Once Young in Songyang: Portraits of a Forgotten Campaign

It is well known at this point that many of China’s best-kept secrets lie in the countryside. Beyond the skyscrapers and subways of the country’s bustling urban centers, there is a parallel world of farms and furrows where the pace of life is dictated by the metronome of the seasons rather than the business calendar of the industry.

For visitors, domestic and foreign, escaping Chinese cities to access the rural experience has increasingly become the goal of a trip to the country, akin to a trip back in time to a version of the He Middle Kingdom unchanged for millennia, whose agricultural rhythms form the foundation on which Chinese culture and society today rest.

Yet the rich historicity of the Chinese countryside is as much a curse as it is a blessing. In recent decades, perceptions of rural areas and lifestyles as backward or outdated have seen large swathes of people, mostly young people, move to cities, attracted by the magnetic pull of higher wages and of an urban way of life.

According to census data, China’s urban-rural population was more or less evenly distributed in 2010, reaching the level for the first time in the country’s long history. But in 2020, around 900 million people lived in cities, including 500 million in the countryside. This rapid transformation has made many wonder what could be lost if the trend continues.

The roofs of Songyang. Photo: Xiangjun

Xiangjun and Zhang Zhanping are two Shanghai-based artists who attempt to confront this question. Their new exhibition focuses on Songyang, a picturesque village in Zhejiang province (southeast China) that faces the challenge of reinventing itself following the exodus of young people to neighboring towns.

The duo set out to capture the essence of traditional life in Songyang through a parallel series of photographs – landscape and portrait – which depict the keepers of the village’s history and customs: its ancient buildings and its elderly population. Their aim is to remind people, especially the younger generations, of what is at stake as the population of places like Songyang dies, and, hopefully, renews interest in these forgotten places.

“They say Songyang is a secret place, and I think the secrets of this secret place lie in the old people and their old buildings,” Xiang said. “The elderly are a bit like old buildings, little by little they will both disappear. “

The exhibition, which will be held at the Sinan Mansions in Shanghai from November 5 to 19, is a compassionate representation of life in the village. For Xiang, the project is personal. His family is from Songyang, and while he grew up a five-hour drive in Shanghai, he spent much of his childhood visiting older relatives in the village.

Bamboo Songyang. Photo: Xiangjun

“My parents are both 90 years old, they are from Songyang but now live in Shanghai,” he said. “Every time we go back to Songyang, I know it might be their last time. I want to do this exhibit while my parents are still alive.

It was in Shanghai that Xiang and Zhang forged successful careers in the city’s art scene, although lacquer, not photography, is the medium for which they are best known.

Xiang has been working in lacquer since the 1970s. His work won numerous awards in the years that followed and has featured in major exhibitions and museums in the country. Zhang, meanwhile, is a floral designer by trade, but is well known in the city as the deputy curator of the Shanghai Yiming Lacquer Collection and one of the founders of the Lacquer Art Space. Shanghai Muchuanjian. The two men felt that for the Songyang Project, photography was the best way to convey their artistic message and to better connect with their subjects.

“We went to people’s homes and had intimate conversations with them,” Xiang explains. “It was during this process that we realized that every Elder’s experience is written on their face. The people we photograph have a sense of calm that the younger ones do not. For them, the geography of Songyang is closely linked to their life – it’s a feeling that I don’t think exists in city life.

They are both clearly fond of their subjects. An elderly lady they describe as having the elegance of a ballerina. Another man, they say, looks like Hemingway. It’s a bold claim, but the resulting photo is ample proof of the eerie resemblance. Each portrait in the series is candid and sincere, imbued with the tenderness and humanity usually reserved for photographs of family or friends.

Songyang elder in the doorway. Photo: Xiangjun

Beyond their human connection with these individuals, Xiang and Zhang care deeply about the world of the ideas they represent. For them, these elderly villagers are the countryside – one and the same – custodians of Songyang’s historical memory, representatives of a lost age that may soon disappear.

“Life will disappear. When buildings collapse they can be repaired, but when the old people are gone they will be gone forever. This feeling is very powerful for me, ”Xiang said.

To a certain extent, the change in perception sought by these artists is already underway. Cultural movements to reject the modern rat race have sparked discussions on Chinese social media in recent years, while celebrity rural vloggers like Li Ziqi have helped more young Chinese people see the countryside as a viable place to live.

With their exhibit, Songyang’s Once Young, Xiang, and Zhang tap into this complex discourse of culture and loss in relation to Chinese villages, but they insist on doing it without any preconceived ideas.

“We don’t want this to be a judgment or an assessment of the social phenomenon. We are not trying to present the life of these people as difficult compared to life in the city.

“We hope that through this exhibition, the younger generation will be able to see life in ancient villages from a different perspective,” Xiang continues, “we don’t want to discuss whether it’s good or bad. We want to let the audience think and feel for themselves.

Laurence Coulton, writer for WildChina, is a British photographer and writer specializing in East Asian culture and society.

The views and opinions expressed in this opinion section are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the editorial positions of Caixin Media.

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