When Zhang Xiao began his exploration of the Shehuo festival in rural China in 2007, he created ethereal photographs of performers wearing elaborate makeup and costumes. Performers told him some of the meticulously crafted costumes had been passed down generation to generation from the time of the Qing Dynasty — which ended in 1912.
When he returned to the project in 2018, those heirlooms had been replaced by mass-produced products, sold on China’s popular e-commerce marketplace, Taobao.
Zhang documented the festival over a decade of modernization, creating a portrait of how traditional practices sustain themselves amid rapid change.
As the 11th recipient of the Peabody Museum’s Robert Gardner Fellowship in Photography, Zhang was called to “document the human condition anywhere in the world.” His fellowship has produced the new bilingual photographic exhibition “Shehuo: Community Fire” at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology & Ethnology (May 13–April 14, 2024) and a book, “Zhang Xiao: Shehuo” (Aperture/Peabody Museum Press, July 2023).
Shehuo (社火, literally “community fire”) is a series of ancient agricultural festivities held throughout the countryside in northern China to mark the Chinese Lunar New Year or “Spring Festival.” It was traditionally a time to pray for good weather for abundant crops (earth) and safety from evil spirits (fire).
Today the festival includes traditions such as dragon dances, acrobatics, stilt-walking, bonfires, markets, storytelling, and performances. “Almost every villager attends or participates by performing or by making elaborate costumes and props,” writes Zhang.
In 2018 and 2019 Zhang visited the Henan Province village of Huozhuang in Jian’an District, Xuchang City. “I decided to explore the production of contemporary Shehuo props, and the people involved in the industry,” says Zhang, “to examine the growing relationship between traditional culture and mass-produced goods, which heralded a new era of consumption for rural communities.”