China's Rural Decline Documented in Photos

Stephanie Ho

As China's National People's Congress holds its annual deliberations on new government policies, there is intense focus on the country’s quickening urbanization. Artist He Chongyue turns his camera in the opposite direction - away from the cities to villages - to document how issues like old age and poverty are ravaging the Chinese countryside.

He Chongyue’s camera captures portraits of some of the people China's rapid modernization has left behind, especially the people he calls the last true peasants.

“Why do I say that? Because afterwards, there won’t be many people left who are fully farmers. These people’s children are all working in the cities. They are not city people, but they aren’t villagers anymore either,” He notes.

He says these people sacrificed the most in the early decades of Communist China, but still have only one basic demand, having enough to eat.

"You see this man, the clothes he is wearing? His home is probably a very poor one, his clothes were very dirty. He brought his (hukou) household registration book with him and asked me ‘Where should I go get the money. I thought you were here to give us money,’" He recalls.

He points to another social problem that his photos illustrate.

"At the beginning, I did not want kids to be in the picture. I wanted only old people. But then, the old people were the ones who took care of the children at home, so once they go out of the house, the kids also go with them," He notes.

Photos are ubiquitous these days, but He says he feels it is his responsibility to record images that people do not commonly see. He documents his portrait sessions of the rural poor through jerky-looking videos produced from a series of still photos.

“It shows the scene from the moment when there is no one. Then people gather and then they walk away again, gather and walk away. These introduce the concept of time," He explains.

He rejects using gimmicks to alter his photos and says he wants to record real life. He say he hopes his work helps highlight the plight of a people who may otherwise be forgotten.

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