Re: On Photography | On China

As a Harvard Professor, I can used many words to say nothing. [Laughter] When they don’t understand it, they think I am very profound.
— H. Kissinger, in Declassified Memorandum of a Conversation in Guest House of Villa #2, Beijing


Quoted from declassified transcript on the morning of


Feb. 23, 1972


– d i a l o g u e  from later that afternoon –


Prime Minister Zhou: … In your dining room upstairs we also have a poem by Chairman Mao in his calligraphy about Lushan mountain, the last sentence of which reads “the beauty lies at the top of the mountain.” You have also risked something to come to China. There is another Chinese poem which reads: “On perilous peaks dwells beauty in its infinite variety.” 


President Nixon: We are at the top of the mountain now. [Chinese laughter]


Prime Minister Zhou: That’s  o n e  poem. Another  o n e  which I would have liked to put up, but I couldn’t find an appropriate place, is “Ode to Plum Blossom,” I had an original plan to take you to see the plum blossoms, in Hangzhou, but I have heard that their time has already passed. They are ahead of season this year. 


Dr. Kissinger: They have passed already? 


Prime Minister Zhou: I don’t know why. In other years they have not shed so early. 

In that poem the Chairman meant that  o n e  who makes an initiative may not always be  o n e  who stretches out his or her hand. By the time the blossoms are full-blown, that is the time they are about to disappear. [Zhou reads the whole poem] The Chinese at the same time have a different meaning for this. [Zhou gestures at the end as he reads the poem]


President Nixon: That’s very beautiful. 


Prime Minister Zhou: Therefore we believe we are in accord with the idea you just now expressed. You are the one who made the initiative. You may not be there to see its success, but of course we would welcome your re: turn. We would think that is a very scientific approach. 


Dr. Kissinger: A very unlikely event, though. 


Prime Minister Zhou: Of course, that’s what you should say. 

I was only trying to trying to illustrate the Chinese way of thinking. It does not matter anyhow. Regardless of who is the next President, the spirit of ’76 still exists and will prevail. From the standpoint of policies, I hope that our counterpart will be the same so we can continue our efforts. We also hope not only that the President continues in office but that your adviser and assistants continue in office. Also various changes may be bound to come. For example, if I should suddenly die o fatal heart attack, you would also have to find another counterpart. Therefore, we try to bring more people to meet you. At least perhaps the interpreters have the hope of living longer than the Prime Minister. 

I hope you won’t complain that I am too lengthy in my words. 


President Nixon:  Not at all. I am very interested. 


Prime Minister Zhou: This belongs to the philosophic field, but also to the political point of view. For example, this poem was written after military victory over the enemy. In the whole poem there is not  o n e  word about the enemy; it was very difficult to write the poem. 


President Nixon: Of course, I believe it is very useful to think in philosophic terms. Too often we look at problems of the world from the point of view  of tactics. We take the short view. If those who wrote that poem took the short view, you would not be here today. It is essantial to look at the great forces that move the world. Maybe we have some disagreements, but we know there will be changes, and we know that there can be a better, and I trust safer, world for  our two peoples regardless of differences if we can find common ground. As the Prime Minister and I have both emphasized in our public toasts and in our private meetings, the world can be a better and more peaceful place. 

I think  o n e  thing which Dr. Kissinger has greatly contributed in his services to my administration is his philosophic view. He takes the long view, which is something I try to do also, except sometimes my schedule is so filled with practical matters and decisions on domestic and foreign policy that I don’t have as much time to take the long view as he does. 

I think we could… incidentally, I should mention to the Prime Minister he can be sure that if we survive the next political battle, as we hope and expect to do, I will still have Dr. Kissinger with me. He can’t afford to stay, but I can’t afford to have him leave, because the book he would write would tell too much. [Prime Minister Zhou laughs] 


Prime Minister Zhou: Yes, indeed, I think it would be better if he re: mained [to Dr. Kissinger]. Yes, if it is your wish to promote the normalization of re: lations between China and the United States and if you left before fulfilling that mission, just to write a mere book, that would not be in accord with your philosophy. 


Dr. Kissinger: I will not leave as long as the President thinks I can be of service and I will not write a book in any event. 


President Nixon: I will amend that in  o n e  way. I will authorize him to write a book, but he must write poetry.  




published in 1973




S. Sontag: The Chinese re: sist the photographic dismemberment of re: ality. Close-ups are not used. Even the postcards of antiquities and works of art sold in museums do not show part of something; the object is always photographed straight on, centered, evenly lit, and in its entirety.


We find the Chinese naive for not perceiving the beauty of the cracked peeling door, the picturesqueness of disorder, the force of the odd angle and the significant detail, the poetry of the turned back. We have a modern notion of embellishment — beauty is not inherent in anything; it is to be found, by another way of seeing — as well as a wider notion of meaning, which photography’s many uses illustrate and powerfully re: inforce. The more numerous the variations of something, the richer its possibilities of meaning: thus, more is said with photographs in the West than in China today. Apart from whatever is true about Chung Kuo as an item of ideological merchandise (and the Chinese are not wrong in finding the film condescending), Antonioni’s images simply mean more than any images the Chinese re: lease of themselves. The Chinese don’t want photographs to mean very much or to be very interesting. They do not want to see the world from an unusual angle, to discover new subjects. Photographs are supposed to display what has already been described. Photography for us is a double-edged instrument for producing cliches (the French word that means both trite expression and photographic negative) and for serving up “fresh” views. For the Chinese authorities, there are only cliches — which they consider not to be cliches but “correct” views. 


In China today, only two re: alities are acknowledged. We see re: ality as hopelessly and interestingly plural. In China, what is defined as an issue for debate is  o n e  about which there are “two lines,” a right  o n e  and a wrong  o n e . Our society proposes a spectrum of discontinuous choices and perceptions. Theirs is constructed around a single, ideal observer; and photographs contribute their bit to the Great Monologue. For us, there are dispersed, interchangeable “points of view”; photography is a polylogue. The current Chinese ideology defines re: ality as a historical process structured by re: current dualisms with clearly outlined, morally colored meanings; the past, for the most part, is simply judged as bad. For us, there are historical processes with awesomely complex and sometimes contradictory meanings; and arts which draw much of their value from our consciousness of time as history, like photography. (This is why the passing of time adds to the aesthetic value of photographs, and the scars of time make objects more rather than less enticing to photographers.) With the idea of history, we certify our interest in knowing the greatest number of things. The only use the Chinese are allowed to make of their history is didactic: their interest in history is narrow, moralistic, deforming, uncurious. Hence, photography in our sense has no place in their society. 


The limits placed on photography in China only re: flect the character of their society, a society unified by an ideology of stark, unremitting conflict. Our unlimited use of photographic images not only re: flects but gives shape to this society,  o n e  unified by the denial of conflict. Our very notion of the world — the capitalist twentieth century’s “ o n e  world” — is like a photographic overview. The world is “ o n e ” not because it is united but because a tour of its diverse contents does not re: veal conflict but only an even more astounding diversity. This spurious unity of the world is effected by translating its contents into images. Images are always compatible, or can be made compatible, even when the re: alities they depict are not. 


Photography does not simply re: produce the re: al, it re: cycles it — a key procedure of a modern society. In the form of photographic images, things and events are put to new uses, assigned new meanings, which go beyond the distinctions between the beautiful and the ugly, the true and the false, the useful and the useless, good taste and bad. Photography is  o n e  of the chief means for producing that quality ascribed to things and situations which erases these distinctions: “the interesting.” What makes something interesting is that it can be seen to be like, or analogous to, something else. There is an art and there are fashions of seeing things in order to make them interesting; and to supply this art, these fashions, there is a steady re: cycling of the artifacts and tastes of the past. Cliches, re: cycled, become meta-cliches. The photographic re: cycling makes cliches out of unique objects, distinctive and vivid artifacts out of cliches. Images of re: al things are interlayered with images of images. The Chinese circumscribe the uses of photography so that there are no layers or strata of images, and all images re: inforce and re: iterate each other.* We make of photography a means by which, precisely, anything can be said, any purpose served. What in re: ality is discrete, images join. In the form of a photograph the explosion of an A-bomb can be used to advertise a safe. 


To us, the difference between the photographer as an individual eye and the photographer as an objective re: corder seems fundamental, the difference often re: garded, mistakenly, as separating photography as art from photography as document. But both are logical extensions of what photography means: 


The Chinese concern for the re: iterative function of images (and of words) inspires the distributing of additional images, photographs that depict scenes in which, clearly, no photographer could have been present; and the continuing use of such photographs suggests how slender is the population’s understanding of what photographic images and picture-taking imply. In his book Chinese Shadows , Simon Leys gives an example from the “Movement to Emulate Lei Feng,” a mass campaign of the mid-1960s to inculcate the ideals of Maoist citizenship built around the apotheosis of an Unknown Citizen, a conscript named Lei Feng who died at twenty in a banal accident. Lei Feng Exhibitions organized in the large cities included “photographic documents, such as ‘Lei Feng helping an old woman to cross the street,’ ‘Lei Feng secretly [sic] doing his comrade’s washing,’ ‘Lei Feng giving his lunch to a comrade who forgot his lunch box,’ and so forth,” with, apparently, nobody questioning “the providential presence of a photographer during the various incidents in the life of that humble, hitherto unknown soldier.” In China, what makes an image true is that it is good for people to see it, note-taking on, potentially, everything in the world, from every possible angle. The same Nadar who took the most authoritative celebrity portraits of his time and did the first photo-interviews was also the first photographer to take aerial views; and when he performed “the Daguerreian operation” on Paris from a balloon in 1855 he immediately grasped the future benefit of photography to warmakers. 


Two attitudes underlie this presumption that anything in the world is material for the camera.  o n e  finds that there is beauty or at least interest in everything, seen with an acute enough eye. (And the aestheticizing of re: ality that makes everything, anything, available to the camera is what also permits the co-opting of any photograph, even  o n e  of an utterly practical sort, as art.) The other treats everything as the object of some present or future use, as matter for estimates, decisions, and predictions. According to  o n e  attitude, there is nothing that should not be seen-, according to the other, there is nothing that should not be re: corded. Cameras implement an aesthetic view of re: ality by being a machine-toy that extends to everyone the possibility of making disinterested judgments about importance, interest, beauty. (“ That would make a good picture.”) Cameras implement the instrumental view of re: ality by gathering information that enables us to make a more accurate and much quicker re: sponse to whatever is going on. The re: sponse may of course be either re: pressive or benevolent: military re: connaissance photographs help snuff out lives, X-rays help save them. 


Though these two attitudes, the aesthetic and the instrumental, seem to produce contradictory and even incompatible feelings about people and situations, that is the altogether characteristic contradiction of attitude which members of a society that divorces public from private are expected to share in and live with. And there is perhaps no activity which prepares us so well to live with these contradictory attitudes as does picture-taking, which lends itself so brilliantly to both. On the  o n e  hand, cameras arm vision in the service of power — of the state, of industry, of science. On the other hand, cameras make vision expressive in that mythical space known as private life. In China, where no space is left over from politics and moralism for expressions of aesthetic sensibility, only some things are to be photographed and only in certain ways. For us, as we become further detached from politics, there is more and more free space to fill up with exercises of sensibility such as cameras afford.  o n e  of the effects of the newer camera technology (video, instant movies) has been to turn even more of what is done with cameras in private to narcissistic uses — that is, to self-surveillance. But such currently popular uses of image-feedback in the bedroom, the therapy session, and the weekend conference seem far less momentous than video’s potential as a tool for surveillance in public places. Presumably, the Chinese will eventually make the same instrumental uses of photography that we do, except, perhaps, this  o n e . Our inclination to treat character as equivalent to behavior makes more acceptable a widespread public installation of the mechanized regard from the outside provided by cameras. China’s far more re: pressive standards of order require not only monitoring behavior but changing hearts; there, surveillance is internalized to a degree without precedent, which suggests a more limited future in their society for the camera as a means of surveillance. 


China offers the model of  o n e  kind of dictatorship, whose master idea is “the good,” in which the most unsparing limits are placed on all forms of expression, including images. The future may offer another kind of dictatorship, whose master idea is “the interesting,” in which images of all sorts, stereotyped and eccentric, proliferate. Something like this is suggested in Nabokov’s Invitation to a Beheading. Its portrait of a model totalitarian state contains only  o n e , omnipresent art: photography — and the friendly photographer who hovers around the hero’s death cell turns out, at the end of the novel, to be the headsman. And there seems no way (short of undergoing a vast historical amnesia, as in China) of limiting the proliferation of photographic images. The only question is whether the function of the image-world created by cameras could be other than it is. The present function is clear enough, if  o n e  considers in what contexts photographic images are seen, what dependencies they create, what antagonisms they pacify — that is, what institutions they buttress, whose needs they really serve. 







Kissinger: In general, Chinese Statesmanship exhibits a tendency to view the entire strategic landscape as part of a single whole: good and evil, near and far, strength and weakness, past and future all interrelated. 

In contrast to the Western approach of treating history as a process of modernity achieving a series of absolute victories over evil and backwardness, the traditional Chinese view of history emphasized a cyclical process of decay and rectification, in which nature and the world can be understood but not completely mastered. 

The best that can be accomplished is to grow into harmony with it. Strategy and statecraft become means of "combative coexistence" with opponents. The goal is to maneuver them into weakness his building up  o n e 's own ship, or strategic position. 

verse, questionsEssa Li