China’s Children: Rare photographs of a society hidden from view

In 1980, photographer Mike Emery saw a China that was unknown to the West. He was able to immortalise a time of renewal, re-examination and eventual rebirth. 



Sometimes you find yourself lucky enough to bear witness to a moment in history.

I was one of those people, but it’s a moment in history which received very little fanfare. Nevertheless, my moment—the moment—was one of no lesser significance than many which capture and stir the imagination of those drawn to the past.

In the Spring of 1980, I was on board one of the first ever American passenger cruise ships sailing the coast of China. No-one on board had ever been to China; in fact, it was a seldom visited country for westerners, as it had been since before the war. That year, 1980, was all of four years after the culmination of China’s Cultural Revolution, a 10-year period in the nation’s history which had ended with Mao’s death. It was a time of socio-political devastation which had paralysed China politically and had a profoundly negative impact on both the economy and society at large. Having sailed from Osaka, I found myself arriving at a time of rapid change and excitement, with economic, political and cultural reforms sweeping the country. It was quite an adventure.

That year, 1980, was the beginning of reform. China was just starting to open and change after years of being isolated, mysterious and often threatening to the eyes of the west. With my bright clothes, fair hair and camera, I stood out in the Chinese streets and cities I visited. Local people were intrigued by this mysterious foreigner, so I played the clown to gauge the reactions of my new hosts. I’d pull faces, poke out my tongue, even lay in the middle of the street just to get noticed.

And it worked! Sometimes I’d get crowds of up to 50 people; some of them wanted to speak English with me, others were keen to satisfy their curiosity about this strange foreigner. As a result, I was able to use my camera to capture the essence of the time, both in people’s faces and the unique urban landscapes they inhabited.

Colour photography from this time in China’s history is extremely rare, and images of this quality are hardly ever seen. I was able to capture a simpler time, in a way which features everyday life in Beijing and Shanghai which I find is vastly different to the modern cities many people know now. In a way, it is a time capsule, and it might very well have been from a different planet, so stark are the differences between post-Mao China, and a very modern urban society which only just over a decade ago hosted the Summer Olympics.


Mike Emery and kids at the Tian’anmen Square in Beijing in 1980. (Image: Mike Emery.)

China is a nation steeped in rich history, traditions and culture. Its folklore dates back thousands of years. As someone with a love for China and its history, it means the world to me that I can bring this small sliver of its vast history to the eyes of the 21st century. I think that anyone else who loves China, and everything that love brings with it, will find great pleasure in the richness of these images and the stories behind them. It’s but a glimpse at a world so few of us were privy to; and if a picture paints a thousand words, there are scores of thousands to be read within these pages. I feel a weight and obligation to be truthful about the society I witnessed and have done all I can to capture a moment in the Middle Kingdom’s history and present it with the quality and respect that unique, significant history deserves.

My work, these pictures, they speak for themselves. There’s a starkness and simplicity to what’s on display, showing a time and place in history, encapsulating the lives of a people for whom the rest of the world was effectively shut out for generations. Dr Judith Neilson, founder and owner of Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery, says, “I believe an artwork has failed if it needs any explanation. So, I am all with the eye.” It’s with a similar mindset that I compose my own work. The work speaks for itself.

As a photographer, I think it’s important to be able to see a shot, get the feel for it. A photograph needs to depth, so your eyes see the foreground right through to the distance.


A bunch of kids on their way to school in 1980. The photo was probably taken around the junction of Qingpu and Daming Roads in Hongkou District. The children’s colours were in stark contrast to the drab Mao suits of the adults at the time. (Image: Mike Emery.)

With many Australians increasingly becoming collectors of Chinese art, I believe photographs fit into the overall aesthetic of this new trend quite nicely, especially when it comes to colour prints of a time and place when such things were rare. There is a new sense of appreciation for a mix of both contemporary and traditional Chinese art in the Australian community. 40 years ago, I bought several pieces of artwork when I was in China. In hindsight, I wish I had bought more. I think it has become very popular. Limited edition prints are also becoming very popular in China, and as time goes on, will be a lucrative market. I like to think I’ve gotten in on the ground floor with these.

With art telling a story, it’s hard not to believe that translates to the stories historical photographs tell.

After 38 years, I’ve collected my finest images and memories into a unique hardcover coffee table book. What I’ve captured is not solely a collection of works featuring children, rather it captures a time over which that generation of children grew up. It captures everyday people in their lives, encapsulating a moment in history which very few people were privileged—as I was—to bear witness. In sharing these photos, I hope that people who lived through these times and their families will have a book they can treasure for many years to come.




Mike Emery’s China’s Children Photo-Art Collection can be purchased at


Share via