A photographer captures 30 decades of life in upheaval for Three Gorges migrants and one moment, in particular, that stirred an entire nation.
Written by An Xiaoqing
Photographs by Li Feng
In the winter of 2019, a photograph of a man carrying a tree of peach blossoms suddenly appeared on the Internet and tugged at the hearts of many Chinese people.
The main character of the photo was Liu Minhua, a villager from the mountain area in Guojiaba Town, Zigui County of Hubei Province.
Ten years ago in springtime, Liu Minhua, a migrant from the Three Gorges reservoir area, “Carefully carried a peach tree that once grew in front of his home, as he said goodbye to his hometown where he was born and grew up.”
The silent man under the eaves and the peach blossoms in full bloom in his long and narrow backpack stirred the viewer’s heart. People looked at this photo and were fascinated, remembering everything about their own homes, their hometowns, relocations, changes, seasons, and landscapes.
One netizen said, “I love this talking picture.” Another said, “Many people have a hometown in their hearts that they can never return to.” Another articulated the power of this image, saying, “I carried my hometown in my body, and I assume that every footprint has roots.”
One netizen couldn’t resist collecting and sharing more comments: “There is nothing in Jiangnan (south of the Yangtze River), just a gift of spring” … “I will never return to my hometown, I can only leave with spring,” and “I am alone in heaven and earth, only the trees are with me.”
Back in March 2012, it was an ordinary spring day on both banks of the Three Gorges in the Yangtze River. Around Qingming (Tomb Sweeping Day), the air was humid and the wind between the gorges began to soften. Li Feng, a photographer from Yichang, Hubei Province, was passing through the town of Guojiaba in Zigui County, near the Three Gorges Dam, when he happened to meet Liu Minhua, a migrant who was moving.
Liu Minhua’s ancestral house had long been included in the relocation list of the Three Gorges reservoir area. On this day, Liu Minhua carried away many pieces of old furniture. In the end, he couldn’t let go of a peach tree at the door. He dug it up from the soil and put it in his backpack, intending to head to his new home, man and tree, together.
Li Feng, by coincidence, captured this powerful moment on that spring day. But the picture of the migrant and his peach blossoms lay quietly on Li Feng’s computer hard drive for many years.
It was not until 2019, when National Geographic China asked him for a picture during the production of a special feature on Hubei, that this “Migrant carrying peach blossoms” came out of Li Feng’s vast Three Gorges’ gallery and eventually circulated on the Internet.
Compared with the enthusiastic feedback on the Internet, its photographer appeared much quieter. For Li Feng, this was just one of the countless shutters he has pressed on the Three Gorges and its migrants since 1995.
Three Gorges migrants are a large and special group. They were created by the Three Gorges Project. Thirty years ago, on April 3, 1992, the Fifth Session of the Seventh National People’s Congress viewed and passed “The Resolution on the Construction of the Three Gorges Project on the Yangtze River.” This marked the official start of the construction of the Three Gorges Project.
The Three Gorges Project is the largest hydropower project in China, and the entire world. The project made Mao Zedong’s dream come true, as he wrote in his poem of “Swimming”: “To hold back Wushan’s clouds and rain, till a smooth lake rises in the narrow gorges.” From this the Three Gorges became a huge canyon-type reservoir with calm waters. The area where the project is located also became the world’s largest reservoir inundation area – known as the Three Gorges Reservoir Area.
Within the Three Gorges Reservoir Area, 632 square-kilometres of land was inundated, including 2 cities, 11 counties, and 116 market towns in Hubei and Chongqing. Among them, 9 county towns and 55 market towns, including Wushan, Fengjie, Zigui and Badong, were completely flooded or mostly flooded.
The biggest flood in 2010 in the Three Gorges Reservoir area since the dam project was built.
In 1993, the State Council promulgated “The Regulations on Resettlement for the Construction of Three Gorges Project on the Yangtze River,” which meant that the Three Gorges migrants officially became the largest migrant group to make way for a single hydropower project in China’s history. In almost three decades since then, more than 1.3 million migrants have been relocated. Among them, nearly 170,000 people have left their homeland and moved far away, to other provinces and municipalities such as Fujian, Guangdong, Shanghai, Shandong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang.
For Chinese people who uproot their family and resettle in a strange land, leaving their homeland is a major event in their lives. For the children of the river who have lived on both banks of the Three Gorges for thousands of years, the construction of the Three Gorges Dam and the changes brought by the project represent the many vicissitudes and history they have experienced during their lifetimes.
Migration and mobility are the key words of contemporary China’s transition from a no-moving state to a free-moving state. The reform and opening up of China in the late 1970s, and the “tide of rural workers” it created, gave birth to the largest seasonal migration in the world. These migrant laborers who travel for work to other provinces, and south China in particular, leaving their families behind, return to their villages to join their families for the celebration of the Spring Festival. Then, the construction of the Three Gorges Project set a record: it was the world’s largest human migration for a single dam project and the most difficult resettlement to implement in terms of the size of the migrants involved.
In December 1997, migrants from Nanmuyuan Village in Badong County of the Three Gorges reservoir area moved with all their belongings.
In the decade around the turn of the 20th and 21st centuries, the Three Gorges and the Three Gorges Project were an important part of Chinese national life and public memory. It was a time when the old and the new millenniums met, when people were full of optimism and self-confidence, promising themselves a bright future.
One day in June 1995, shortly after graduating from college, Li Feng, a photographer, took a boat from Yichang upstream to Zigui, in the heart of the Three Gorges reservoir area.
At the wharf in Zigui County, Li Feng used his camera to photograph a young boy carrying a summer sleeping mat. The 7-year-old boy is Liu Wei, a native of Xiangjiadian Village in Zigui. The village was the one closest to the Three Gorges Dam, therefore it became the first village to be relocated in the Three Gorges reservoir area.
A little migrant who was carrying a summer sleeping mat.
That afternoon, the young boy, carrying his own mat, would move to the outskirts of Yichang City by boat, together with 184 other migrants from the same village. In a photo caption years later, Li Feng described the historic moment he happened to witness as a young man, “The relocation of millions of migrants in the Three Gorges area officially kicked off.”
From that summer of 1995, Li Feng began down a long road. For the next 27 years, the photographer from a small town in inland China, became determined to focus his lens on the Three Gorges and its migrants, inspired by a seemingly eternal call from the gorges and the river.
The Calling of life
Where did that eternal and strong call come from? Li Feng couldn’t say for sure. But perhaps the most familiar and intimate reason was that the Three Gorges has attracted and called countless Chinese people over the centuries.
Qu Yuan, Li Bai, Du Fu, Yuan Zhen, Bai Juyi, Meng Jiao, Wang Wei, Liu Yuxi, Fan Chengda, Lu You, Huang Tingjian, Su Xun, Su Shi, Su Zhe … Almost all of the greatest poets in Chinese history have passed through the Three Gorges and left behind great poems inspired by the rivers and mountains.
When history came to the end of the 20th century, the Three Gorges once again became a landmark that could not be ignored. For Li Feng, an ordinary man at the time, the desire to be infinitely closer to the place was so strong that he couldn’t help but pay attention to the historic event that was taking place.
After his first shoot in 1995, Li Feng quit his job as a company treasurer and applied for a job as a photojournalist for a local newspaper in Yichang. At that time, there were many others who shared this great calling.
At 10:50 a.m. on January 20, 2002, the old town of Fengjie, known as the “City of Thousands of Ancient Poems” was blown up in smoke with a huge explosion. Li Yifan, an artist from Chongqing happened to be on the scene and witnessed the explosion. He quickly decided to stay and, in the year that followed, Li Yifan completed a documentary film called “Flooding” with his collaborator Yanyu.
Li Yifan is a documentary filmmaker too, who later went on to make another documentary film about “ShaMaTe” – an urban subculture that began to develop in China in 2008.
Derived from the English word “smart,” meaning fashionable and smart. Young people like and blindly imitate the clothes, hair, etc. of Japanese visual rock bands. The original ShaMaTe are people who wear colorful long hair and heavy makeup; some very personalized clothing, and strange jewelry; they take selfies and perform odd movements in front of Internet cafe cameras, etc.] After watching “Flooding,” Jia Zhangke came to the Three Gorges area for the first time in 2005. He traveled to Wushan and Fengjie, and saw massive demolitions and observed the relics rescue work underway both on the ground and underground simultaneously in the two ancient towns. Two weeks later, he decided to shoot a feature film there.
As Jia put it, “I was totally shocked by the whole situation.” Witnessing the historic moment with his own eyes, Jia felt “a special sense of urgency.” In a race against time and the speed at which ancient towns were disappearing, he finished his film “Still Life” in just three months.
On June 1, 2003, the Three Gorges Dam officially started the water storage of the reservoir for its first phase of impoundment up to 135 metres. The migrants pictured were posing with the sign of the water level at 135 metres.
On June 1, 2003, the Three Gorges Dam started impounding the reservoir. For people living along the Yangtze River valley in general and people living in the Three Gorges area in particular, this was a day that both time and the river were separated as “before” and “after”.
After the impoundment, and according to the planned inundation, the water level in the reservoir rose to 135 metres. This meant that the Three Gorges Dam’s shiplocks and power generation units would soon be put into operation, and that the villages, towns, human footprints and all other historical remnants along the riverbank below 135 metres above sea level would sink to the bottom of the river forever.
Nan Xianghong, then a reporter for the Southern Weekend, traveled to the Three Gorges nearly a year in advance of this important point. She and her colleagues did their best to collect the “many, many pieces of history” that would soon disappear. In Zigui (County), they recorded the last Duanwu (Dragon Boat Festival) before the relocation of the Qu Yuan Shrine. In Yunyang (County), they saw Zhang Fei Temple become “the oldest migrant” in the Three Gorges reservoir area. In Fengdu (County), Nan Xianghong lamented that after the dam was impounded, the “ghost town” Fengdu would become “a real world infested with water ghosts.” In Ruling (City), they saw that Baiheliang, the world’s oldest hydrological station, would become the first underwater museum under protection, but thereafter, during the annual dry season, the stone carp would never be exposed to the surface of the river again.
June 1, 2003, has come and gone. On that day, many Chinese people sat in front of their TV sets with their whole families to watch the full live broadcast of CCTV. American author He Wei (Peter Hessler), who wrote “River City” and “Finding China,” was there to experience that historic moment.
In the Longmen Village of Wushan (County) in the Three Gorges reservoir area, He Wei recorded the reactions of one of the last migrant families left behind as the river rose.
“Watching the river rise is like watching the movement of an alarm clock’s hour hand: it’s barely noticeable … but every hour that passes, the river rises fifteen centimeters … Beetles, ants, and centipedes are scattered from the riverbank … Seeing that their island was about to be flooded, the insects fled.”
On the same day, Li Feng was also on the scene. In his memory, the most direct evidence that the river was rising inch by inch, was evidenced by the insects and animals that crawled hastily out of their holes. He also photographed a bird’s nest that was flooded by the river.
A bird’s nest flooded by the river.
Since the mid-1990s, Li Feng hasn’t missed a single important moment of the Three Gorges Project. Faced with the history as it unfolded, he and other creators have left behind as rich a fragment of memory as they can with photography, prose, journalism, painting, film, books, and documentaries.
It is also these mutually reflective and complementary information puzzles that, in an intertextual way, keep us today from being left with nothing when we try to approach the periods of history buried under the water of the Three Gorges Reservoir.
The 27 years of photographing the Three Gorges and its migrants have brought Li Feng many honours and rewards. His work in the gorges has also greatly shaped his life experience and career.
Among the countless people drawn to the Yangtze and Three Gorges, Li Feng may not be the most talented or ambitious, but after 27 years, he has become one of the few watchers and recorders who have always been present along the gorges. He has always believed in the value of recording for its own sake, “Even after the most intense changes have passed, there is still a lot to record.”
Li Feng is 50 years old. After getting to know him and talking with him, I could quickly recognize a trait in him: simplicity. At dinner parties where small-town acquaintances intermingle, he didn’t like to raise his glass and always spoke his mind directly.
Often, as if by some kind of magic, he always tried to drag every lost talker at the dinner party into the depths of the canyon, trying his best to tell as many stories and details about the river canyon as possible for every outsider.
Hu Yanhong, Li Feng’s wife, often travels with him in the Three Gorges as a companion. In her eyes, Li Feng is “Very crazy, and quite silly, just doing this thing. He is so old, but still quite innocent.”
Li Feng and his wife Hu Yanhong on a boat to Three Gorges in 1999.
Perhaps it is this simple “always present” and “patience” without any hidden agenda that allowed Li Feng to witness the truth of the rivers and gorges again and again after stretching the dimension of time, and to meet “the man who carries peach blossoms.”
Although this photo was taken 10 years ago, it has ignited continuous reverberations on the Internet over the last couple of years. In the winter of 2019, after seeing this photo, a Chinese netizen opened He Wei’s “Strange Stones” and found a paragraph, which talked about how a migrant family was on the move in the book:
“As the adults were busy moving furniture up, the youngest girl sat at a table in the pumpkin patch quietly copying the text: spring rain falls, go out and see peach blossoms.”
In the spring of 2020, late at night on March 13, a Wuhan resident called Peng Fei wrote in his diary, “I was particularly touched to see this photo today … which is a peach tree he is going to pack away. What he is going to pack away is actually the spring of his hometown.”
Another netizen lamented that perhaps today we are all carrying peach blossoms, “I can only carry my own peach blossoms on my back and create my Peach Garden on my own.”
As the photographer of this photo, Li Feng also recalled many moments in the past. In the bosom of migrants leaving their homeland, the things he saw most often were plants and earth. In the Three Gorges reservoir area, the slogan he saw most often was, “To sacrifice individual interests for public good, to support the construction of the Three Gorges project for the country.”
In August 2000, 639 migrants from Yunyang County were boarding a passenger ship bound for Shanghai to be resettled on the Chongming Island. The red banner behind them reads, “To sacrifice individual interests for public good, to support the construction of the Three Gorges project for the country.”
Whenever he talks about what happens in the canyon, about the stories of the migrants, about the new Three Gorges people of today, Li Feng’s eyes behind his lenses immediately light up and he wants to overcome the limitations of language to tell you what he has seen on his countless trips to and from it.
In December 2014, a man and a woman waiting for a night boat to cross the river on the new pier in Wushan, the couple just received their marriage certificate earlier in the day.
On summer evenings, people along the Yangtze River seem to be driven by instinct to report for duty one by one. They lean against the stone steps and embankment of the river, shoot coloured balloons with air guns, sing karaoke, read online articles, fall in love, play games, wash their feet, and walk their dogs. More people don’t do anything but stare at the Yangtze River and think about what’s on their minds.
The river breeze sends the unique fishy smell of the river water and the strong fragrance of the white champaca from the yard of a house on the shore. “In fact, all of us here are a bit inseparable from the Yangtze River, have you noticed?” Standing on the stone steps wet with river water, Li Feng said.
Above our heads was a waning moon surrounded by a lunar halo. Li Feng and his wife, Hu Yanhong, recalled the many lonely and quiet nights they spent together in the canyon and on the river before they had children. Back then, the river was still a wild, rolling muddy yellow. Whenever a ship sailed by, the sound of the whistle echoed across the empty surface of the canyon and could not be dispersed for a long time. Hu Yanhong felt that that was ancient China.
The two of them, immersed in the memories of the old days, were reminiscent of director Ann Hui’s 2002 work, “July Rhapsody.” At the end of the film, the wife proposed to separate, to which the husband replied:
“Let’s talk about it after we come back from the trip to the Yangtze River. We have read so much about Li Bai, Du Fu and Su Dongpo, so we should also go and have a look together. It’s a bit hot now, but if we don’t go, soon when the Three Gorges are flooded, many places will be flooded and many things will disappear …”
The camera switches, a yellowing Three Gorges scenery that seems to have been taken by a handheld video camera. It may be the last Three Gorges he and she saw, or it may be the poem that they in the movie, and we outside the movie, generations of Chinese people, have recited.
“A mayfly in heaven and earth, a tiny drop in the ocean. I mourn the short time of my life and envy the infinity of the Yangtze River.”
More photos taken by Li Feng in the Three Gorges area:
On March 25, 2002, the old county town of Zigui with a history of more than 1,700 years was demolished with a blast.
Carrying their one-month-old baby, a migrant couple were moving far to Guangdong Province in south China, more than one thousand kilometres away from their homeland. The sign refers to where they are headed: “Three Gorges migrants who move to other province: Ma’an Town, in Huiyang City of Guangdong Province. This is the Third Squadron”.
A migrant family on the move, and so was their pig.
With the post office gone, the staff just put a post box on an orange tree by the road to provide a post service for people. The sign reads: “The Baidicheng Postal Representative Office”.
A song from a Chinese TV series triggered a chain reaction, bringing many of the more than 800 migrants in two passenger ships bound for Shanghai to tears, including the sailors on the ships who were not migrants. In the theme song of the TV series, “The Long Song,” the first few lines are: “Looking back at your hometown, you are ten thousand miles away, taking away how many deep feelings; The breeze blows over the land under your feet, your loved ones are in your heart …” It’s a coincidence that, just as the barge was leaving after transferring the migrants to the passenger ship as they departed from their homeland, the TV theme song played as the barge workers watched, creating a spontaneous emotional response from all.
In August 1998, migrants boarded a passenger ship from their hometown to Shanghai, passing the Three Gorges Dam site.
The ancient towns that had not disappeared underwater at that time.
The trestle that had not disappeared underwater at that time.
Migrants’ new home in Lanlingxi Township, Zigui County, 2015.
A migrant family returned to their hometown to run a small inn under the Goddess Peak.
A couple who moved to the new county town of Fengjie and operated a restaurant there, hung a map of the entire area of the old town of Fengjie on the wall.
The migrants who moved far to other provinces from the Three Gorges Reservoir area.
Growing cotton was not an easy job to do for the migrants from the mountains.
Qingming – Tomb Sweeping Day. A time when migrants visit the graves of their ancestors and family members to pay their respects. Taken in 2022.
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