Artist's Statement: A Mandala Within a Snail Shell

Photographer Jianhua Gong.When the reform formally started in China in 1978, I was 25 years old and was working at a factory that manufactured buses. By that time, the Seagull 205, an entrance-level professional camera, had been on my mind for a long time. My desire to become a professional photographer was more than a passing whim, but the more I insisted on pursuing this interest, the stronger my father objected. “You should have a real career,” my father often told me. The Seagull 205 had a forbidding price of 135 yuan, and I made only 30 yuan a month at the time. As it was hopeless to ask my father for help, I instead approached my grandmother and brother for their support. Today I still feel such affection and gratitude toward my grandmother, a housewife without an income of her own, who gave me all she could to make my dream to be a photographer come true. Thanks to her, I was finally able to buy a camera that would be the cheapest camera I have ever owned, but also the most precious. That Seagull 205 sits on my bookshelf to this day.

After two years of professional training at photography school, I got my first job as an in-house photographer in 1984 at Shanghai Audio & Video World Magazine. While employed there, my photographs of famous singers were featured on magazine covers, record sleeves, and cassette boxes. The magazine only came out monthly, so I had plenty of free time to work on my own projects. Many of my photographer friends went out of the Shanghai metropolitan area into the interior provinces to photograph nature, wilderness, mountains, and so on. After a few such trips, I personally decided that there was plenty of wonderful subject matter worth shooting just outside my doorstep, in the longtang (弄堂) – the alleyways – of Shanghai.

Inevitably longtang architecture appears in my photographs, and many people find this especially interesting. What I was really interested in capturing with my camera, however, was how people lived within the narrow and complex spaces created by the buildings. I believe that the longtang are the ultimate symbol of Shanghai, and that it is impossible to even talk about Shanghai culture without talking about the longtang. For example, the “Garret Culture” (ting zi jian wenhua, or  亭子間文化), a radical bohemian movement among intellectual youth in the 1920s and 1930s made famous by the author Lu Xun, had its roots in the longtang life. 

I can certainly see how these longtang could seem, to outsiders, to be quite miserable places to live. There are no private bathrooms or household kitchens. Everything has to be shared among neighbors, and it is common for seven families to set up their stoves in a single, shared kitchen. Making the living conditions worse, spaces that were originally designed to be occupied by one family now accommodate ten families, or even more. So how does one manage living in such circumstances? As you can see in the photographs included in this essay, people living in the longtang rely on a combination of pragmatism, creativity, and communalism. No toilet? Use a chamber pot. No gas? Use a meiqiulu (煤球爐, coal-ball stove) No tap water at home? Fetch it from outside. Can’t afford boiling water all the time? Buy from the community laohuzao (老虎灶, hot water shop). Since there is no bathroom, you wash yourself in a wooden bucket, or, if it is summer, just wash outside with your underwear on.

Neighbors become very important in such a close living environment, as you can imagine. If one resident falls ill, all of his neighbors will come to his aid. They will send him to the hospital and take care of him en masse. For me, this kind of communal assistance is one of the essential features of longtang life. Of course, it is only natural that in such narrow and crowded spaces, conflicts do arise among residents. A lot of these tensions, are,  not surprisingly, about space. If you move your stove in the kitchen an inch outside of your “designated” area, it may well cause an unpleasant exchange with a neighbor who had been perfectly friendly until then.

As one popular local saying goes, life in the longtang, if not the life of the Shanghainese people in general, involves “setting up a mandala within a snail shell” (螺螄殼里做道場). In other words, one must creatively use the limited resources within these longtang and try to enjoy life as much as possible.

I worked for Shanghai Audio & Video World Magazine for 13 years, until I left China for the United States in 1997. I now work as a photographer for a Chinese-language newspaper in the San Francisco Bay Area called News for Chinese (老中地方新聞). This year I have closely followed the Occupy Movement with my camera. I maintain close ties with Shanghai and return there regularly, and I am still a member of the Association of Chinese Photographers and an officer in the Shanghai Photographer Association. I continue to work on my own projects, in addition to my journalism career, and am very proud to have received more than 100 medals in Chinese and international photography competitions. My photographs have also been featured in exhibitions in Japan, China, and the United States. The photographs of the longtang included in this essay are among those included in two new books of my work published by Shanghai Brilliant Publishing House: Hello, Shanghai (2010) and Those Years and Those Things (2011). For further background information, please visit my website at

Andy Zhou is a PhD student in political science at the University of California, Berkeley.


A large body of scholarship exists in English on the subject of Shanghai. For readers interested in issues closely related to those raised by this photo essay and, in particular, by Xiaoneng's Yang's contextualizing essay, please refer to Jeffrey Cody's "Building in China : Henry K. Murphy's 'adaptive architecture,' 1914-1935" (University of Washington Press, 2007) and Wen-hsin Yeh's "Shanghai Splendor" (University of California Press, 2007), among others.