Zhang Xiao: Community Fire
Xiao Zhang, Ning Ou, Ilisa Barbash
Peabody Museum Press & Aperture, 2023
In his project Community Fire, the photographer Zhang Xiao takes a local, hometown look at Shehuo (社火), a Chinese Spring Festival tradition celebrated in rural Northern Chinese communities that includes temple fairs, dragon dances, and storytelling.
Shehuo— literally, “community fire”—is devoted to the worship of land and fire, and boasts a history of many thousands of years. During the festival, people hold ceremonies, pray for the next year’s good harvest, and confer blessings of peace and safety on all family members. However, what was once a heterogeneous cultural tradition with myriad regional variations has largely become a tourist-facing, consumption-oriented enterprise. In the early 2000s, Shehuo received an “intangible cultural heritage” designation from the People’s Republic of China, resulting in increased funding in exchange for greater government involvement. While altering the practitioners’ relation to Shehuo, this change expresses itself most visually in the way costumes and props have been replaced with newer, cheaper products from online shopping websites.