The Land of Promises

In 1994, six Belgian families, including my adoptive father, travelled across China to adopt girls. I was born in Hunan Province in 1993 and was adopted at the age of eight months. According to the official documents I have, I stayed with my biological family for a month before they left me in a city called Yueyang. A resident found me and dropped me off at the police station. The authorities handed me over to the orphanage and reportedly searched for my parents for four months. I lived in the orphanage for seven months before I was adopted.

The Land of Promises is about China’s birth control policy, especially its “one-child policy” (1979-2015) and its many consequences that still have and will continue to have repercussions. At the same time, it’s a personal project; it tells the stories of those parents who went almost to the other end of the world to adopt a child, of the five other girls adopted at the same time as me and of my experience in particular. I have no recollection of what preceded my adoption or of the meeting between the parents and children at the orphanage. My ‘memory’ of this event has been mediated through the stories my father and the other parents have told me, the photographs and videos they made and the official documents. Drawing on these archives (which date to 1994), pictures I took during trips to China in 2017 and 2019, research based on writings of demographers and experts on China’s birth control policy and testimonies of people I met in China, this work is about the discovery of my country of origin and an attempt to understand what led to the abandonment and international and transracial adoption of hundreds of thousands of Chinese girls.

Starting from an intimate and personal family history, the subject of this project broadens to become societal, political, historical, social, economic and cultural. The Land of Promises is also a committed work about international and transracial adoption. During my research, I realized that there are very few works about the Chinese birth control policy or about adoption in the field of photography. Even less produced by artists who were themselves adopted. More generally, for years the discourse of adoption agencies and adoptive parents has been dominant. The adoptee continues to be considered as still a ‘child’ while most adoptees are now adults. Through my work, I try to bring nuance to the dominant discourses and prejudices regarding the “one-child policy”, Chinese culture and what it means to be an international and transracial adoptee. It is about 'coming out of the fog', an expression defined by Blake Gibbins (Not Your Orphan) as: “an organic and non-linear process by which an [adult] adoptee begins to unlearn and deconstruct the mythologies taught to them about adoption by the adoptive family and mainstream society at large. It is a process of personal reclamation and authority of one’s own story.” The Land of Promises testifies to a desire to discover and reconnect with my origins, to reclaim my story.

© Youqine Lefèvre - Archive photo taken in 1994 at the Yueyang Social Welfare Center by one of the adoptive parents.
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Archive photo taken in 1994 at the Yueyang Social Welfare Center by one of the adoptive parents.

© Youqine Lefèvre - Image from the The Land of Promises photography project
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Yueyang Social Welfare Center, 2017. The orphanage where I would have lived for seven months. It is written House of Hope, a synonym for ‘orphanage’ in China.

© Youqine Lefèvre - Sub-district of Wulipai, Yueyang, 2017. The neighborhood where I would have been found.
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Sub-district of Wulipai, Yueyang, 2017. The neighborhood where I would have been found.

© Youqine Lefèvre - Image from the The Land of Promises photography project
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Trace of the propaganda put in place by the Chinese governement to promote the one-child policy, Hunan province, 2017. It is written: ‘If you obey the birth control regulations, you will be respected. If you desobey, there will be shame on you.’

© Youqine Lefèvre - Image from the The Land of Promises photography project
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Zhao Ruo Han (1979) "I am an only child. At the time my parents were not allowed to have two children. When I was a child, I would have liked to have a brother or a sister. That’s why I have two children. To be an only child means to be alone. Alone to help your parents, to take care of them, to keep them company. We must also be able to take care of our parents-in-law, our own family. It’s a burden. My friends introduced me to my husband. I got married at the age of 25. A year later I got pregnant with my daughter. She was born in 2005. I could do an ultrasound and know the sex of my children in a private hospital. Our son was born in 2010. We wanted to be ready to have a second child. I would like to have a third child, but it would be too complicated. I do not work anymore to take care of my children. China is not ready to encourage families to have two, three, or even more children. Raising a child in China is very expensive. It takes a lot of time for the parents. It’s difficult because they also have to work. For me, the ideal number of children is four, two girls and two boys. But the country is not ready."

© Youqine Lefèvre - Image from the The Land of Promises photography project
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Qian (1974) "I have a younger sister. At that time, it was common to have several children. I met my husband through friends. I got married at the age of 24. Because of love but also because of my parents, who urged me to get married as soon as possible. They put pressure on me to have a child. At 25, I became pregnant. In China, it is normal to get married and have children soon after. My husband and I did not know the sex of our child before birth. It was forbidden to know it. It is still the case today. My son was born in 1998. After he was born, I had to go to the hospital five times a year to check that I was not pregnant. It was an obligation. Now women still have to go to the hospital several times a year to check that they are not pregnant. There are no differences between raising a son or a daughter. But my husband and I wanted a son. He is currently studying at a university in the United States. Later, we do not want him to send us money. It is up to him to decide if he wants to be in a relationship with an American or a Chinese woman. If he wants to get married or not. He is free to choose. I would have preferred to be a man. Men have more abilities than women. They also have more responsibilities. A woman should be financially independent. I am."

© Youqine Lefèvre - Image from the The Land of Promises photography project
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Image depicting ancestor’s worship. The traditional preference for sons is explained by this cult which can only be perpetrated with male heirs. In addition to this, having a son guarantees the perpetuation of the family bloodline, the care of his parents when they are old (the retirement and pension system being almost non-existent in the countryside), the transmission of the family heritage and significant economic support within the family farm or business.

© Youqine Lefèvre - Image from the The Land of Promises photography project
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A tub photographed near Shaxi, in Yunnan Province. Since the implementation of the birth control policy and still today, it is forbidden in China to know the sex of your child before birth. In some remote villages, just after birth, unwanted girls were drowned in a tub prepared in advance. If the child was a boy, his family thanked the gods.

© Youqine Lefèvre - Image from the The Land of Promises photography project
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Poster photographed in a villager’s house in Yunnan Province. We see the various presidents of the Chinese republic who succeeded each other, including Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, who introduced the one-child policy in 1979, a year after he came to power, Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao and Xi Jinping.

© Youqine Lefèvre - Image from the The Land of Promises photography project
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Bedroom of an elderly villager who was forced into sterilization by local authorities for breaking the law and giving birth to at least one unauthorized child in the hope of having a son.

The Land of Promises by Youqine Lefèvre

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