A Talk on Photograhpy and History of Tuoshanyan


15 August 2016, I was selected as a photographer by the artist-in-residence program of Ruan Yisan Heritage Foundation to join a historical building renovation camp in Tuoshan Village, Yinjiang Town, Ningbo, Zhejiang Province. The village was named after Tuoshan Weir (Tuoshanyan, built in 833 A.D., during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907)). Tuoshanyan is one of the Four Great Irrigation Projects of ancient China and it is still in function today.


Edward Charles Macintosh Bowra (1841-1874) was appointed as the Deputy Commissioner of the Imperial Maritime Customs in Ningbo from 1858 to 1864. During that period he took more than 200 photos of Ningbo and its surrounding area. Three of the photos were taken in Tuoshanyan. Some of our photos could be regarded as an anaphora to those three with a retrospective lens rather than Bowra’s iconographical lens – he shot the daily views of his time and we shot the changed look of the same views a hundred years later. Hence, there is a certain link between the historical photos (Bowra’s and other predecessors’) and ours: only when a spectator has access to the historical context, which in this case is provided by Bowra’s photos, and then juxtaposes them and ours, can s/he reach the intended meaning of ours. Such meaning will not reveal itself automatically and completely to anyone without seeing and reading Bowra’s photos.

However, on the other hand, our predecessors couldn’t have shot everything, which makes it impossible for many of things that we see and shot today to have the same kind of photographical evidences to complete the historical context. On many occasions we were on the site of something presumed to be of historical significance in a heritage town like Tuoshanyan, only to find that the historic construction had been diluted so much, that one can easily tell that most of it had been replaced or even the whole thing was a reconstruction at some recent point of time – although the official records of which are often intentionally ambiguous.

In these cases the present look of the heritage site (or the historic construction) itself tells its own story, no need for photographical evidence of its past. With a large-format camera and the historical-photo-like effect that we create, we can make the photos talk. This project is all about reality. We believe reality is not merely the visual input, but more importantly, the result of the interaction of one’s eyes and mind, in which memory, common sense knowledge and historical photo could all be involved as assumptions to create a context of interpretation. And this is what I value most of REALITY.



Cao Mengqin

Shanghai photographer and filmmaker, whose most interested proposition is the difference between fiction/reality and non-fiction/history. His works are generally based on a period of “true” history, however there tends to be gaps in our understanding of what took place. Mengqin enriches those gaps by planting factionalised details into the gaps among a sequence of time or simply juxtaposing historical photos with present looks.

Fang Xiaohe

Has been working as a darkroom technician in Shanghai since 2008. He worked with various photographers and artists, pursuing a better presentation of images by employing traditional techniques in modern digital era.

A Talk on Photograhpy and History of Tuoshanyan

Speaker: Cao Mengqin
Time: 15:00 Wednesday 1st February 2017
Address: Yan Ji You Bookstore, 4th Floor of Kaidetianfu, No. 388 Tianren Road, Wuhou District, Chengdu
Entrance: Free
Registration: please add wechat account “meetculturefriend” or scan the below code, and provide your name to register.

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