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  • Caterina Paiva

The Work behind the Jump: Looking beyond the circus veil with Peng Xiangjie 彭祥杰

Note from the author: All the photos were courteously provided by Peng Xiangjie. All copywriting rights are exclusive to Peng, and permission is required. They are original, and no modification was added.

Many thanks to Peng Xiangjie, who so cordially accepted to provide me with not only the photography but also a short but dense talk, which was further used to write this article.

To perform his show and spray fire from his mouth, the fire eater must swallow down nearly three kilos of kerosene. Yao county, Shaanxi. 1993

A photographer’s narrative

Photography is an art where the photographer’s intent constantly jiggles between the faithful portrayal of reality and the interpretation of that same reality. Consequently, to determine what is worth of photography is intimately dependent on what the photographer deems worthy of being narrated. In this case, Peng Xiangjie 彭祥杰 sheds light on the hardships of circus workers’ lives in 1990s’ China.

When it comes to the Chinese photography scene, Peng does not require much introduction. Born in 1963 in Xi’an, he worked as a corporate photographer in factories for over thirty years.

In parallel to this work, nonetheless, Peng started depicting what would eventually become the cornerstone of his art: photographs of marginalized communities that are so often left outside of the public eye by the current political understandings of what constitutes the reality that should be shown.

A tiger riding a horse, one of the circus performances. Yao county, Shanxi. 2000

As previously mentioned, if photography jiggles between reality and interpretation, Peng’s is proof that reality often needs a subversive intention, so that reality’s full magnitude, with all its contradictions, can be exposed. After all, Peng affirms,

Recording the role changes and situations of wandering artists in real society and the hard work they have made to change their own destiny and living conditions will bring practical significance and historical value and will become a memorandum of Chinese folk culture.

With his work featured in magazines such as Chinese Photography, National Geographic, and FOCUS, this photographer’s works have already circulated worldwide. Thus, one could argue that Peng succeeded in showcasing these marginalized communities and their role in building the Chinese circus and folk culture. Without these depictions, we would be left with a very incomplete image of this reality.

Wild animal trainer Makai got wounded by the tiger. Yao county, Shanxi. 1993

Taken throughout the last decade of the previous century (1992-2002), Peng’s series “The Wandering Tent” follows circus troupes during a time when liberalized work was prompted in China, in general, and in the artistic realm, more specifically.

In this context, he brings to the public two major dynamics: the hard work done to build this “sometimes loved, sometimes hated” art form inspired by rural and lower-class folks that aspired to a better life; but also the contradicting reality of marginalized communities that found, in the circus, the only possible place to be.

People in "The Wandering Tent" face … danger and discrimination … in society, but for those rural young men and women with dreams, it is actually a place full of temptation. There is sinister (horrified), opportunity (unknown), possibility (love, distance), fulfillment (stage), [and] excitement (walking around).

It is within these conflicting dynamics that these individuals’ interest conflicts with the economic status quo, that these marginalized communities get exoticized, while also being in these scenarios where might have a possibility to survive. It is, also, in the hard labor behind the art, that Peng finds his narrative – a narrative of showing the un-showable.

Li Bing and his little white dog which was always next to him. Wulate, Inner Mongolia. 1999

A beautiful girl and a dead snake body made up a strange performance called “The snake with a girl’s head.” Ning county, Gansu. 2000

Two actors and their “partners.” Wuyuan county, Inner Mongolia. 1999

Four dancers in their bikini. Lingfen, Shanxi. 2000


References / To go further

Slide 1
  • The girl Huanhuan, exhausted, waits to perform. Lingtai county, Gansu. 2001

  • The actors sleep in the open air. Ning county, Gansu. 2000

  • The wild animal trainer used to get up early in the morning. Wuyuan county, Inner Mongolia. 1999

  • Actors try to defend themselves against the sudden wind and dust. Yao county, Shanxi. 2000

Slide 2
  • "Qigong" performance originated in the Shaolin temple. Sanyuan county, Shanxi. 1992

  • The 12 years old acrobat Wang Lili has performed abroad many times. Baoji county, Shanxi. 1999

We thoroughly recommend following Peng's works. "The Wandering Tent" is just one of his many series.


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