The creation of China’s Three Gorges Dam buried the past and overturned the lives of millions. Tracking these changes across the years: one of the country’s greatest photographers.
A Probe International Exclusive
As we approach the 30-year mark since construction of the world’s largest dam first began, we are pausing to take a look back over the years through the lens of one of China’s most celebrated photographers, Li Feng.
It is our good fortune that Li Feng felt called to bear witness to the lives that this massive undertaking transformed. To that end, we have curated five galleries focused on Li Feng’s extraordinary commitment to history in the making and a 27-year odyssey made up of moments.
And there are so many moments captured by Li Feng: the sheer scale of the project, the awkwardness of transition, the violence of transformation and the trauma of relocation; scenes of calm juxtaposed against the force of change in the present moment to disappear the past.
We see in these moments: sadness, joy, ruptures of beauty (a man carrying a tree from his hometown on his back) … resilience, entrepreneurialism, celebration, ceremony, hope, despair. Along with new beginnings, ancestral treasures and memorials are entombed overnight by the dam reservoir’s impoundment. Throughout, Li Feng records glimpses of life in all of its grand wonder – including a woman who sleeps outside to chase wild pigs away so they won’t eat her corn.
It seems that no matter what happens, the spirit finds a way. Time is another story. It is worthwhile to consider that what lies buried now may not stay gone forever.
The galleries below follow Li Feng and his journey alongside Three Gorges migrants through the years.
Image One: In November 1992, local farmers carried sand and earth in backpacks from the riverside to higher ground for the construction of the new county town, Badong, in Hubei Province.
Image Two: On January 17, 1999, a group of migrants waited for their cargo to be released at a dock in Wanzhou County in the Three Gorges Reservoir area.
Image Three: By November 15, 1999, various government organs and units in the old county seat of Zigui, in the Three Gorges Reservoir area, had been moved away. A new county town was built more than 30 kilometres from the old town, near the dam site of the Three Gorges project. But a large number of migrants in the old county seat had not yet been resettled. So, in that year, the State Council made a major adjustment to the resettlement policy and decided to move more than 130,000 migrants to other provinces in the country.
Image Four: On March 2001, before the Qingming (Tomb Sweeping Day), Zhang Jianguo and his wife from Maoping Village held a ritual to pay their respects to their ancestors and family members who had passed away. They conducted their observance on the slope of the reservoir near the dam site, even though the graves of their ancestors were long gone. The Three Gorges Dam was under construction at this time.
Image Five: On June 5, 2002, a demolition site at the old county seat of Badong in Hubei Province.
Image Six: A migrant had just bought a new TV set in the county town of Badong and carried it back home with the help of his backpack. This photograph was taken in 2002.
Image Seven: In May 2002, during the Dragon Boat Festival, descendants of Qu Yuan gathered at the old Qu Yuan Temple to pay their last respects to one of the greatest poets in China’s history. The old temple would be demolished due to the impoundment of the reservoir, and another temple would be built in the new county seat of Zigui, near the dam site of the Three Gorges project. The white banner reads: “In the Dragon Boat Festival, the people of Guizhou commemorate the 2,280 years since the patriotic Chu Master threw himself into the river.”
Image Eight: On June 1, 2003, the Three Gorges project officially commenced impoundment of the reservoir. At the old signal station in Qingtan, Hubei Province, station staff watch the ships going up and down through binoculars, directing traffic navigation with signals.
Image Nine: On June 10, 2003, sitting in his boat near the Kui Men in Fengjie County, fisherman Wang Jinxi said: “I have been fishing here for more than 30 years, but this is the first time I have seen the water level rising so high and flowing into the whole of the Fengxiang Gorge.” (The Fengxiang Gorge would become completely flooded by the reservoir when the water level rose even higher in several years’ time). The water level of the Three Gorges Reservoir reached 135 metres that day, completing the first phase of impoundment. A total of approx. 1.3 million people would make way for the entire project in the Three Gorges Reservoir area. Around 36.7% of migrants lived below the water level of 135 metres.
Image One: On June 20, 2004, the tourist pier was empty at the entrance to the Lesser Three Gorges in Wushan. Not a single tourist showed up. In the past, this would have been the peak season for local tourism, but as the water level rose to about 140 metres, the classic attractions of the Lesser Three Gorges were flooded and tourists stopped coming to visit at this point.
Image Two: On July 9, 2004, the Three Gorges Project officially opened its shiplock to traffic. Wang Jinxi, a 70-year-old migrant, was very happy to bear witness to the event and to attend the opening ceremony for this phase of the project. Located on the dam site of the Three Gorges, his old home was flooded and his family became one of the first groups of people moved to make way for the enormous undertaking.
Image Three: On August 18, 2004, 881 migrants from Fengjie County departed for Jiangxi Province. They were the last batch of migrants to leave the Three Gorges Reservoir area for other provinces. By that time, a total of 165,000 migrants had been moved to make way for the reservoir.
Image Four: In April 2005, Li Wenjun would soon be relocated from Guilin Village in Zigui County. He made a small coffin to keep the remains of his deceased loved ones safe. He was planning to bring the small coffin with him when he and his family had to leave. A little later in that same year, the reservoir would be impounded and the water level would reach 156 metres.
Image Five: In September 2007, the water level of the Three Gorges Reservoir reached 156 metres during the second phase of impoundment. The old pier in Badong County was completely submerged, but the migrants who went to the new county town to visit the market there were still not accustomed to this. They had to disembark from their boats and walk through the water. During this period in time, landslides occurred in some areas of the Three Gorges Reservoir area.
Image Six: A large area of “pollutants” appeared on the Xiangxi River, a tributary of the Yangtze. This was mainly due to slow water movement caused by the reservoir impoundment in October 2008.
Image Seven: Three migrant families moved to new homes via a ferry near Huoyanshi in Badong County. Several other passengers were also on board on this day, September 25, 2009.
Image Eight: There were a large number of small coal mines in the Three Gorges Reservoir area, especially in Badong, Wushan, Fengjie, Wuxi and Yunyang counties. Many of these coal mines would be submerged by the rising water with the impoundment of the reservoir. To protect the environment, local governments decided to shut down all of the
small coal mines. Migrants were reluctant to do so because they were one of their major sources of income. As this photograph shows, even in July 2010, a group of migrants were still working in local coal mines in Qingshi Township, of Badong County, in Hubei Province. But according to the government, the task of relocating more than one-million migrants in the Three Gorges Reservoir area had already been completed by early 2010.
Image Nine: On October 2, 2010, Li Wenling took her twin sons (aged one) and her 5-year-old daughter back to Daxi Town by boat. Six years ago, together with other migrants, she moved far away to Jiangxi Province, where her daughter and sons were born. She returned to Daxi Town to show them to their grandparents.
Image Ten: Two boys take pictures on the flooded ruins of the old county town of Zigui in 2010.
Image One: Three local models prepare for a swimsuit show on a luxury cruise ship near the dock in Yiling District, Yichang City, in June 2012.
Image Two: On July 3, 2012, with the flood water discharged from the Three Gorges Dam approaching Yichang, Hu Jun fished by the riverside in Dianjun District of Yichang City, about 40 kilometres below the dam. Ten years ago, Hu Jun moved from Zigui County in the reservoir area to Yichang, and brought his fishing net with him. Now Hu Jun works for a company in Yichang City for a much higher income.
Image Three: On December 15, 2012, in the new county seat of Wushan, migrants carry oranges in backpacks for trading on the new wharf just above the old wharf, which was flooded by the Three Gorges Reservoir. The new wharf became the largest orange trading market in the area.
Image Four: Zhang Qiuping is seen here carrying newly picked tea leaves, which he is taking to the new tea purchasing station in Yiling District of Yichang City. This photo was taken in April 2013.
Image Five: Liu Jiangwei, a migrant in the reservoir area, is on duty, taking care of a tourist pier under construction between the Gezhouba Dam and the Three Gorges Dam in the Xiling Gorge on July 15, 2013. Located downstream of the Three Gorges Dam, the Xiling Gorge was mostly unaffected by the construction of the dam. Its original appearance remained well preserved. For this reason, many visitors come here to tour the area every year.
Image Six: Portraits of the deceased Xiong Zhenghua (male) and Liu Hongying (female) on the wall of their former home by the Yangtze River in Xietan Town of Zigui County. Their entire village fell below the 175-metre line and was moved for relocation. After all of their fellow villagers had moved to higher ground for resettlement, the old couple refused to move and continued to live in their house by the river until they died. This photo was taken on October 12, 2013.
Image Seven: On December 8, 2013, a young couple walk on the new suspension bridge near Xinguilin Village of Zigui County in the reservoir area. Today was their big day. Wang Xi, the bride was a local migrant; her bridegroom was from Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province. Wang Xi met her sweetheart in Shanghai when she worked there as a migrant laborer.
Image Eight: On December 15, 2013, local people gathered for the business of orange trading at the the new wharf in the new county seat of Wushan. It was now the season of orange ripening in the Three Gorges Reservoir area.
Image Nine: At 10 p.m. on January 8, 2014, at Maoping Pier in Yichang City, Wang Tao and his friends crammed into the cramped cabin of a passenger ship. Migrant laborers, they all worked in Changsha, the capital of Hunan Province. The passenger ship would carry them back home to Wuxi County in the reservoir area for the Spring Festival celebration with their families. The journey marked the last one for this passenger ship. It would be replaced by the Three Gorges Expressway, which opened to traffic in June of that year.
Image Ten: At 6 a.m. on August 9, 2014, several migrants from Wuxi County in the Three Gorges Reservoir area released a batch of wild fish into the Daning River, a tributary of the Yangtze River.
Image Eleven: Liu Yang, an elderly man, took a look at the roof of his house in November 2014. He had moved from his old home by the river to higher ground in Yangping Town. He managed to turn the roof into a basin to store water for his daily use, due to the lack of water on the slopes of the mountain.
Image Twelve: This building for migrants near the new county seat of Wushan had long been completed, but Liu Huimin was still willing to live in a shack by the river. This photograph was taken on December 2, 2014.
Image One: Students from the Qu Yuan Primary School in Zigui County row a dragon boat to celebrate the Dragon Boat Festival in May 2015.
Image Two: In May 2015, a local road is blocked by landslides due to heavy storms. Dozens of villagers in Miaohe, of Zigui County, rush to the scene to repair the damaged road.
Image Three: Early one morning in August 2015, at the top of Wuxia Mountain in Badong County, Xiang Changfang rises from her outdoor bed. Fifteen years ago, her family had been relocated from the riverside and resettled on higher ground, where they counted wild pigs among their new neighbours. Xiang Changfang had to sleep outdoors in order to chase away the wild pigs that would come to steal the corn.
Image Four: On October 1, 2015, Liu Minghua waits for his children (who work away from home) to come back for the holidays (National Day) by the Yangtze River in Nanmuyuan of Badong County.
Image Five: The family of an old and seriously ill migrant, charter a boat to take him to the hospital in the county seat of Badong in Hubei Province. Although, local people in many places were able to access the highway network and high-speed rails, some living in the reservoir area still had to travel by boat. This photograph was taken in October 2015.
Image Six: Two people bathing a horse near the dam site of the Three Gorges project in March 2016.
Image Seven: Liu Dongmei, in her 50s, took her twin granddaughters back to the wharf in Taipingxi of Yiling District in April 2016. Liu’s old home there had been demolished for the construction of the big dam. Her twin granddaughters were only 4 years old at the time and had no idea their grandmother’s house had once existed on this site. They see a new Three Gorges for the first time.
Image Eight: On June 9, 2016, several migrant “netizens” take pictures and stream live video in the Kuimen area of Qutang Gorge in the Three Gorges Reservoir area, where their homeland had been flooded by the rising reservoir a dozen or so years ago. The riverbank is exposed because the dam authorities always lower the reservoir level from 175 meters to 145 meters in June of each year to create space for flood control.
Image Nine: A very happy fisherman delights in his large haul from a small reservoir near the Three Gorges Reservoir in Zigui County, in November 2016.
Image Ten: In June 2017, after disappearing for several years, boat trackers return as tourism picks up again.
Image Eleven: In September 2017, a migrant prepares to carry a large and fat pig down the mountain to sell at a local market in the old county seat of Badong.
Image Twelve: A passenger ship is dismantled for steel, which will be sold in the Meirentuo area of Yiling District. Dating back to early 2015, all long-distance passenger ships stopped running in the reservoir area. To replace them, highways and high-speed railways were made ready for operation in the Three Gorges Reservoir area that year. This photograph was taken in January 2018.
Image Thirteen: On June 26, 2019, the old Daxi Town site at the Qutang Gorge in Wushan County was exposed when the water level of the reservoir was lowered to 155 metres. Liu Hua, a 60-year-old migrant, stands on the site of the old village where he had lived for decades, playing drums for practice. A little later, he and his team would go to the other side of the river by ferry to participate in an event celebrating his friend’s move to a new home.
Image One: A little migrant carrying a summer sleeping mat (June 1995).
Image Two: In December 1997, migrants from Nanmuyuan Village in Badong County, of the Three Gorges Reservoir area, moved with all of their belongings.
Image Three: In August 1998, migrants boarded a passenger ship from their hometown to Shanghai, passing the Three Gorges Dam site.
Image Four: Li Feng, the photographer, and his wife, Hu Yanhong, on a boat to Three Gorges in 1999.
Image Five: In August 2000, 639 migrants from Yunyang County boarded a passenger ship bound for Shanghai for resettlement on Chongming Island. The red banner behind them reads: “To sacrifice individual interests for the public good, to support the construction of the Three Gorges project for the country.”
Image Six: On March 25, 2002, the old county town of Zigui, with a history of more than 1,700 years, was demolished with a blast.
Image Seven: On July 20, 2002, a migrant family in Zhongxian County was on the move, and so was their pig.
Image Eight: On August 31, 2002, carrying their one-month-old baby, a migrant couple embarked on their move 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 another province: Ma’an Town, in Huiyang City of Guangdong Province. This is the Third Squadron.” But the couple, and their son, stayed there less than one year and returned to Wushan County in
the Three Gorges Reservoir area next year.
Image Nine: A song from a Chinese television series triggered a chain reaction, bringing many of the more than 800 migrants in two passenger ships bound for Shanghai to tears, including sailors on the ships who were not migrants. The theme song for the TV series, “The Long Song,” includes these lines: “Looking back at your hometown, you are ten thousand miles away, taking with you 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, following the transfer of migrants to the passenger ship as they departed from their homeland, the TV theme song played as the barge workers watched on, creating an emotional collective response. This photograph was taken in September 2002.
Image Ten: On June 1, 2003, the Three Gorges Dam officially began storing water during the first phase of impoundment to 135 metres. The migrants pictured, pose alongside a sign that shows the 135M water level.
Image Eleven: A bird’s nest flooded by the river (June 1, 2003).
Image Twelve: On June 1, 2003, a little girl plays in her family’s yard where they grow oranges. With the post office gone, staff placed a post box on an orange tree by the road to provide a mail service for people. The sign reads: “The Baidicheng Postal Representative Office”.
Image Thirteen: The biggest flood in 2010 in the Three Gorges Reservoir area since the dam project was built.
Image Fourteen: Liu Minhua, a migrant from the mountain area of Guojiaba Town, Zigui County in the Three Gorges reservoir area, carefully carries a peach tree that once grew in front of his home, as he says goodbye to his hometown and the place where he was born. This photograph was taken in March 2012.
Image Fifteen: The newly elected head of the village sings a folk song to those gathered — all migrants from the Three Gorges Reservoir area. They were resettled at Shayang Farm in Jingmen City of Hubei Province. This photograph was taken in June 2013.
Image Sixteen: Growing cotton was not an easy job for migrants from the mountains. Fifteen years ago, they left Qingshi Village of Wushan County and were resettled at Huanghu Farm in Jianli County of Hubei Province. This photograph was taken on December 21, 2013.
Image Seventeen: In December 2014, a man and a woman wait for a night boat to cross the river at the new pier in Wushan. The couple had just received their marriage certificate earlier in the day.
Image Eighteen: On October 5, 2015, Yi Yuanxiu cooked for tourists at her newly opened inn under the Goddess Peak in Qingshi Town, Wushan County.
Image Nineteen: Qingming – Tomb Sweeping Day. A time when migrants visit the graves of their ancestors and family members to pay their respects. This photograph was taken in 2022.
About the Photographer – Li Feng
Born in 1973, Li Feng is one of the most famous photographers in China. In 2007, his photograph, “Monkeys Waiting for Experiment,” won the Gold Award in National Geographic’s Global Photography Competition, In 2014, his photo series, “Three Gorges Migrants After 20 Years,” won the Gold Medal in the 3rd National Photography Exhibition of China. He has published several books, such as “Atlas of Wildlife in China’s Three Gorges,” “Images of the Old City” and “Home in the Old City of Yichang”.
His photographic works are rich in subject matter, but the most widely known and highly acclaimed is his continuous focus on Three Gorges migrants. Since 1995, Li Feng has been present to capture almost every historical moment of the Three Gorges Dam’s construction.
Li Feng’s hometown of Yichang is located at the exit of Three Gorges – the boundary between the upper and middle reaches of the Yangtze River, and the historical main route in and out of Sichuan. From Yichang’s Xiling Gorge on, Wu Gorge and Qutang Gorge follow, in that order. The Yangtze River, which cuts through these three gorges, is known locally as the Gorge River or the Chuan River.
Li Feng first photographed the Three Gorges’ migration in June 1995. At that time, shortly after graduating from college, Li Feng, a photography enthusiast, took a boat from his hometown of Yichang upstream to Zigui, which is located in the heart of the Three Gorges Reservoir area. At the wharf in Zigui County, he photographed a young boy carrying a cooler.
The 7-year-old boy, Liu Wei, is from Xiangjiadian village in Zigui County. Xiangjiadian Village is the closest village to the Three Gorges Dam, and therefore became the earliest village in the Three Gorges Reservoir area to undergo relocation. In the afternoon of that day, Liu Wei moved on to the outskirts of Yichang by boat along with 184 migrants from the same village. “The Three Gorges Millions Migration” officially kicked off, and Li Feng happened to witness this moment.
From that day on, Li Feng embarked on a long journey. In the 27 years since then, he has resolutely focused his camera on the Three Gorges and its migrants. “From that incredible photo in 1995, I felt that these people were truly worthy of my record,” he said.
The period from 2000 to 2010 was the busiest and most lively time for the entire Three Gorges. Li Feng headed to the Three Gorges whenever he could. On January 20, 2002, Fengjie County was blasted into oblivion – a thousand-year-old city on the Yangtze River. The blast also marked the beginning of the full-scale demolition and clearing of the Three Gorges Reservoir. Two months later, the old county town of Zigui, with a history of more than 1,700 years, was also demolished and blasted. Li Feng was on the scene.
In 2003, the entire reservoir area officially began filling on June 1. That was a day the whole world turned to watch. On that day, Li Feng found a nest of birds in front of the Three Gorges Dam. It had become flooded after the river rose. Every day, the Yangtze River rose 3 meters or 5 meters, until June 15, when it rose to a height of 135 meters. Many old counties along the river sank to the bottom. All of this was followed by Li Feng through his camera lens.
“People” were always at the center of Li Feng’s focus. In the beginning, he photographed along the 600-kilometers of the Yangtze River in the Three Gorges Reservoir area. Around 2001, he began to follow the footsteps of migrants as they moved out of the Three Gorges in large numbers. He photographed babies just over a month old, migrating with their parents to Guangzhou. He photographed the migrants taking with them pigs, chickens and goats. He also photographed them trying to carry a tree from their hometown in their bags when they left.
According to Li Feng, history is not only related to physical change, but also to the changing emotional structure of the people who occupy that physical space. He continues to go to the Three Gorges to record and search.
“What is a Three Gorges person? How has the emotional intensity of the Three Gorges people changed over the decades? What is the impact of everything that happens in the gorge on people? What is the impact on the first generation migrants, the second generation, and the third generation? What will happen to it in the future? I hope to answer these questions through a lifetime of shooting.” ~ Li Feng, from an interview with China’s People magazine.
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