Living Otherwise: Buddhist Photography on the New Silk Road

Buddhist Photography on the Silk Road

The Ürümchi-based Chinese photographer Tian Lin thinks of himself as a migrant, “a blind wanderer” (liumang) in the city. Although he studied business at a small college in Xinjiang, when he finished school in the late 1990s he had no luck finding a job. In the midst of his job search he came across a night course in photography at a vocational school.

Portrait and wedding photography was just catching on in Ürümchi at that time. For many Han migrants to the province it was novelty. Tian Lin had always loved art, so he was immediately intrigued. He decided to take the course and open his own photo studio. But after he opened his shop he found himself right back where he started: without an income. His dreams were fading fast. As a photographer he found that he could only make around $50.00 per month. He considered returning to his home on a Han settler farm in the northwest borderlands with Russia and Central Asia, but then he discovered another way forward.

In the midst of this failure he began to take up the study of Buddhism and to treat photography as part of his Buddhist practice. Like many young people unsettled by China’s social transformation, Tian Lin turned to religious practice as a way of reframing his life in urban Xinjiang. He found that his multiple identities as a Buddhist and a long-term Xinjiang settler (lao Xinjiang) and a documentary photographer enabled him to reframe the politics of the capitalist nation and the violence of settler colonialism.

In this essay, I argue that Tian Lin's Buddhist photography produces a politics of living otherwise. By reframing migrant life in the city Tian Lin is also demonstrating what a practice of living-with others looks like. In the following six sections I discuss how Tian Lin finds himself in the middle of the history and geography of ethnic politics between Uyghurs and Han, the resurgence of religious​ faith across China, and the emergence of documentary photography in contemporary Chinese arts. I then turn to Tian Lin's images​ and the politics they signify. Finally I conclude the essay by summarizing Tian Lin's photo project and what makes it significant in the art and politics of Chinese Central Asia. 
 
  1. In the Middle of Ethnic Politics
  2. Religion in China
  3. Documentary Photography in China
  4. Tian Lin's Images
  5. The Politics of Tian Lin's Images
  6. Living Otherwise: Conclusions

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