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The Chinese Family

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Ever since camera was invented in the 16th century, photography has been and is still one of the main methods in recording everyday life in contemporary society (Gernsheim, 1965). In particular, family gathering is one of the scenes people like to take photographs the most. As Hirsch mentions, “family photographs show us both the outer and inner space of family experience”, family photos is one of the best way to observe and analyze not only the family itself, but the entire society as a whole as well (Hirsch, 1981, pp.48).

The purpose of this paper is to analyze the ways family members takes in portraying the photographs, including positions, locations, technology, and scene, etc., through which the stereotypes, social norms, and ideologies of the specific society and culture can be analyzed.

In the study, I will choose three family photos of mine, and I am in all of the photographs. The first one was taken in the zoo with my parents when I was a baby; the second one was me taking a photo in an amusement park with my father when I went to an activity organized by my father’s university when I was 12 years old; the last one was a group photo with my parents and my grandmother (my father’s mother) in my mother’s birthday taken in a restaurant taken two years ago.

To analyze the three photographs, I will break the analysis into three parts. First, I will analyze the people in the photographs – what is the relationship between each of them, is there any power relationship in existence, and what it is. Secondly, I will analyze the locations where the photographs were taken – why were they taken in such place, on what occasion were they taken, and if there were any items or background that were noteworthy. Last but not least, I will analyze the deeper meaning of the photographs – what kind of ideology, social norms, and culture, are the photographs reflecting, and why.

The Photographs

The first photograph was taken almost 30 years ago when I was still a baby (Appendix 1). It was taken in the Guangzhou Zoo. The photograph was originally stuck on the family album, but it was taken off and put in my wallet for several years. The surface of the photo is abraded on the majority on my mother’s face as well as part of my face since it was placed in the wallet photo purse, yet the emotion can still be seen. We are standing in front of a bush of gladiolus. My father was crouching on the grass wearing a light yellow t-shirt and a pair of pants while my mother was sitting on the grass wearing a pink dress and black skirt; I, the baby in the photograph, was wearing a white hat, white tank top and a pair of light blue pants. Because I was too young to stand by myself, I was held by my father with his two hands. One of my arms was resting on my father’s knee, while the other was held in my mother’s hand. On the back of the photo, there is some hand written words indicating the time and the location this photograph was taken (Appendix 2). Although some of the words are blocked by the remain of the aged album while some others are out of range, you can tell that this photograph was taken in the Guangzhou Zoo in Guangzhou, the city I was born in, at the time I was couple months (and a half) old.

As I was told by my mother, back to the time when she had just married my father, she was an office lady in a state-owned enterprise and she was making a decent income, while my father was a newly graduated university instructor, who was making an income barely enough to support himself. My mother often gave my father some financial support in order to relieve his pressure, as well as making him look better in front of his parents-in-laws. As shown in the photograph, my father was only wearing a t-shirt printed in English. Because China was still quite a closed country back in the 1980s and t-shirts with English printed on it is barely seen, it can be predicted that this t-shirt was brought by my mother from her mother who was a clothing factory worker in Shenzhen which made clothes exporting to Hong Kong; however, the silk clothes my mother was wearing embodied the wealthy family she was from. I was held in the centre of the group, meaning I was the focus of the family, and the chubby arms of mine shows that I was well fed by my family. One important detail is that my mother put her figure under my crotch and tried to imply my male genital organ. It was very common in China that parents prefer sons rather than daughters because sons have the responsibility to carry on the family line. Therefore I was even better treated by my parents.

The second photograph was taken with my father in an amusement park in China when I was 12 years old (Appendix 3). We were standing in front of a recreation facility with a fence surrounding it; there were couple trees and a recycle bin in the background too. In this photograph, my father and I had a lot in common: we were both wearing white shirt tucked into our pants, we were both wearing the same belt, and we were both wearing a tag saying “honored guest” on our shirt. There are still some differences between us – my father was wearing a black pair of suit pants while I was wearing a brown pair of corduroy pants; my father had his shirt buttoned all the way up and I left the top one unbuttoned; my father was holding his suit in his arm while his other hand was on my shoulder, and I was wearing a grey vest, resting one hand in my pants pocket while the other one was holding some paper files.

My family is a typical family in the 1990s’ China. My mother was a high school graduate and never received any post-secondary education; she was making decent salary which was more than enough to spend on her own expense. My father, however, was graduated from one of the biggest conservatories of music in China. He was the breadwinner of the family, and had won my respect for teaching me a lot of knowledge as well as life lessons. In the second photograph, it can be told that I respect my father a lot as I was wearing a very similar set of clothes to my father’s. I was at the age of 12 in the photograph, and it was the time I would like to be treated as a “little grown-up” because I thought I have learned enough to know everything, so I was not smiling that much in the photograph as my father was because I was trying to put on a “grown man’s face”. My father knew me so well and treated me the way I wanted. He put his hand on my shoulder like he was my elder brother instead of my father, and we were having some “brother’s time” together. In fact, there were many times when my father’s acquaintance met us and thought I was his younger brother.

The last photograph was taken two years ago in a restaurant celebrating my mother’s birthday (Appendix 4). There are me, my parents and my grandmother (my father’s mother) in the photograph. Behind us was a golden silky curtain, and there was a birthday cake in front of us, with some other dishes beside it. We all had a glass filled with apple vinegar on the table, as well as the tableware such as bowl, spoon and chopsticks. My father was wearing a light blue, short-sleeved shirt tucked in his jeans, he was also wearing a watch on his left wrist; my grandmother was wearing a colorful plaid shirt; my mother was wearing a pink dress shirt with a colorful shawl and a white pair of pants; I am wearing a navy blue Canuck t-shirt and a black pair of pants, I am also wearing a string of Buddha beads on my right wrist. The four of us were all smiling happily, holding the knife as we were going to cut the birthday cake together.

My grandfather (my father’s father) died before I was born, and my grandmother has been my father’s last parent in the last 30 years. Therefore, my father spent extra care on her despite her living in a different city which was more than five hours’ drive from my hometown, Guangzhou. My mother, however, cared about my grandmother even more than my father did. In 2011, I went back to China for a summer vacation and I had a chance to spend my mother’s birthday with her. Instead of celebrating it my hometown Guangzhou, my family decided to go to Maoming, the city my grandmother lived in, in order to let her look at me because I was away for many years. There are many stories hidden behind this photograph. My father was starting to carry more responsibility because my mother had retired and had a much less income than before; my grandmother was diagnosed to have lung cancer more than ten years ago and may go away at any moment; my mother was just recovered from an early-stage colon cancer and worried that her sickness will increase the burden of my father; I had just broken up with a lot of lessons learned, and just decided to go back to school at the age of 27. Despite of all these misfortune, my entire family looked so happy and positive in the photograph because we are all hoping our spirit can affect everyone else.

Assessment of Data

As is mentioned in McAllister’s article, “photography is one of the ‘family’s primary instruments of self-knowledge and representation’” (McAllister, 2006). It means that photographs is a representation of my family’s spirit, as well as the dominant ideology, social norms, culture, and social change during the past 30 years.

The first photograph (Appendix 1) reflects one main factor. The first one is that in China, there was a general preference for sons rather than daughters. As I was too young to tell apart if I was a boy or a girl, my mother’s suggestive figure under my crotch was trying to tell everyone reading the photo that I was a boy. According to scientific fact, the father’s chromosome decides whether the couple is going to have a son or a daughter (Baby2see, 2013). However, the Chinese social norm widely attributes it to the mother. The greater family, especially from the husband’s side, will blame the mother for not having a son; on the contrast, as the Chinese proverb says, the mother is more precious because of having a son (Tran, 2013). As a result, my mother was treated even better than the time she was pregnant because of the fact that I was born as a boy. Both sides of my grandparents, especially my grandmother (my father’s mother), gave my mother extra care.

The second photograph (Appendix 3) reflects a principle that “photographic archives by their very structure maintain a hidden connection between knowledge and power” (Allan, 1999). Being the breadwinner and the most knowledgeable person in the family, I had the most respect to my father. Therefore, despite my father had his hand on my shoulder and treated me like his younger brother instead of his son, I did not dare to do the same thing back to him. The power relationship in this photograph is obvious – my father stood a higher position than me in the family. Moreover, my father was graduated as a college student while everyone else in the greater family was not including my aunts and uncles, so my father was able to give me more aids in my study in the time before I entered college. Because of that, I spent more respect to my father, because he was not only the person who earned more money and responsibility, he was also the one with the most knowledge in the entire family.

There are two reflections in the last photograph (Appendix 4). First of all, the previous two photographs were taken by film cameras and scanned into the computer, while the third one was taken by a digital camera. The first photograph is very dim, and the worn-off part is unable to recover; the second photograph is slightly better than the first one, yet the color is still not as bright as the third one, and there is also some worn-off part on the left bottom corner. Compared with the other two photographs, the third one taken by a digital camera is much brighter and more colorful, and there is no worn-off on the photograph as it is saved as a digital file in the computer at the very beginning. This shows the technological impact on family lives; camera technology, especially digital cameras, was able to save the family memory in a better condition as well as in a better form. The mentality of taking a photo also changed because of this. In the film camera age, people took more caution while taking photos because the cost of retake was very high; nowadays people feel very casual taking photos with digital cameras because there is no cost to do a retake if the first photo is not well-taken. Secondly, for others who have not read this photograph before, it is highly possible for them to believe it was my grandmother’s birthday instead of my mother’s. This is because they ignore one of the most important ideologies in Chinese culture – to respect the seniors. My grandmother was the oldest person in the greater family and she was regarded as the elder of the family. Therefore, although it was my mother’s birthday, my grandmother was standing in the very middle as the focus of the photograph.

Self-reflexive Assessment

As an observer, I mainly conduct my observation as participant observation because I am in all the three photographs, and I know all other people in the photographs well. One main shortcoming of this analysis is that my observation may mix with a lot personal emotion such as the respect to my father. In fact, two years before the time the second photograph (Appendix 3), my father had just experienced a scandal and it was severe enough to lose everything even his marriage; luckily, he successfully managed to solve the problem and continue his life. If I was mature enough at the time I took the second photograph and realized how bad the problem was, I may not take the photograph with such respect to my father.

Also, something is not the same as I expected. I was expecting that the photographs would have been taken in front of some meaningful sight. For example, the first photograph was taken in the Guangzhou Zoo, yet it was not taken in front of an elephant or a tiger but simply in front of a clump of bushes. I would not know it was taken in the zoo if there is no written word on the back (Appendix 2). Also, it was very hard to tell that the second photograph was taken in an amusement park as no recreation facility can be seen in the photograph but fences and a garbage bin.

The best way to redesign the study is to observe someone else’s family photos, as well as interviewing him/her. However, the person should be an acquaintance of the researcher so that observation will not hinder participation, and vice versa (Deacon et al, 1999). The interview questions should include the following: why do you pick these photographs, what is the story behind these photographs, and what is hidden from the photographs.

In conclusion, the analysis of observing family photos is helpful in understanding a particular nation’s social norm and ideologies. We understand that a significant preference to son is a dominant ideology in China. As a turn out, the male to female ratio in China in 2011 is 51.9 to 48.1 (Brooks, 2013); other significant problems such as gendercide widely exist in China as well. Also, we understand that in China, elders are specially respected because of Confucianism (McDevitt, 2007). Therefore, signs in public places about taking care of the elders are everywhere in China. Finally, It is certain that if I analyze more photographs with more time, the result will be much more detailed and complete.


Allan, S. (1999). Reading an Archive: Photography between Labour and Capital. In Evans, J. & Hall S. (eds), Visual Culture: The Reader. Londer: Sage. Pp.181-192.

Baby2see. (December 2, 2013). Will the baby be a Girl or Boy?. Baby2see.com. Retrieved from http://www.baby2see.com/gender/

Brooks, R. (March 4, 2013). China’s biggest problem? Too many men. CNN. Retrieved from http://www.cnn.com/2012/11/14/opinion/china-challenges-one-child-brooks/

Deacon, D. et al. (1999). Being an Observer. In Researching Communication. US: Hodder Arnold. Pp.248-277

Gernsheim, H. (1965). A Concise History of Photography. London: Thames and Hudson.

Hirsch, J. (1981). Family Photographs: Content, Meaning and Effort. New York: Oxford University Press. Pp.47-79.

McAllister, K.E. (2006). A story of escape: family photographs from Japanese Canadian internment camps. In Kuhn, A. & McAllister K.E. (2006), Locating Memory: Photographic Acts. US: Berghahn Books.

McDevitt, R. (2007). CONFUCIANISM – Understanding andApplying TheAnalects of Confucius. Education about Asia. Vol. 12(1). Retrieved from http://www.asian-studies.org/eaa/Confucianism_Handouts.pdf

Tran, K. (2013). Preference for Boys in China. Slideshare. Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/KhanhHoaTran/preference-for-boys-in-china

Appendix 1


Appendix 2

IMG_20131130_0001 (2)

Appendix 3


Appendix 4



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