: hitchhikers, widowed tennis shoes, soiled diapers, the greasy bag leavings of the McDonald's empire. But the roadside is not necessarily where one looks for insight into a culture.

That is, unless you are Beijing photographer He Chongyue.

Chongyue has found something both sinister and quaint by the rural Chinese roadside. A Billion to One: Dictated Parenthood and the Feudal Mind is Chongyue's illuminating photo essay on how China's one-child policy initiated in the 1970s found expression in the government billboards from the late '70s and '80s that herald to passing drivers the population-control party line. The billboards advertise state-mandated happiness, with Big Brother sweetly dictating the rules of the game.

Folksy and crudely rendered, the paintings, mostly from Weining County, suggest propaganda in the hands of an R.A. Miller or Howard Finster. Cheerful, primary colors (pink for women and blue for men) dominate. Features and expressions range from amateurish to inept, suggesting cheaply produced Depression-era Tijuana Bibles, children's drawings, Kilroy graffiti and folk art.

Happy children hold hands in a celebration of bright tomorrows, and parents hoist pigtailed only children ornamented with red ribbons rewarding them, like 4-H livestock, for their savvy family planning. Several of the children hold a trio of balloons in visual affirmation of the holy trinity of mother, father and single child. Flowers, birds, oceans and other pleasant set design strike a note of righteously achieved procreative bliss.

A Smurflike sense of utopian, communally achieved happiness unfolds in many of the images. On one billboard, children with the truncated bodies of miniature adults wield shovels and sturdy backpacks as they get down to the state-sanctioned business of planting trees. "Plant more trees, have less babies" the text bleats as the creatures go about their antic labors. Though the images are often hilariously goofy and cartoonish, the message is hardcore. As terse as road signs, the billboards warn: Procreate with caution.

The cartoonish quality is only amplified by blue mountains that roll like animated waves in the distance and a demonically happy tone that would be hard to replicate in real life.

America waged its own eugenics campaign in the beginning of the 20th century, and some of the language that accompanies these signs sounds a similarly "race uplifting" tone in verbiage such as, "The population quality needs to be elevated. Quality births and quality upbringing are essential," or the farmer-friendly analogy, "Harvest depends on quality seed. Having baby! – must have quality not quantity."

Other text strikes a more melancholy note that Western parents may recognize in our own culturally normative two-child standard: "One daughter is half of the sky. When you get old you have someone to take care of you." Though the Chinese government is assuredly bossy and intrusive, few modern American parents are safe from the equally authoritative pronouncements of strangers and family on matters of family size and child rearing.

Though the propaganda pleas are rendered in bright, cheery primary colors – which, depending upon the artist's skill or palette, can stay rudimentary or show some finesse with color and form – the landscapes that surround them are anti-utopian: winter-bare, brown, marred by satellite dishes and trash. The chipped and broken billboards themselves testify to the ravages of weather and the vandals who appear to have driven by with a pistol, registering their own dissatisfaction with government policy. Over time, ads for tow trucks and other capitalist services have similarly defaced the works.

Though the Western tendency will be to scoff at such crude and overt transmissions of government mandate, there is an undeniable tang of the familiar. American roadsides are also littered with billboards promising happiness from a variety of sources but absent the bullying official policy.

Every artist and global thinker worth his/her salt seems abuzz these days about China-in-transition. The country is a vast, tantalizing and scary wonderland: a place of rampant corruption, mind-blowing progress, epic pollution, civil-rights abuses and a culture even more prone to self-invention, denial and the mantra of progress-above-everything than even America. America as seen through a fun-house mirror at hyperspeed, contemporary China is a cautionary tale of America's future.

Also on display with A Billion to One is an earlier body of work, Image of the Red Era, also centered on China's public communication of state policy. In friezelike black-and-white images, Chongyue photographs the ancient "propaganda walls" carved long ago with the edicts of Chinese policy. Over the years, the walls have become palimpsests, layered with more carving and then plastered with paper advertisements in recent years. A round mirror hung or leaned against the walls reflects the camera, and at one point the photographer himself, to suggest yet another layer of commentary.

The ancient text and the more modern billboards that might seem benign suddenly feel dire in Chongyue's hands. In photographing these ever-changing Chinese policies and dicta, Chongyue shows how actual people are always left out of the equation.

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