China's Vanishing Worlds is an extensive photo-essay book, a project of several years of intensive work0001. In the course of our research, we paid numerous visits to rural areas and far-flung corners of China's vast countryside. Our fieldwork—talking to villagers, taking photographs, and searching through historical records—was less difficult than it might have been a century ago. Although many rural people were puzzled to see a European man accompanied by an Asian woman, we never encountered the dangers faced, for example, by the pioneering nineteenth-century Scottish photographer John Thompson, who during one of his trips in the interior of China was set upon by an angry mob. Thompson later wrote that the Chinese thought of photography as “some black art, which at the same time bereft the individual depicted of so much of the principle of life as to render his death a certainty within a very short period of years” (1873–74: 1). By contrast, most of the villagers we encountered were willing to share with us the stories of their hard lives.

Figure 1

When China took its first post-1949 census in 1953, its population was 582 million, of which more than 85 percent were peasant farmers. Sixty years later, its population has grown to over 1.3 billion, with approximately 50 percent, the majority of which are peasant framers, residing in the countryside. According to a projection, by 2020 urban areas will occupy 96 percent of China's total arable land. China's rural residents will account for less than 4 percent of the total population, although they will be spread over almost two-thirds of the country (Wu 2010: 20–21). (Photo: Shanxi Province)

Figure 1

When China took its first post-1949 census in 1953, its population was 582 million, of which more than 85 percent were peasant farmers. Sixty years later, its population has grown to over 1.3 billion, with approximately 50 percent, the majority of which are peasant framers, residing in the countryside. According to a projection, by 2020 urban areas will occupy 96 percent of China's total arable land. China's rural residents will account for less than 4 percent of the total population, although they will be spread over almost two-thirds of the country (Wu 2010: 20–21). (Photo: Shanxi Province)

Yet trying to collect remnants of the past was by no means an easy or agreeable task. Some farmers who lived through the upheavals of the twentieth century could not easily talk about their pasts. But others were willing to reveal their personal tragedies experienced during and after the Cultural Revolution, stories that still haunt them. We felt saddened to witness the poor living conditions and the sense of powerlessness of many peasants, and we were immensely grateful for their willingness to share their life experiences with us so that we might document some of their stories.

One of the greatest migratory shifts in human history is currently taking place in China. In the course of the next twenty years, an estimated 280 million Chinese villagers will become city dwellers, attracted by urban jobs and opportunities. Many see in urbanization a panacea for the problems of the modern world. Daily reports of the construction boom and rapid economic expansion in the big cities fascinate people, but hardly anyone seems interested in the country's vast rural areas. We have chosen to focus on these overlooked and forgotten corners of China, whose centuries-old economic and social foundations were mainly agrarian until the 1980s0002.

Figure 2

County seats are the closest and most relevant “urban centers” in the daily life of rural residents. They provide not only work opportunities in shops, restaurants, simple hotels, and small factories but also modern entertainments like KTV (karaoke nightclubs where people gather with friends to sing along with a music video using a microphone for entertainment purpose). The often unappealing planning and architecture of county seats does not stop villagers from migrating to them in search of a better life. (Photo: Hunan Province)

Figure 2

County seats are the closest and most relevant “urban centers” in the daily life of rural residents. They provide not only work opportunities in shops, restaurants, simple hotels, and small factories but also modern entertainments like KTV (karaoke nightclubs where people gather with friends to sing along with a music video using a microphone for entertainment purpose). The often unappealing planning and architecture of county seats does not stop villagers from migrating to them in search of a better life. (Photo: Hunan Province)

Modernization is slowly and relentlessly encroaching upon ancient Chinese cultural landscapes. This particularly rapid type of industrialization shows no respect for tradition or aesthetics. The government's master plan for the coming decades is to connect “what has to be connected” in order for China to become a world power. Yet, in the process, it often seems as though megaprojects are tearing apart more than they are binding together. Organically integrated regions and cultural networks that thrived for centuries are being subdivided into smaller units lacking sociohistorical links.

Many of the regions we visited are ancient cultural spaces, crisscrossed or inhabited over the centuries not only by peasant farmers but also by merchants, writers, artists, adventurers, and travelers. Some places, due to their accessibility by waterways or roads, flourished as major centers on trade routes, while others, more isolated and in remote mountainous areas, were renowned as strategic locations for resisting invasion. In many cases, such regions have long since lost their vitality and relevance, and their venerable houses stand deserted or dilapidated0003.

China already has more than 160 cities, each with over one million inhabitants. High-speed railways link the major cities to a vast, steadily expanding web of rail connections. The government plans to open 70 new civilian airports in the next decade, increasing the country's number of civilian airports to nearly 250 by the end of 2020. High-speed means rapid development, and “development is the ultimate principle” (“fazhan cai shi ying daoli”), as paramount leader Deng Xiaoping ambitiously proclaimed. In the course of implementing this principle, the old, traditional “China of Yesterday” will be forgotten, replaced by a shining “New China.”

Despite the Chinese countryside's obvious beauty and the nostalgia it often evokes, political movements and subsequent modernization policies have often had disastrous consequences for rural areas. Yet many analysts have concluded that peasants in contemporary China may be enjoying the most abundant material lifestyle they have ever known, while their social status and perceptions of their quality of life are on a downward trajectory. We do not try to resolve this paradox but rather chart a route through the historical periods and generations of life in the Chinese countryside00040010.

Figures 3 and 4

Portraits of late Communist Party leaders are still common decorations in the homes of many peasants. In spite of their sufferings during the Great Chinese Famine (1958–1961) and the Cultural Revolution, many elderly peasants consider the past a better time and complain about worsening ubiquitous corruption and inequality. Patriotic TV programs depicting the founding of the “New China” have not lost their attraction. (Photos top to bottom: Yunnan Province and Hunan Province)

Figures 3 and 4

Portraits of late Communist Party leaders are still common decorations in the homes of many peasants. In spite of their sufferings during the Great Chinese Famine (1958–1961) and the Cultural Revolution, many elderly peasants consider the past a better time and complain about worsening ubiquitous corruption and inequality. Patriotic TV programs depicting the founding of the “New China” have not lost their attraction. (Photos top to bottom: Yunnan Province and Hunan Province)

Figure 5

Some observers have noted that the spread of Christianity is more vigorous today than at the peak of Protestant evangelism by Western missionaries in the 1920s. Even though the Communist Party has created an array of state-run organizations to control and manage religion, everywhere in rural China there are increasing numbers of adherents of so-called underground churches (dixia jiaohui), sometimes also called “house churches” (jiating jiaohui). (Photo: Hunan Province)

Figure 5

Some observers have noted that the spread of Christianity is more vigorous today than at the peak of Protestant evangelism by Western missionaries in the 1920s. Even though the Communist Party has created an array of state-run organizations to control and manage religion, everywhere in rural China there are increasing numbers of adherents of so-called underground churches (dixia jiaohui), sometimes also called “house churches” (jiating jiaohui). (Photo: Hunan Province)

Figure 6

In many ways, searching for the vestiges of traditional Chinese society is still easier in rural areas than in big cities, where life is increasingly modernized. This situation also holds for religious revival. One could say that the government no longer considers religion the “opium of the people,” as Karl Marx asserted, but it still, in some cases, sees it as a potential source of instability. (Photo: Hainan Province)

Figure 6

In many ways, searching for the vestiges of traditional Chinese society is still easier in rural areas than in big cities, where life is increasingly modernized. This situation also holds for religious revival. One could say that the government no longer considers religion the “opium of the people,” as Karl Marx asserted, but it still, in some cases, sees it as a potential source of instability. (Photo: Hainan Province)

Figure 7

Village elementary schools and the so-called substitute teachers, who have no official qualification and receive meager payment, were once the pillars of the basic education in rural areas. In the 1990s, there were more than 3 million rural substitute teachers. However, toward the end of the twentieth century, the government had been steadily reducing the number of village elementary schools, at a rate of thousands of schools per year. Substitute teachers ended up cast off after years of dedicated and low-paid service. This school, in a mountain hamlet in Yunnan Province, has only one class, with three students. Sometime soon, they will probably have to travel for hours to their new school at the foot of the mountain.

Figure 7

Village elementary schools and the so-called substitute teachers, who have no official qualification and receive meager payment, were once the pillars of the basic education in rural areas. In the 1990s, there were more than 3 million rural substitute teachers. However, toward the end of the twentieth century, the government had been steadily reducing the number of village elementary schools, at a rate of thousands of schools per year. Substitute teachers ended up cast off after years of dedicated and low-paid service. This school, in a mountain hamlet in Yunnan Province, has only one class, with three students. Sometime soon, they will probably have to travel for hours to their new school at the foot of the mountain.

Figure 8

Until the early 1950s, in spite of domestic turbulence, people in the countryside lived as their ancestors had done for centuries: while life revolved around farmwork, free time was enriched by occasional local festivals, folk handicrafts or arts, card games, and evening social gatherings. In the late 1950s, however, traditional rural lifestyles and cultures began to be suppressed in the name of Communist ideology. During the “Smash the Four Olds” campaign (1966), the government banned traditional forms of entertainment, but since the 1980s villagers all over China have taken the initiative to revive their old traditions. (Photo: Chongqing Municipality)

Figure 8

Until the early 1950s, in spite of domestic turbulence, people in the countryside lived as their ancestors had done for centuries: while life revolved around farmwork, free time was enriched by occasional local festivals, folk handicrafts or arts, card games, and evening social gatherings. In the late 1950s, however, traditional rural lifestyles and cultures began to be suppressed in the name of Communist ideology. During the “Smash the Four Olds” campaign (1966), the government banned traditional forms of entertainment, but since the 1980s villagers all over China have taken the initiative to revive their old traditions. (Photo: Chongqing Municipality)

Figure 9

“Man will triumph over nature” was a motto of the Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution and, even today, still informs central-government planning. Zealous industrialization and megaprojects like the Three Gorges Dam have greatly affected the environment and destroyed or torn apart many former cultural spaces. In the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai Province, some locals believe that excessive mining in recent years angered the mountain god and caused the disastrous earthquake in 2010. (Photo: Qinghai Province)

Figure 9

“Man will triumph over nature” was a motto of the Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution and, even today, still informs central-government planning. Zealous industrialization and megaprojects like the Three Gorges Dam have greatly affected the environment and destroyed or torn apart many former cultural spaces. In the Yushu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in Qinghai Province, some locals believe that excessive mining in recent years angered the mountain god and caused the disastrous earthquake in 2010. (Photo: Qinghai Province)

Figure 10

Preserving historical architecture and communities is a complicated issue, because in the past the government's policy of redeveloping the old town areas (laocheng gaizao) simply meant replacing old houses with new ones. The popular slogan from the early 1990s, “A new image every year and a complete change every three years,” vividly describes the impact of this policy in the reconstruction of towns and cities. Traditional houses, built before 1949, are often considered outdated. One of the first things people in rural areas do when they earn enough money is build a new house or move into a new apartment in town. (Photo: Shaanxi Province)

Figure 10

Preserving historical architecture and communities is a complicated issue, because in the past the government's policy of redeveloping the old town areas (laocheng gaizao) simply meant replacing old houses with new ones. The popular slogan from the early 1990s, “A new image every year and a complete change every three years,” vividly describes the impact of this policy in the reconstruction of towns and cities. Traditional houses, built before 1949, are often considered outdated. One of the first things people in rural areas do when they earn enough money is build a new house or move into a new apartment in town. (Photo: Shaanxi Province)

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