Shipping out to China in December 1947 with three ten-year-old German cameras and a plum assignment from Life magazine, Jack Birns was fulfilling a boyhood dream. The reality was something else: refugees and prostitutes, soldiers and beggars, street executions and urban protests photographed in difficult and often dangerous circumstances amidst the poverty, corruption, and chaos of an expanding civil war. By then the ruling Nationalist Party had been battling the Communist threat for more than two decades, and Birns focused his camera on the human drama unfolding as war pressed ever closer to the country's financial, cultural, and commercial capital. His effort to show China's misery up close ran afoul of Time-Life publisher Henry R. Luce's fervent anti-communism, and for half a century many of these historic photographs lay unpublished in Time-Life's archives. Printed here for the first time, they offer a graphic vision of a great city, Shanghai, poised on the precipice of political revolution.
Seen through the lens of hindsight, Birns's photographs give us a sense not only of what China was like more than fifty years ago, but also of why the warfare, weariness, and desperation of the time proved such fertile soil for communist revolution. Today these everyday scenes of ordinary people—pedicab drivers, street vendors, bar girls, police, politicians, prisoners—tell a story of national resilience and dignity in the midst of enveloping poverty, repression, and fear. Birns's stark black and white photographs capture the dramatic end of an era, but they also look forward, letting us glimpse how Shanghai's past prefigures the city's commercial and cultural revival in the 1990s.
Jack Birns is a former Life photographer who was stationed in Shanghai during the final years of China's Civil War. Carolyn Wakeman is Associate Professor of Journalism and Asian Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, where she directs the Asia-Pacific Program at the Graduate School of Journalism. Ken Light is a teaching fellow and curator of the Center for Photography at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. Orville Schell is the Dean of the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley.
“In 1947, Jack Birns sailed across the Pacific to photograph the growing civil war in China for Life magazine. Many of his photographs depicting the poverty, corruption and chaos didn't run, however, because they failed to support the anti-communist views of then-publisher Henry Luce. Now, they've been gathered here, where they provide a fantastic entry into that chaotic period: poor cotton thieves by the Bund, striking workers and expatriates in the French Quarter.”—Toronto Globe & Mail
“His photographs . . . are lively and genuine.”—Johnathan Mirsky The Literary Review
“Despite the high esthetic value and poignancy of the images in Assignment Shanghai, most were buried because of political sensitivities at the time. To put it bluntly, Birns portrayed all too accurately China’s troubled state on the eve of the communist victory in 1949. . . . In fact, the pictures in Assignment Shanghai are notable for their foreshadowing of events to come. . . . They certainly help us make sense of China’s political traumas in a way that earlier readers would no doubt have welcomed, too.”—Jeffrey N. Wassertrom Newsweek International
“Jack Birns takes his place among the heroes of war photography; and the way that he escaped from the fall of Shanghai is an American adventure story.”—The Independent On Sunday
“Portrays the complexity and dynamism of Shanghai street life in the 1940s. . . .A mass exodus from the city took place and Shanghai prepared for heavy fighting, but in the end the communists took it without a fight. Birns left on the last American flight out of the city. ASSIGNMENT SHANGHAI is his legacy.”—Colin Pantall Far Eastern Economic Review
“Birns kept his cameras focused on the struggles of everyday Shanghai life – mostly the deaths and turmoil that culminated in a mass exodus in 1949. The images are stark, honest. Birns' viewpoint is that of a curious bystander not afraid to stare, and most of his subjects seem strangely unaware of the camera. It's as if no one cares that we see it all: refugees and beggers, dead children in coffins, street executions and violent demonstrations, the residues of war.”—Huy Nguyen Dallas Morning News
“...Assignment Shanghai: Photographs on the Eve of Revolution - taken during the Communist Nationalist war of 1947-49 - documents the political violence, cultural dislocations, and staggering poverty that preceded, and laid the ground for, the revolution.”—Susie Linfield Boston Review
“Outstanding photographs . . . An insightful glimpse not only into China on the brink of revolution, but also into American journalism and photojournalism.”—Dolores Flamiano American Journalism
"For over half a century, Americans have been pondering the reasons for the swift collapse of the Nationalist Chinese forces during 1948 and early 1949. Jack Birns’s agile lens brings many things into focus for us: the manifold levels of urban poverty, the breakdown of any pretense to social order, the random brutality meted out to suspected Communists, and the unsparing distance between foreign privilege and domestic deprivation. This book is a powerful addition to our pictorial and emotional record of those bitter months."—Jonathan D. Spence, author of The Search for Modern China
"As a journalist who covered the Chinese civil war and reported the Communist siege of Mukden and the fall of Nanjing and Shanghai in 1949, I can testify to the penetrating authenticity of these Jack Birns photographs, which capture the essence of the agonizing human upheaval on the eve of Mao Zedong’s ascent to power. Birns has given us a stunning pictorial record of focal events during a world-changing revolution."—Seymour Topping, former managing editor of the New York Times and SanPaolo Professor Emeritus of International Journalism, Columbia University