on chen jin's works


The Zen Enlightenment of Chen Jin

Bao Kun


At 14:28:04 on May 12th, a violent earthquake shook the cities Wenchuan and Beichuan in Sichuan Province. The earthquake, which destroyed about 500,000 square kilometers, profoundly rewrote the culture and history within that region.
During the following years, many photographers tried to examine and interpret the consequences of the catastrophe. Images that record the natural changes and social pathos became commonplace, thus a “photographic earthquake” almost replaced the real ground shaking and sky falling, and seemed even more tragic. This phenomenon illustrates the feature of a media age, that any disaster or event could turn into a carnival of correspondents and reports, with history being consumed by the media.

Mr. Chen Jin, an experienced photographer from Chengdu, Sichuan, also made his active appearance in Wenchuan when the series of events happened. However, Chen Jin did not drift with the tide, instead, when faced with this very catastrophe, he carried on a series of philosophical inner-reflection through a photographic approach.
The earthquake has destroyed the normal state of life in Wenchuan and Beichuan; it razed the dwelling places and devastated the roads and farms. Among the pervasive trauma, Chen Jin discovered a collapsed Buddhist temple. He found that the clay-sculptures of Arhat( in Chinese: Luohan) lying among the ruins. Arhats are the enlightened pupils of Buddha. In the mind of the believers and monks, they are deemed to be pure, free from earthly troubles, they can transcend beyond life and death, reach Nirvana, receive donations from worshippers, and deliver all living creatures from torment. But the earthquake scared away the regular donators and the Arhats were exposed to adverse circumstance, presenting a rare and odd scene. 

Chen Jin observed this scene through the perspective of a photographer. He saw that nature, on the one hand, relentlessly trod on living creatures, and on the other hand, generously nurtured all things with its constant sweet dew. After the earthquake, the moist climate in western Sichuan fondled this land once again just like a big, warm hand. Plants sprouted and grew around the dilapidated sculptures, forming a newly built nest in which to enclose the sculptures kindly. They were no longer standing in the ordinary order as before, but formed a completely new structual relation. The green plants turned into the clouds and mists curled around them, making them appear approachably kind. 

Without this huge disaster, Buddhas or Gods might permanently be above all living creatures, standing high on the top of our spirit, being the idols to whom we would worship. However, natural disaster dragged them down from the top, and placed them back among us. Chen Jin has noticed this kind of “rebirth”, and fixed this moment which occurred once in a millennium. What did he want to tell us? In my understanding, everyone, everything is nihility in front of the infinite universe, only in awe and veneration toward the Creator can we comprehend the meaning. In this sense, human beings are as equal as Buddhas or Gods for we are ultimately of the same origin. 

Bao Kun