The Chinese Villages Holding on to the Socialist Dream

Back in 2018 – the year that marked the 40th anniversary of China’s reform – Yangkun Shi embarked on a long-term investigative project that explores a collection of Chinese villages claiming to be the last bastions of Mao’s socialism.

© Yangkun Shi, from the series Retrotopia

A number of remote villages in China underwent economic reforms through the 1980’s, and, instead of moving away from central planning, maintained the collective system. In other words, they retained a system where all citizens serve the community in exchange for being taken care of. “There are no worries around here, no pressure. The village takes care of us: from education, to marriage, and finally, to death”, Shi’s writer colleague quotes an inhabitant from Nanjie village.

The reality is more complex, though, and the three villages that Shi visited offer a glimpse at what’s at stake behind such policies. As it appears, it’s often more opportunistic than really collectivist. In one village, socialism serves as a touristic pretext for those nostalgic of Mao’s era; in another, it’s masked capitalism, with subsequent inequalities and aggressive business models; and in yet another, utopia rhymes with dystopia, keeping people’s standards to a safe but low level, clashing with today’s expectations in terms of opportunities and entertainment.

© Yangkun Shi, from the series Retrotopia

Facing this paradox, Shi, who is in his late 20’s, included a lot of younger people in his series. “I grew up in a context of a lot of change so I can relate to them. We have to face some choices. They can go to big cities, and work as migrant workers, or chose to stay in the village and be part of this economic model. This is something that everyone has to face, whether we chose a rigid life with safety or a more risky one with more freedom”, he says.

In the gaze of the subjects who pose for Shi, one can feel whether they see their village as a curse or a privilege. Because when some feel the oppression of a rigid system, others see the possibility of career development. “A young man from Huaxi went to study agriculture in Japan. When he came back, the village government supported him with money, a large piece of land, and technical facilities so that he could experiment with his agricultural knowledge”, Shi recalls. And for the local government, it may be a strategy to shine – just as when Huaxi built a skyscraper that was the eighth tallest building in the world when it was inaugurated in 2012.

© Yangkun Shi, from the series Retrotopia

All in all, what’s interesting about Shi’s photographs is the way in which despite the nostalgic promise associated to the idea of collectivism, these villages don’t look so different than the rest of China. This similarity conveys the ambiguity of the concept. “Some scholars call it post-collectivism”, Shi notes. Shot with large and medium format cameras – “conservative cameras”, Shi jokes -, his photographs only have their pastel tone feel nostalgic. The mainly luxuriant surroundings talk for the rest.

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Yangkun Shi is a Chinese photographer and visual practitioner based in Shanghai. He is a staff photographer at Sixth Tone.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Paris focusing on cultural and environmental issues. She is also the editorial director of Dysturb.

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This article is part of our feature series, Photo Kernel, which aims to give space to the best contemporary practitioners in our community. The word Kernel means the core, centre, or essence of an object, but it also refers to image processing.

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