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16 Rarely Seen Photos Capture Four Decades Of Chinese History

Photographer Bruno Barbey has been taking color photos of China — from its elites to its everyday citizens — since 1973.

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This is a picture from photographer Bruno Barbey, capturing school girls preparing for the reception of the French President on Tiananmen Square back in 1973.

Bruno Barbey / MAGNUM PHOTOS

The red scarves they wore represent "the Young Pioneers of China", which remain in use today.

For years after the Communist takeover of mainland China, many photographers were unable to gain access. Those who did manage, frequently did their work in black and white. And most didn't follow up for decades. But Barbey, working for Magnum at the time, was an exception.

As one of the first photographers who were allowed to the cut-off country, the Morocco-born French photographer was able to record major changes in China first-hand over the course of four decades.

A selection of his works are now on display in Hong Kong. The exhibition is titled "China Since 1973," marking the year in which he first went during a ride-along with the French president at the time, George Pompidou in a historic trip.

This was snapped in Shanghai before the finish of this mural painting of the Cultural Revolution's "trinity": the worker, the farmer and the soldier. Shanghai had yet to undergo the rapid growth that marks it today as one of China's richest cities.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the Red Guards targeted at anything related to "culture" — millions of pieces of cultural artifacts and historic sites in China were destroyed.


Here's the first Premier of the People's Republic of China, Zhou Enlai. "He's not reading a speech, he's looking at the menu," Barbey told CNN. "And you can see on his face that he's quite happy about what he's about to have for dinner."

Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, was once the only woman in the country allowed to wear western-style clothes. She designed this piece by herself. Anyone else could risk their lives, dubbed a "capitalist roadster" — a term for someone who imitated the West.


The world-class photographer was able to capture many precious moments of everyday Chinese life, which present audience nowadays with a vivid sense of the society decades ago.

Change happened fast. On the wall behind this woman walking in the street in 1979 Yangshuo, Guangxi, is a poster announcing the projection of the film "Troubled Laughter" about the dark days of the Cultural Revolution. Ticket price: 0.18 yuan (3 cents).

In 1978, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping introduced economic reforms — called "capitalism with Chinese characteristics" — that influenced people's lives within just two years. Here's two young Chinese women perming their hair in Chengdu, Sichuan, in 1980.


Barbey returned China for many times after his initial trip, re-visiting various places such as Nanjing, Suzhou, Macau, Hong Kong, Beijing and Shanghai.

The economic changes came with relaxed government reins on social matters as well. In 1980, Huxingting tea house in Shanghai's Yu Yuan Garden was a popular place for people to hang out.

Barbey recorded the lives of China's ethnic minorities as well. At this theater in Kashgar, Xinjiang in 1989, posters can be seen for "In the Hit List," a Chinese film about the last days of the Nationalist government and Bertolucci's "The Last Emperor."

This was the central market in Kashgar for its Uyghurs, a Muslim minority living in this region. The area today looks completely different, as according to a Huffington Post report, the majority of the Old City has now been demolished.

This is the city of Chongqing before the area was completely changed by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam. Now the city is China's most populous area with over 30 million residents. You can see the huge difference here.

Barbey's photos are on display by appointment in Hong Kong at F11 Gallery, 11 Yuk Sau Street, until July 15, 2015.

Beimeng Fu is a BuzzFeed News World Reporter covering China and is based in New York.

Contact Beimeng Fu at

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