He is Mao, 80 years old. For decades, people from Ninghai, Xiangshan, Fenghua, and Xinchang who were snake bite victims tramped over hill and dale to find this snake doctor. Mao was not from a family of snake doctors; surprisingly, his grandfather was the leader of the beggar’s gang. His father begged for his entire life, while he also begged for 15 years with his father. At the age of 18, he went to City God Temple of Shanghai, learning how to treat patients bitten by snakes. Before, there could be as many as 50 patients. In order to collect herb-medicine for them, he had to look for herbs all over the mountain. In recent decades, patient number decreased as the local ecosystem deteriorated. Both the local Department of Health and his son, who hid his phone, prevented him from practicing, so he did not have any choice but to quit his career. (Feitianwugong Village, Xinchang)
The couple is 87-year-old Lu and his 81-year-old wife. In 1948, he went to Shanghai to learn his trade, apprenticing in a coal dust ball stove company. 10 years later, an incident happened in China that changed countless people’s fates. In May 1961, the government initiated the Down to the Countryside Movement, in which Mao sent privileged urban youth to poor mountainous areas to work as farmers. Lu volunteered to serve in Ninghai. Farming in Ninghai was not an easy task. He did not even know anything about agriculture. Due to the numerous mountains in Sangzhou, he had to carry manure buckets uphill on his shoulder. When he was too tired to labor, the rural production team did not care and deducted his work points ruthlessly, leading to food shortages in his family. At the hardest times, his wife chose to eat husk so that her husband and children would not starve. (Sangzhou, Ninghai)
The Down to the Countryside Movement was initiated to even out the gap in the urban and rural area as well as reducing the amount of young people fighting for limited job opportunities in the urban areas. Lu’s vicissitudes were resulted from the Down to the Countryside Movement alone; should he not have come to the coutryside, he could have gotten a decent job in the city, and his family would less likely have experienced these hardship. Lu was not the perfect person for farming because he had never tried to before. Although it was designated to bring benefits to the newly founded nation by maximizing the amount of people with jobs, it also brought hardships to people like the Lu family. The movement forced people to the places doing jobs that were so unsuitable to them that they could barely survive.
Last year, during the National Day holiday, I went to visit veterans in remote mountains in Xianju with a community service organization. Some of the veterans live in houses half way up the hill without any roads, while others live in the humble nursing home. Although living a poor life, the veterans were simple and honest. Such a short visit moved them to tears.
Hu is 88 years old this year. Before the establishment of the PRC in 1949, he bought 13.3 mu of field. At that time, some profiteers were informed that the Communist Party was about to gain complete control in China, so they started to sell their lands at cheap prices. Hu is from a peasant family, which relied on 5 mu of field for life and saved some money planting soft rush. Informed that the surrounding lands were being offered at cheap prices, the family bought 13.3 mu of field. Soon, Xixia Village was liberated. Hu had 18.3 mu field, even 0.3 mu more than the local landlord. Fortunately, the large family divided the land up, and according to the average occupancy of land in the family, they were classified as middle peasants* who did not have to turn in their land but were disqualified of getting more. According to him, if he had not bought the land, not only would he have gotten more land from the party, but also he would have gotten a better position at the class identification. (Xixia Village, Yinzhou)
- 1 mu ≈ 0.1647 acre
- Middle peasants: Chinese peasants were divided by the government into rich peasants, middle peasants, and poor peasants. In order to establish a communist society, rich peasants were oppressed. Middle peasants, like Hu, did not have to give any land to the government but could not get more land. Poor peasants were given lands by the government.
The experience of Hu represents countless people’s lives which were flipped by the changes in history. While some people, especially the poor, got a better life because of the establishment of new China, others, like Hu, had to resign to fate because they predicted the flow of history in a wrong way. He is one of the victim whose life was destroyed in that revolution.
Our second exhibition, Nostalgia, is open to public toady. After two weeks of decoration, we finally finished arranging everything. I really appreciate the effort of Ningbo Cultural Plaza for helping us. They provided the site for the exhibition, the T-shaped shelves, and a lot of designing ideas.
My dad and I, as photographer and curator, made a short speech during the opening ceremony. The television crews also interviewed a dozen of people there.
Now, I feel that I have to share this story from our exhibition.
This old lady has seven children, including four sons and three daughters. Her eldest son decided that the responsibility of caring for their mother would be divided between him and the second brother every other month. The other two sons could not take care of their mother due to health problems. The eldest son left home for a plantation in Zhousudu, Ningbo, which is part of urban Ningbo now, at his early age. Since then, he got married and had children there. Now, he is 74 years old. On the first days of odd months when he takes care of his mother, he sets out from urban Ningbo, takes three buses for total after three and half hours, and stays there until the end of that month. The second son is 70 years old this year, living in Shanghai. He has to come all the way from Shanghai every even month. Due to the limited housing condition, the sons renewed the sty and live there.
There are only nine people in this village. He does not have anyone to talk to, nor does he have a television to kill some time. According to himself, spending time in the village is the same as going to jail, since his mother is also deaf. The old lady is not willing to move to urban Ningbo with him because she wants to be buried in a traditional way. However, people who died in big cities are required to be cremated by their family members.
*Filial Piety: a Confucius idea meaning a virtue of respect for one’s parents
More importantly, the couple, on the set Filial Piety, came to our opening ceremony today and said a few words. We were all so glad that they were there. When I first saw them this morning, I was so moved because I have only seen them on the photo before. The story is heart-warming, but the fact that this couple saw caring for their mother as an necessary responsibility really moved many people this morning. When we saw them on the photo, we feel that such nice people were far away from us; however, when we talked to them face-to-face this morning, we can feel that they are so close to us.
Wu used to be a farmer in suburban Yuyao, where he owned a hardware store for ten years. Several years ago, a local shopping mall held a photography competition. He had just bought a used camera, so he took and submitted a random photo without much consideration. Surprising, he got the Golden Award. Finding it largely incredible, Wu closed his hardware store, devoting his life entirely to photography. As an aspiring photographer, Wu has a dream of taking photos of fishermen casting their nets high up on the sky in vast Siming Lake accompanied by a hanging mist. Unfortunately, fishing is not allowed in the Siming Lake. Therefore, he purchased a boat; after practicing for a long time, Wu mastered the skill of casting a net. However, it brought him another trouble: how can he take a photo of this scene?
Wu and I met at the bank of Siming Lake, and we had a great time talking about photography. When he volunteered to perform casting the net for me, I was extremely delighted. He brought his boat with a pick-up truck right away. Solemnly, he handed his camera to me, adroitly put on his rush raincoat, and rowed the boat away from the bank. He stood at the bow, casting the net toward the windy sky over and over again, proudly. I pressed the shutter continuously, and photos of Wu throwing his net were recorded in his camera, finally. (Liangnong, Yuyao)
Wu’s life is very different from the life people from cities imagine. For many, villages represent out-dated peasant life, and being a farmer means that one has to work all day long in the field but only earns little money. However, this is a misconception. From the experience of Wu, we can tell that lives in villages contain far more amazing activities than planting crops. While Wu likes photography, others have various hobbies at their spare time as well. Therefore, the portrayals of their lives have a positive side, in addition to the stereotypical tiring side. The stories of these old people can truly communicate the happiness in their lives with urban people. Our next exhibition will be held in the Culture Plaza of Ningbo starting from this weekend, and I hope that it can once again correct these misconceptions about rural lives!
Alone, this 93-year-old man Zheng lives in the west side-room, the only remaining part of his ancestral home called “The Yifeng Doorway.” Previous generations of the Zheng family owned numerous Yifeng Grain Stores in Cixi and Yuyao, thus considered one of the local business tycoons able to construct a grandiose mansion. Prosperity of the family was ebbing, however. Zheng’s father, working as a cook, lost all family property by addicting to gambling, while his mother ran away from home and had never been heard from again. For his whole life, this unmarried man raised cattle for others to make a living. In 1949, the local Peasant Association was founded, and by being classified as a poor peasant, he was free of cruel oppression* thanks to his father. (Banpu Village, Ci City)
*The communist Chinese government tried to eliminate landlords and rich peasants because they inhibited the progression of an egalitarian society. The CPC collected the land of the rich and redistributed it to the poor in order to establish a communist society. Therefore, poor peasants were protected, while the rich were oppressed.
The experience of Zheng is sad yet thought-provoking. The Zhengs was not the only family who experienced changes in life in the 1950s. The establishment of PRC shaped countless people’s life. Some poor peasants became richer because of the policies of the government, while others, like Zheng, fell off a cliff. The changes in social and political conditions are largely connected to everyone’s life tightly.
My family was there the whole day on weekends receiving both friends and strangers as our visitors. The power that our exhibition brought really impressed me. The older generation living in urban Ningbo was moved by the photos and the stories of the individuals in the photos. Much of their personal experience resonated with the stories, reminding them of the past. In addition to the old, the younger generation was also attracted. I saw many parents explaining these stories to their children who could barely read. They told the stories, explicitly. Obviously, this photography exhibition was a pretty good chance spreading local culture to the public, especially those who feel far away from them, like myself.
A middle school teacher even brought a number of students here, helping them learn more about local culture and history.
After the interview with my dad and me on Saturday, the article about us was finally published on the local newspaper and its website. I am glad that the newspaper helped us inform more people of this exhibition.
Details about this exhibition were also published by the most popular website recording lives in Ningbo!
The exhibition this time is very successful, and I plan to hold another one in this coming July to further raise such awareness!
＊A link to the trailer (with English subtitle): http://v.qq.com/page/b/5/m/b03054fgr5m.html
Starting from today, my dad’s photographs depicting local old people’s lives are displayed for four days. Even though today was the first day and a Friday, when people had to work, I was glad seeing many people coming in to support this exhibition. As the chief curator, I spent two weeks planning how to make it perfect in finest detail. Finally, today, I got everything set up and ready receiving visitors.
Both today and yesterday, my dad and I got an interview from local newspapers. We talked about our ideas about doing such an exhibition, which contains 45 photos, in 17 sets of stories. My dad has been visiting the villages around Siming Mountain, the mother mountain of Ningbo, on weekends for two years. No matter how bad the weather is, he goes to the villages as long as he is in Ningbo. Every weekend, he does not even know to which village he is heading prior to his departure. When he reaches the road where he has to decide, he randomly picks the place that he would like to go. In the villages, he takes pictures of an old person, has a conversation with him or her, and moves on to another. These conversations are usually short because most old people do not like to share their personal stories with strangers because they regard such experience as a scar that they would not like to touch these days. After going home, my dad prints these photos out and puts them in his bag. His bag contains all the photos that he has taken in all the villages because he does not know where he is going until the last minute. Carrying his heavy photo bag, he looks for the people in the photo with the help of the villagers. When he finally brings the photos to the people there, they are moved so that they are willing to talk about their lives like an old friend. He collects stories in this way.
For me as a high school students, I feel the necessity to spread these stories to the public. The old generation is unique to Chinese history because they have gone through all the happenings both before and after the establishment of the PRC. Such history has left unique imprints on them that the younger generation living in urban Ningbo could not even imagine. Even though I have read much from history books and novels, but the happenings in books seem far away. Reading the stories my dad wrote was the first time when I realized that history was so close to our lives. Unfortunately, most people born in 1990s, 1980s, and even 1970s are not aware this fact. In order to raise awareness, I feel the urgency to do such an exhibition, telling urban Ningbo dwellers, as well as foreigners, the stories of the ordinary that they have never heard of. Hopefully, these stories will change their mind to a certain extent.
We will do more exhibition in Ningbo this summer break at different locations. I will continue translating them and keep posting them in this WordPress blog. Next year, we are definitely going to publish a book telling these ordinary yet breathtaking stories along with photographs.
Yay! So excited!
It was the Dong Village, Fenghua. The couple, at their eighties, were making pickles at home. In order to prevent pickles from going bad in the coming summer, they had to remove the pickles from the jar, cut them, and store them in the glass bottle. They lived in the house with a history of two hundred years. Their ancestors, who belonged to well-to-do middle peasants*, were united and protected by lower peasants and the CPC. However, the owner of the house next to them was not lucky enough. Since they belonged to despotic rich landlord group, they were shot on the spot, but when I asked them whether the landlords really did something harmful, they refused to answer.
*When I first published this article, I found misunderstanding between my dad and me because of some phrases he used in the original article in Chinese. When translating, I combined the article with historical background from my world history class. As a result, I messed up the concept between the middle peasants and rich peasants with higher social class. Later, my dad told me that there was huge difference between rich peasants and middle peasants in Chinese history, as those rich peasants took advantage of poor peasants and treated them terribly. I did not really get it at first because from my world history class, the rich should be eradicated because they inhibited the progression of a egalitarian society according to socialist and communist ideas. I learned that the CPC tried to eliminate the landlord class in the society and help peasants establish a communist society. Here, I treated peasants in Chinese history as a whole because I had never heard of the fact that some peasants were also executed by the party. The textbook distinguishes landlords and peasants, talking about how these two different groups were treated differently. At first, I thought it as an issue of studying history from different perspectives because I studied this in the United States, while my dad learned all these in China. The different ways that we approached and processed these information might result in the difference. We could be both biased due to the environment where we learned this. However, later, I came to know that it was not this case at all! I found out the true reason why we have such misunderstanding. Due to some translation issues between Chinese and English, some concepts could be confusing. The rich peasants in Chinese, which were the counterpart of Kulaks in the Russian History, actually belonged landlord classes in English. Technically, we are both right about it.
— Translated from dad’s WeChat public account photoscope