As we step into the Lunar New Year, we interview China's brightest young star, the beautiful and talented Chen Man.
Chen Man creates perfect images. She transforms her subjects into hyper-real cyborgs, like the good queen who gives you a kiss when you’ve completed a computer game. Aged just 33, she has revolutionised fashion and beauty photography in China and now has a 38 man strong team working at her studio in an artist’s resident’s block in central Beijing. Despite her snowballing reputation and ever-increasing workload, nothing fazes this photographer’s Zen-like being. Chen Man performs acupuncture on herself, practices tai chi and is mother to two under fives. She likes her critics, knows everyone who’s anyone and takes pride in casting the Chinese models other photographers won’t work with. There are no mistakes. This is something new. Welcome to the future.
“Europeans watch Farewell My Concubine and then come to China with all these expectations, but then when they arrive they’re met with skateboarders, break dancers, fashion photographers and a hip hop scene.”
Born in Beijing in 1980, Chen Man grew up in the wake of the Cultural Revolution in a traditional Hutong neighbourhood under the shadow of the Forbidden City. Hers was the last generation of the Chinese one-child policy. “The post 80s generation are much more selfish than the generation before,” she claims. “Since we are the one-child only generation, we are more precious to our parents; they wanted us to be more self-conscious. They didn’t care about themselves, there was more emphasis on group honour, the greatest good for the greatest number.” An avid painter from the age of two, Chen Man studied at the Central Academy of Fine Arts before starting college. She studied painting, architecture, graphic design and set design before falling in love with photography, by which time she had perfected the digital software and post-production techniques that are now her calling card. “I studied so much that it’s only natural for me to bring all these elements together in my work,” Chen Man explains. Today she is one of China’s most celebrated fashion photographers, yet not everybody is on side. “Some people say my work isn’t photography, they say its graphic design or art because I use so much post-production,” she reveals. “But I like criticism because it allows me to view myself from the other side, and that way I can improve.” Those on side include Chinese Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Dolce & Gabbana, Adidas and Nike, together with every actress, model and socialite in Beijing. She’s even friends with Miss China.
Chen Man met her husband Raph at a Nike party in Beijing a few years ago. She was invited; he came with the DJ. Raff owns his own skateboard brand, Society Skateboards, raps, and heads underground hip hop battles for Chinese kids; it’s a side to modern China Chen Man is keen to document. “Europeans watch Farewell My Concubine and come to China with all these romantic expectations,” she says, “but when they arrive they’re met with skateboarders, break dancers, fashion photographers and a hip hop scene. I want to package this together and not only show it to China but show it to the world.” She does this by photographing her models in sacred, ancient destinations such as Tiananmen Square or the Great Wall of China, and then introducing unexpected modern twists, cue a ghetto blaster on her model’s shoulder, pom pom hair and superhero silver leggings. “I mix tradition with modernity and make it kitsch,” she explains. “In the past, Chinese artists have always looked abroad for inspiration as opposed to looking domestically. But because the Western world is so developed in design and photography, all these things have been done before. All the rules have been set. I’m one of the first people to actually look to China for inspiration.” That’s not to say the Western world doesn’t feature in Chen Man’s aesthetic. Western influences include American artist Matthew Barney and British photographer Nick Knight. “I look at different international photographers and fashion to get inspiration for sure,” she says, “but this current phase of my work is devoted to China itself.”
Chen Man believes in two definitions of beauty. The first is authentic beauty. “It feels real, whether it’s an emotion, an image, a person or an art work,” she declares. “The second is technological beauty, a mobile phone, a computer, an iPad… I find both sides of the coin beautiful, that’s why I look for authenticity in my models but mix it with the genius of technology.” Only a handful of models in Chen Man’s shoot for i-D's The Whatever The Weather Issue are professional posers; one is unsigned and Chen Man is the only photographer to shoot her, the others are Tibetan teenagers handpicked by the photographer especially. “China has 50 to 60 ethical groups,” Chen Man reveals. “So for the non models we went to the Tibetan High School, one of the ethical colleges, and scouted students in the playground. I wanted this shoot to represent the breadth of beauty in China today.”
If you were wondering about beauty in China, then Chen Man’s photographs are a great place to start. If you weren’t, take notice because the country has one of, if not the most progressive beauty industries in the world right now. When asked what Chinese girls today think is beautiful, Chen Man is quick to reply, “White skin and big eyes”. The drugstores in Beijing are filled with eyelid tape to give the appearance of a Western lid, while the shelves are stocked with every blend of skin whitening cream imaginable. “Nice tan” is an insult. TV shows feature Chinese girls who have had plastic surgery to look more ‘Western’ - including operations on their eyelids and cheek reductions to imitate a Western contour. The word “ugly” is thrown around freely; even our tour guide opens her address with, “Good morning, welcome to Beijing. You are all very pretty, I am very ugly”, and one of the models Chen Man regularly shoots, Liu Yen, is publicly dubbed “the ugliest model in China”.
Beauty, or at least beauty as an industry, is a new concept in China. “Chinese women only picked up on make-up two or three years ago,” Chen Man explains. “When I was young the only make-up I wore, aside from traditional operatic face paint for school plays, was a watch that I drew on my wrist in the morning.” It’s a generation indoctrinated in the Western ideals of beauty, but Chen Man has other ideas. “I like to work with a face that Chinese people don’t see as attractive,” she reveals. “Take Liu Yen. She’s got very Asiatic eyes and a look that would be perfect for fashion shows, but as far as Chinese people are concerned she looks like an alien. When I shot her on the Great Wall of China, there were Chinese tourists in the background asking, ‘Why are they photographing her? She’s not pretty, she looks awful!’ But someone has to take the lead…” Another Chinese actress favoured by Chen Man is Fan Bing Bing, who has picked up the nickname ‘dude’ courtesy of the photographer. Challenging gender stereotypes, Chen Man has photographed the beauty dressed as Bruce Lee, Che Guevara and Superman. Through her work Chen Man wants China to look back to itself. When she first started fashion photography in 2003, she cut her teeth photographing for avant-garde fashion and lifestyle magazine Vision, but she wasn’t initially allowed to shoot covers. “Like many other Chinese magazines, Vision used existing Western images for the cover because everybody at the time believed that everything from the West was fashionable and nothing from China was fashionable,” she explains.
Chen Man is using her photography to carve out a new idea of beauty that is strong, bold and distinctly Chinese. But does she believe that beauty should be flawless? Her friend, the actress Zhou Xun recently claimed Chen Man’s image of her was so flawless she could never live up to it in reality. But then reality for Chen Man is just the starting point, to which she adds technology to achieve that all-important balance. “Everyone in the world has different perceptions of beauty,” she explains. “It’s a social phenomenon that everything has to be retouched and appear flawless. If celebrities wanted to show their true selves, it would be easy; they could just take a picture and do nothing to it. But it’s not up to the stars, it’s up to the masses, they think what’s flawless is beautiful. I’m good at finding the beautiful side of people.” Despite being a fan of post-production, Chen Man insists she hates plastic surgery and her definition of beauty is “authenticity”.
“I believe in the idea that the universe, the earth and everything that lives in it are all part of one whole,” she concludes. In her work she strives to create a harmony between east and west, tradition and modernity, the beautiful and the “ugly”, cementing her position as one of the leading photographers of her generation.