This post is written by Project Pengyou intern, Ellen Hao, as a reflection on the dichotomy of urban and rural life in China.
Skyrocketing economic growth. A swelling middle class, whose numbers have grown from 4% of the total population in 2000 to 68% in 2012. The newest ‘Billionaire Capital of the World’. In recent years, China has been enveloped in a high-speed narrative of ravenous consumerism and rampant wealth creation, a country hurtling full-throttle into an unknown future.
However, a very real inertia exists outside of the glittering development. If you look beyond the luxury cars and skyscrapers, you can still see China not as a monolithic identity, but as a people grappling with change.
And look beyond is exactly what two Chinese photographers did. 11 years, 33 provinces, and 50 families later, Ma Hongjie and Huang Qingjun emerged from their decade long journey with stunningly intimate family portraits of a different sort.
Taking a Closer Look
In the photos, families sit in front of their homes, all their belongings placed around them. Even though we cannot see the details of their expressions, the photos are still hugely exposing. “The possessions are not even wealth. It’s just their lives,” said Ma.
In one photo, corn litters the courtyard, while in another a row of chickens is neatly lined up in front of the family—one can imagine the owner sprinkling a line of fodder down the courtyard before the photo was taken. Vases set out for display or tricolor horse statues are not decorations of the house, but rather the primary means of income through which local artisans survive. Another family lives inside a sinkhole, where Lu Jian records underground river levels for the Xiaozhai Hydroelectric Plant.
The photos are also hugely intimate. One picture of a family from Gujiazhuang Village in Beijing follows the conventional format of family portraits, with neat lines of family members lined behind each other. The grandparents sit in the first row, and are the only two family members to have the privilege of seats. The grandfather warmly clasps his youngest granddaughter’s hand, keeping her close. Some family members’ eyes are closed—the unforgiving challenges of large group photos. Behind them, two more black-and-white family portraits are placed on the cabinet, and provide a tiny glimpse into the personal history of this family. In the Nansha Islands of Hainan, a soldier stands alone, back perfectly straight in military posture.
Ma and Huang began their 11-year project in 2003. Since then, China has undergone a period of great social, technological and economic changes. Between 2003 and 2013, GDP per capita has risen from 1,273.64 USD to 6,807.43 USD. But, as Ma recounts, there has been frustratingly little change for some of these families.
The Sun family, who live on boats on the Yellow River, had told Ma in 2006 that their biggest hope was to have a permanent house built on land. When Ma revisited them several years after, their home was still on water. “The grandchildren didn’t get a good education, or even dropped out of school.” Ma said, “You can see them repeating their grandparent’s life in the future.”
“In the end, the villagers simply built new huts next to the government subsidized housing.”
A resettlement program in a Hainan village replaced small huts with brick and cement government subsidized housing. However, these homes were incompatible with their lifestyle, and did not allow proper ventilation for the smoke produced by the local cooking style. In the end, the villagers simply built new huts next to the government subsidized housing. In preparation for the 2008 Olympics, many siheyuan or classic courtyard style houses in Beijing were razed to the ground, as the dense residential alleys at the heart of the city were demolished.
At the same time, the frustrations of the local villagers have also been accompanied by real improvements. While resettlement programs show no sign of stopping in China, recent initiatives by organizations like the Beijing Cultural Heritage Protection Center seek to preserve Beijing’s hutongs, and bring hope that preservation can still happen during a time of great change.
In 2006, the government scrapped a tax on agricultural produce, a step that many farmers and peasants believe is the right direction forward. Other government infrastructure initiatives have brought positive change. In the photos, refrigerators and television sets sit next to traditional Chinese furniture. “In lots of Chinese villages, the government has delivered roads and connected them with electricity,” Huang said, “This has been a huge change. If you’ve a road, you can move about. If you’ve got electricity you can have TV, you get the news and ideas about what the outside world is thinking.”
Building a Home on Shifting Sand
In Chinese, 家 (jia) means both home and family. Through their work, Ma and Huang photograph families in their entireties, from the beds that they sleep in to the cups that they drink from. As China continues to evolve, the photos provide a record of the personal lives of people during a time of transformation.
In one photo, a couple sits on a bed in front of their house. A Chinese New Year decoration still hangs on their shelves. On their refrigerator, a camel sticker has been pasted onto freezer. Behind them, the character 拆 is written on their house’s walls. It means to remove, to tear down. What does it mean, then, for a home to crumble?
In 2012, China’s urban population grew past its rural population. But in a country as large as China, the rural population still numbers to 664 million people today, more than double the US population. The people Ma and Huang documented are what Ma views as “the basis of society”. These are people who have not been swept into the urban high-rises of bustling cities, who, in their intense geographical and ethnic variety, reveal the huge diversity of a country going through profound change.
We’ve chosen a few photos from Ma and Huang’s collection to share with you below:
About the Photographers
Huang Qingjun is the Chief Photographer of Zhisland. His work has been presented at galleries in New York, Paris, and across Germany and China. Beyond Family Stuff, he has also photographed the series Homeless People’s Family Stuff and Online Shopping Family Stuff. He has earned a UNESCO award for his work on China’s last active steam locomotives. Find his portfolio here.
Ma Hongjie is the Photo Editor of Chinese National Geography. He has been documenting Chinese life for the past 15 years. His works have been published in national as well as international newspapers and magazines. You can see more of his photos here.