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.
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.
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 countryside0004- 0010.