Big Eyes' Hope

Which is the single most famous photograph in China?  Everybody knows Chairman Mao, but there is no single photograph of that iconic figure.  Instead, everybody knows the one known as "Big Eyes" (大眼睛).  If you don't know about it, just stare at this photograph for a few seconds and imagine the message behind this photograph and the background of the girl.  Who is this big-eyed girl?  What are her hopes in life?  Does she stand a chance?  Remember that for the people of China, this is the iconic figure and not Chairman Mao.  Then you can proceed to be debriefed.

Here is the translation of an excerpt from the book (posted here in full) by the photographer Xie Hailong (解海龙).

[translation]  The location is Anhui province, Jinzhai County, Taoling Town, Zhangwan Village.

It seemed to have rained last night.  The photographer came in the dark and started as soon as it was daybreak.  The villagers opened their doors and the raindrops were still dripping from the pumpkin racks, leaving a damp courtyard on a damp morning.

At dawn, the village was especially quiet and tranquil.  In the silence, there are sounds of doors opening and closing and then small shadows appeared in the lead-grey fog.  Or maybe it was not fog, but just the night mist that was still in the morning light.  Once the children got outside the village, they seemed liberated and began to talk and yell aloud as they breathed the fresh air.  The morning dew dampened their clothes and the flowers, grass and trees touched them on the way.

The Meishan Reservoir formed a water body at the foot of the fill.  The water was still and smooth and stretched out with the water weeds to both sides until all the way to the horizon.  To get to the other side of the reservoir, the closest way is by boat.

The children pulled out a rickety boat from the wet grass and got on it.  But suddenly they are stunned, they got quiet, they opened their mouths and their eyes lit up -- a grown-up has just gotten on the boat.  Because of the additional weight, the boat swayed a little bit and water began to creep in through the cracks.

It was an awkward moment.  The children have never seen this stranger who was holding a camera and wearing a great coat.

"Children, where are you going?"  Xie Hailong tried to break the ice.  He had been following them for some time.

"To school."  The voice was afraid, as they are embarrassed and wary about the stranger.

As they spoke, a bigger boy began to row the oar.  Xie Hailong was not prepared and his body swayed for a moment as he cried out.  The children laughed and the atmosphere was lighter.

"Are you afraid?"

"We were are not afraid.  We go this way every day."

"Do you leave this early?"

"We all live in Zhangwan.  We are six kilometers away from school, and we have to make two trips every day."

Twelve kilometers each day.  After six years in elementary school, they would have gone over 20,000 kilometers.  It is so hard for the children in rural villages to go to school!

Xie Hailong spoke with the children and before long the boat had reached the middle of the lake, leaving behind a wake.  Xie Hailong saw that a thin and small girl was hiding in the corner.  She was at most seven or eight years old, wearing a flowery Chinese jacket.  Her two big eyes were hidden in the shadows and she said nothing.  She avoided the look of Xie Hailong, but she could sense that his eyes were on her hands, on her shouders, on her face and finally on her feet.  She subconsciously hid her feet underneath her bookbag and her little face became flushed.

Xie Hailong was delighted and asked, "What is your name?"

The girl said nothing.  She just lowered her head and played with her jacket.

"Do you understand what I say?  Do you know how to write?"  Xie Hailong stretched out his hand.

The little girl finally said in a low voice, "I can write."  Her little hand then brought out a pencil from her book bag and wrote on the photographer's big hand the three words, "Su Ming Juan (苏明娟)."

"Oh, your name is Su Mingjuan"  The photographer put his hand close to his eyes and read in a typical children's tone to tease this shy little girl.  The other kids all chattered, "Su Mingjuan, Su Mingjuan ... "  The little girl lowered her eyes and turned her head away.

The elementary school of Zhangan was located on a slope and seemed to have been converted from an old temple.  The school is not small, and first and second year students have separate classes.

By habit, the photographer's eyes moved around the classroom as he searched for the proper image and moment.  He looked and looked, and then he saw Su Mingjuan who was writing.  He remembered: "Oh, isn't that the girl that I met on the boat?"  At that moment, Su Mingjuan raised her head and captured his heart.  At this moment, he finally saw that this girl has especially big eyes, almost as if half her face consists of her eyes.  If it were not for those eyes, she would not be very attractive even though she is pleasant enough.  But her look was able to illuminate her whole body.  The eyes were penetrating and peered right into the hearts of people.  The photographer had taken photos of many pairs of eyes in his career, but at that moment, he was overwhelmed and shaken up.

Su Mingjuan sat in the second row, and Xie Mingjuan had to shoot through the gap between the two children in the first row.  The morning light shone through the classroom window and lit up her face.  The photographer quickly switched to a 80-200mm lens and held his camera steady and waited in front of the classroom.  When she raised her head again while holding her pen in hand, he pressed the shutter.  At that instant, he felt the elation of creative work: the elation from being able to seize the composition, the moment and the light.  He took two of these photos, one landscape and one portrait.  The portrait photo was the one that achieved immortality.

Today, we can travel all over the country, and sometimes we may see the anxious look of big-eyed peasant girl at a street corner.  That shy and withdrawn wordless stare, with a little bit of sadness.  Virtually no kind-hearted person will have to courage to stare back at all ...

Su Mingjuan became the image ambassador for Project Hope.  The Chinese Youth Development Foundation used "Big Eyes" as the promotional icon.  Based upon an incomplete tally, as of 1994, this photograph was used more than 100 million times in newspapers, posters and other materials and that probably made it the most printed photograph in history.  It is ranked number one in the survey of "most memorable photographs in the first 50 years of the nation."  Project Hope has collected 2 billion yuan in contributions.  A survey of the donors showed that half of them were not familiar with Project Hope and its work, but there were few who didn't know "Big Eyes" and many of them donated money on account of that image.  Some critics have said that this photograph has left an indelible imprint on the history of human education, culture and photography.

"Big eyes" was famous all over the country, but the real "Big Eyes" had no idea whatsoever about what has happened.  Living up in the mountain, Su Minjuan had no idea that Project Hope had anything to do with her, nor did she imagine that one moment of attention in a classroom could change her own life in an important way.

Finally, a letter from afar and a photograph in a newspaper caused the idyllic life in Zhangwan village to stir up.

A letter came from a military policeman named Li Wan together a photograph -- it was a little girl holding a pen and her two big eyes showed such desire for knowledge.  The caption said, "I want to come to school -- Jinzhai Zhangwan Elementary School Su YuXien (苏玉仙)."  Li Wan wanted to contribute some money to "Big Eyes" and asked the school to help locate Su YuXien.  Who is Su YuXien?  The people of Zhangwan tried guessing, but in the end they replied, "No such person."  And then the village went back to its peaceful ways.

In 1994, Jinzhai County held a lottery for "Heart of Love" at two yuan per ticket in order to raise money for the education fund.  The lottery ticket had the photograph of "Big Eyes" printed on it.  Someone in the village bought a ticket, he looked at the photograph left and right and then he went to see Su Mingjuan's father Su Liangyou: "Is this your daughter?"  Su Liangyou looked at it for a while, and thought it was likely.  So he asked his daughter, "Did anyone take a photograph of you?  As well as other students?"  Su Mingjuan did not remember, and even the teachers at the school did not remember.

Su Mingjuan had dropped out of school for a while.  The school building was too far away, and it was too tiresome for the small, frail child.  Su Liangyou said, "This child was always nervous, and tended to lose her hair; we had a son too, and we had difficulty making a living.  We couldn't handle everything at the same time, so we let her stop going to school."  

When Su Mingjuan got sick, her father took her to the town hospital.  The doctor saw her big shining eyes.  The more he looked, the more he was astonished.  He asked, "Are you that 'Big Eyes'?"

"What 'Big Eyes'?"  Su Minjuan wondered but did not reply.  The doctor then took out a photograph album titled, "I want to go to school -- Project Hope photographs."  He turned to the first page and asked, "You tell me if this is you."  Suddenly, all the doctors and nurses at the hospital crowded around her; they looked at Su Minjuan's eyes and put the photograph next to her to compare.  "That's right!  That's right!  It is this child for sure!"

When the school teachers found out, they asked Su Mingjuan to go and ask her parents to find if she had any clothes that looked exactly like the one in the photograph.  "If so, then you must be 'Big Eyes.'"  Su Mingjuan went home to tell her mother, who searched all over the place before finding the little flowery jacket.  The jacket was tiny, and there were two patches on the sleeve.  Her mother also sent in a book bag to show the teacher: when the child first went to elementary school, she bought five feet of cloth, from which a jacket was made and the remainder was used to make a book bag.  When the teacher looked at the jacket and the book bag, the pattern was completely identical to that in the photograph.  There was no doubt that Su Mingjuan was "Big Eyes."

At that time, this was almost three years after Xie Hailong took the photograph of "Big Eyes", and she is now known worldwide.  Hundreds of millions of RMB in donations have poured in.  But Zhangwan village was so isolated from the rest of the world in terms of transportation and communication that nobody in the village, much less the town or county, made the connection.

By this time, as the Big Eyes photo drew in more and more donations for Project Hope, there were different versions about "Big Eyes"' story: one said that she was from Guangxi; another Guangdong family told the newspapers that it was their daughter who was currently out of school and therefore they wanted people to help them financially.  There are many similar false "Big Eyes" stories, but Xie Hailong knew very well where "Big Eyes" came from.  During these years, he had not been able to go visit the girl in Zhangwan.

In September 1994, Chinese Youth Development Foundation promotions director Wang Xudong was on business in Anhui, and Xie Hailong asked him to look up "Big Eyes."  Wang went to Zhangwan village in Jinzhai County, and when he saw the girl, he knew with certainty that this was the real "Big Eyes."  So he held her hand and called her Su Yuxien.  Su Mingjuan had no idea who Su Yuxien was.  She was always known as Su Mingjuan and never ever as Su Yuxien.  After some back and forth, the truth eventually came out.  The 'culprit' was the photographer Xie Hailong.  In April 1994, after taking the Big Eyes photograph, he went back to the county seat and then found out that the name written on his hand had rubbed off from sweating.  He used his memory and guessed that the name was Su Yuxien.  That was why "Big Eyes" had appeared under the name of Su Yuxien, and that was also why the military policeman Li Wan could not locate her.

Once "Big Eyes" and Su Mingjuan are connected together, she became "famous overnight."

The book then goes on to cover the media events that fell upon the little girl from the mountain: the visit to Beijing, the CCTV interview, the meeting with national leaders, etc.  I am going to skip all that happy talk and translate a darker version instead (at 

[translation]  Those big eyes in Project Hope's promotional posters once touched the hearts of hundreds of millions of Chinese people.  But today, "Big Eyes" has been accepted by Anhui University and she has become a news figure pursued by various media.

Su Mingjuan was undoubtedly lucky.  We have no intention of magnifying her university life like other media, and we only hope that more attention will be paid to other economically disavantaged children who cannot attend school.  Like Su Mingjuan, they also wanted to learn.  Solving the problem of Chinese school children cannot depend solely on the "celebrity effect" of Su Mingjuan.  It is more important to build a sensible, long-term and effective system, such as enabling Project Hope to fulfill more hopes.  We hope that more people will pay attention to Project Hope itself, and not just one special case.  In the end, Project Hope wins only if all the Su Mingjuan's of China can go to school.


On the afternoon of September 12, 2002, a motor boat was going through the waters of the Meishan reservoir.

Su Mingjuan was on the boat and watched the old house in which she lived in for more than ten years.  Her parents have moved into the county capital a month ago, but the old house was still there.  The mountain path that she spent four hours a day traversing is still there, the wild flowers by the road are still there, the ditches are still in the field, and her childhood and youth are all left in the place known as Zhangwan village.

Su Mingjuan knew that her grandmother is still waving goodbye to her.  Tomorrow, she will leave Jinzhai and report to Anhui University.  This will be the beginning of her new life.

This reporter did not want to interview Su Mingjuan.  But when the reporter came to interview her family in Zhangwan, she happened to have just come back to bid farewell to relatives and friends.  We happened to be taking the same boat back to the county capital.

On the boat, Su Mingjuan asked me, "Why are you here if you don't want to interview me?"

I had nothing to say.  I wanted to say, "I don't want to disturb you."  But I didn't say that, because I am afraid that she won't believe me.

From Guangzhou to Hefei is about 24 hours by train; from Hefei to Jinzhai County, it is more than 2 hours by car; from Jinzhai to Zhangwan, it is more than two hours by car plus several kilometers of winding paths.  As I came this way, I knew that I wanted to interview Su Mingjuan no matter the hardship.  After all, Su Mingjuan is a news figure and I am a news reporter.

But in the end, I changed my mind, because I saw this girl who is supposed to be happy is not happy.

Who is Su Mingjuan?  Only an idiot would ask such a question, but this was the question in my head at Jinzhai.

The first time that I saw Su Mingjuan, I could not distinguish her from other impoverished girls in the county.  A blue t-shirt, light leisure trousers, white athletic shoes, the looks and moves of a plain girl from a mountain village.  But what I saw that was very different was the deep, soul-shaking look of anxiety and worry in her eyes.  I thought about tragedy.

I finally understood the question of who is Su Mingjuan.  She is a simple girl from the impoverished mountain area; like other children from the mountain, she is not used to dealing with people; she loves to study; her compositions are better than her mathematics; she likes to listen to the songs of Wang Lei and Jay Chou; she sometimes argue with her parents, and she sometimes acts like a spoiled child in front of them.  But she is always saying: let me live in peace.

But all this is receding further and further away from her.  Of course, she is still the image of Project Hope, and a public figure pursued by the media, she is a main character at conferences, she is the torchbearer at sports events, she is the person who gets the loudest applause ... yet, she is tired.  She is only nineteen and she can't pause to rest because too many people expect her to keep running.

I know how difficult it is for a celebrity to lead a calm life.  I know that my staying away makes no difference, but I stayed away from her.  Even though I had many chances to interview her, I did not do what a news reporter is supposed to do.  I wanted to express my attitude.  I wanted this girl to know that I understand her.

But I can still see that she is surrounded by people.  I can her her rapid breathing as if the surrounding atmosphere is getting thinner and thinner.  But I can't help her; it is like seeing someone in a swift current screaming for help, and all I have are straws in my hands.

Someone said: the media created Su Mingjuan.  Others say: the media will destroy this child.

I agree!

For the more than one hour on the boat, Su Mingjuan buried her head between her legs.  She said nothing.  The motor boat's engine sounds and the chatter of the reporters did not break her silence -- yes, she is tired.

But this reporter is thinking, what is the meaning to this peasant girl of the famous Big Eyes photograph that Xie Hailong took more than ten years ago?


On one hand, she is proud for having done something meaningful.  On the other hand, she had to face up to enormous pressure.  All these years, Su Mingjuan had to live in this abnormal situation, and that is the cause for her anxiety.

But Su Mingjuan is also happy.  "She likes to listen to Wang Lei, but I could not get any tapes."  Wang Xieyou accompanied Su Mingjuan from Jinzhai to Hefei.  She wanted to let Su Mingjuan hear what she liked to listen to, because she wanted to see her happy.  In the end, Su Mingjuan was able to borrow Wang Lei tapes from her classmates and she was quite happy as she listened to them.  "I did not take any photographs because I was afraid of interrupting her happiness," said Wang Xieyou.

Perhaps, Su Mingjuan is happy when she is away from the public eye.

What does "Big Eyes" look like today?  This is Su Mingjuan in 2002, and the story of these photos follows:

(  In front of Nanjing's largest Xinhua Bookstore in the busiest New Street Corner section, there is a large photograph of "Big Eyes" that measured 2 meters by 2 meters.  Those big eyes that look longingly to want to study attracted the attention of the waves of people who enter the sea of knowledge.  "Big Eyes" looked at her own photo and said with humor, "When I was little, I had big eyes.  But now my eyes are small, because even though my face is longer, my eyes had not grown."  She stood in front of her own photo to get another photo taken, and then she turned around and hurried into the bookstore with her friends.

In May 2001, the photographer Xie Hailong came to Big Eyes' home for the third time.  This time, the Chinese Youth Development Foundation wanted to bring distance learning to the poor villages around China.  Bearing in mind the tremendous impact of Big Eyes last time, the decision was to ask the photographer  Xie Hailong to photograph "Big Eyes" for a "I want to get on the Internet" photograph.  For her efforts, a corporation donated a personal computer to her.  It was odd to find a multimedia computer (128 memory, 40 gigabyte harddisk, 40X CD and 56K modem) in a house where the only electronic item was a 12" black-and-white television and with no telephone.

There are millions of children who have benefited from Project Hope.  There are also many other famous (but not as famous as "Big Eyes") children who were featured in other promotional photographs.  Here are some taken from Xinhua Net  (and from Qianlong for the the colored updates on the two boys today).

Girl stands in class because there is no chair.

Bring your own chair to school then.

Hand warming before class.

A rainstorm puts a hole in the school roof.



(Note:  This is what passes as Physical Exercise class!)

Addendum:  In January 1994, the Hong Kong tabloid Next Weekly reported that Project Hope could not account for HK$70 million in donations, implying the donations from the people of Hong Kong to help the Chinese children have been misdirected to the pockets of certain people.  The affected party filed a libel lawsuit that did not get resolved for six years.  The net outcome was that Next Weekly had to pay HK$3.5 million in damages as well as court fees.