[kai fàng]
(adj): to be open (to the outside world)
to be open (to the public)
(vb): to lift a ban or restriction
to come into bloom

Although the broad sweep of 20th century Chinese history is known in the West — persecution, revolution, the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, famine, modernization, post-Mao economic reforms and Westernization — individual people are too often missing from the plot. We know only that millions died and that millions more survived.

Those who have lived through war and civil war are a reticent generation, amongst whom the idea of collective guilt is deeply rooted, and freedom of speech can be a dangerous and unfamiliar concept. The stories of the survivors are mostly untold and, as this generation grows older, the concern is that their memories will be lost forever.

Kate Shortt travelled through China in 2006 with Xinran, the Chinese author, who was researching her book China Witness: Voices from a Silent Generation. For political or personal reasons, people had previously been reluctant to speak of their experience or to voice opinions. Now, after three decades of gaige kai fang (the policy of Reform and Opening Up), people were ready to tell their stories. Kate was there when Xinran met everyday heroes, now in their eighties and nineties; she documented on camera the storytellers and their surroundings, painting a striking portrait of this country and its people.

text excerpted from the catalogue of Kate Shortt's exhibition at Asia House, London in November 2009.