The People’s Republic Of Television: Portraits From 1980s China

Courtesy KesselsKramer
Courtesy KesselsKramer
A found image published in "Me TV" by KesselsKramer

In the 1980s, television reached China in a big way. Part of the rapid economic expansion of the People’s Republic, TV was available to the masses for the very first time. And much like the first appearance of TV in the West in the ’50s and ’60s, those lucky enough to own a television proudly displayed their boxes as status symbols.

But beyond vanity, the TV brought contact. Suddenly, a single type of device brought citizens of this vast continent together more immediately and more efficiently than any technology until the arrival of the Internet . . . and simultaneously provided the state with more opportunities for propaganda than ever before.

Still, whatever its political re-purposing, one can imagine the joy and curiosity TVs brought their first owners, probably comparable to the reactions of younger generations to owning their first iPhones.

Soon, photographs of people and their televisions began appearing around China. Each showed a TV and its owner, posing together as if beloved spouses.

Looking at these images, we’re reminded of another contemporary trend: YouTube unboxing videos. Here, too, we see people displaying their freshly minted tech innovations (though these days, those tech goodies are unlikely to include a cathode ray).

From the many pictures documenting TVs in China, the eight photographs here are the best I’ve seen. Found in a market in Beijing, they show a woman in her late sixties, always in an identical pose. In fact, the only thing that changes is her outfit. Or rather, the only thing that changes is her top: a new colorful jumper in each image. Her trousers are, it seems, always the same. Even her pinkie finger remains static and strangely angled in shot after shot.

For some reason, this precise pinkie fascinates, implying as it does that she consciously arranged her little finger in a slightly unnatural way.

What’s with the pinkie? Was this a strange running gag? Is this artifice something to do with showing how proud she is of her TV?

What’s for sure is that in this extraordinary small photographic series, most likely made by a husband and his wife over a short period of time, a couple documents the arrival of a new television set in a way that verges on conceptual art.


A publication of ME TV (300 copies) was recently made as collaboration between Thomas Sauvin and Erik Kessels in Beijing. For many years, both have shared the same passion for vernacular and amateur photography.

Erik Kessels is a Dutch curator and editor. He is a founder of the advertising agency KesselsKramer.


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