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China: Speed Trading on the Information Highway

Activity: Trading postcard images of China

Goal: To recognize photographs as primary sources; to stimulate dialogue about Chinese culture and society today.

Age Group: Middle and high school

Materials: Print out one postcard image for each member of the class

Resources: Photos from U-M Lieberthal-Rogel Center for Chinese Studies, 2006 Photo Contest; 2007 Photo Contest

Additional Reading: Chinese Lessons: Five Classmates and the Story of the New China, John Pomfret, NY: Henry Holt & Co., 2006

Background for the Teacher

With China hosting the 2008 Olympics, people around the world have been looking closely at this country of 1.3 billion people. What does China mean for your classroom and why should they care? The short answer is the potential for growth and exchange is staggering. Day by day imperceptible day, China enters into our lives. Nothing will so define the world of tomorrow as how this nation expresses its ambition. But what does this nation look like? What do images tell us about foreign investment, the labor force, housing, education, and health care?

Students can begin to grasp the issues at hand through an interactive activity using postcard images taken by UM students and faculty on the Center for Chinese Studies websites (listed above).

These pictures show the changing face of China within the last 5 years--the market dream--whether street vendors or high profile electronic sales; architecture--traditional homes and neighborhoods replaced by high rises; multiplicity and individuality--thousands of identical eyeglasses, apartments, bicycles, etc. contrasting with individuals caught in the single act of communicating, some practicing the art of calligraphy, others text messaging; or the search for icons--traditional markers, monuments, and Mao…

Set the Stage

This learning activity requires passing out post-card size images to each students which they will keep or trade based on information sharing in a speed meeting format.
Explain that China is a land of contrast and change--for example, transportation spans a range of vehicles from donkey carts to magnetic levitation trains; street-side marketplaces straddle McDonald's (over 500 in 105 cities); cell phone ads (users are growing by 5 million a month) now outnumber posters for population control. Based on student reading, list some of the positive effects of change: i.e. private businesses are winning over state-owned enterprises, the labor force is enormous, and foreign investment is booming. List some of the negatives: housing, education, health care and pension plans are no longer guaranteed, college tuition is skyrocketing, banking systems are shaky, and there is a growing struggle to find moral values and identity.

  • Pass one image to each student.
  • Looking
    • Have students read the caption for context, but tell them to look closely at the "asides"—the poses of individuals, the way babies are held, how language is used, what the environment looks like, and so on. Based on social studies standards, ask students if their photo shows how people rely on the environment or how they alter it. What do the pictures reveal about migration
      flow, communication networks, trade and politics, marketplaces, or forces of scarcity and choice. How are photos used to create narrative from evidence. Look at social interactions—what do the images say about family, intimacy, change, happiness…
  • Choosing
    • Ask students if they like their image. If for example, they relate more to the image of the can of Red Bull discarded on the Tibetan Highway than the picture of Starbucks offered in the courtyard teahouse, hold onto the postcard. But, if not, look for an opportunity to TRADE!
  • Trading
    • This activity is a version of Speed Meeting/Dating and allows students to interact with each other, share opinions, and discuss likes and dislikes. Half the class will be "Stations" and will remain seated. The other half of the class will be "Travelers," and they will visit the Stations. Ring a bell and allow 2 minutes for Travelers to visit and discuss the photos. Ring again, and repeat the action. Depending on time, try to allow as many as 3-5 opportunities for trading.
  • Assessing
    • By a show of hands, see how many students traded their images. Ask who has (your favorite image) and interview the student to find out about the pathway of exchange. Continue to ask the student what he/she feels about the image—what they like or dislike, what it reveals about China, etc. Ask students to write their own label for the image that they are holding.  
  • Questioning
    • Question students about authenticity and veracity. Although photographs seem to be impartial, sometimes an image can be misleading. What happened just before or after the image was shot, did the photographer alter the image in development, etc.?

Make a museum gallery--choose one image as a centerpiece, and then ask participants to connect to the first image, providing a reason for each connection.  This activity provides a way to work as a group while respecting individual ways of thinking and perceiving.  Any connection is acceptable as long as it can be justified.