Award-winning Chinese photographer Fu Yongjun changes course in effort to chronicle endangered villages before they vanish

Fu Yongjun is renowned for his long-term observations of a quickly changing rural landscape

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 07 October, 2018, 6:02am
UPDATED : Sunday, 07 October, 2018, 10:26pm

From a tree beside the famous West Lake in eastern China to the daily lives of residents in a Beijing hutong, Fu Yongjun is known for his long-term observations of a fast changing society.

Now 49 and a photojournalist for 15 years, Fu – a winner of multiple photo awards domestically and internationally – wants to dedicate the next phase of life to the country’s vast rural areas.

Amid rapid urbanisation and President Xi Jinping’s initiative to alleviate poverty by 2020, many villages across China are disappearing, and Fu hopes to build an archive of images for 100 that remain.

He has photographed 20 of the villages over the years. And to make more time for the expanded pursuit, he quit his job as director of photography at the Hangzhou-based City Express to teach at a college in the city, which he believes will allow him to invite more people to participate in the project.

“Some villages have disappeared, some have become surrounded by skyscrapers and other modern urban constructions, and those that have survived are also undergoing revolutionary changes,” said Fu, twice a World Press Photo contest winner.

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It was his work with a group of children and their beloved teacher in a mountainous village in Chongqing that brought him the renowned photojournalism contest award for the second time in 2013.

He took portraits of 21 children in 2012 at a school in Chongqing’s Zhong county, where there was only one teacher and all the students’ parents were away in cities for better pay. The young students were photographed individually and with their teacher in their scruffy classroom.

Last year, more than 15 million Chinese children aged between six and 15 were separated from parents who had moved to cities for work, according to statistics from the Ministry of Education, and those “left behind children” remain a stark reminder of the fallout caused by China’s quick development.

“China’s urban areas have been through great changes in the past decades; so have the vast rural regions,” Fu said. “To look at China clearly, we must go deep to the countryside.”

The person who led him to this village was Fu Xiangjun, a college student in Chongqing whose parents work in Hangzhou.

In 2006, the photographer caught the scene of Fu, then just a schoolgirl, leaving on a train for her hometown of Chongqing after spending the summer holiday in Hangzhou with her parents. Her eyes glistened with tears as the train prepared to move, separating her and her parents once again.

The picture was published by City Express, where Fu worked until this summer, and attracted great attention.

With Fu Yongjun and his colleagues’ help, Fu Xiangjun was able to move to Hangzhou to study a few years later, but she had to return to her hometown in 2012 to continue high school and prepare for her college entrance exam. According to Chinese law, students can take the tests only where their permanent residence, or hukou, is registered.

It was in 2012 when Fu found out there were 21 children just like Fu Xiangjun, whose aunt Fu Huaying was their teacher. The photographer has been following their story ever since.

Fu Xiangjun is now preparing to apply for postgraduate study in downtown Chongqing, and her village will soon be resettled as part of the government’s antipoverty campaign, he said.

“China is so different from other countries in that it has witnessed immense changes every 10 years,” Fu said. “We must follow up on a long-term basis if we want to see things clearly.”

For rural areas, there have been positive changes in recent years, such as environmental improvements, he said.

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“In my hometown, Longyou, Zhejiang province, I saw polluted rivers getting clear again just like when I was young, and in Henan, deserted cave-houses are being made into decent homestays,” he said.

But the most notable trend may be the quickly shrinking number of villages as they are either engulfed by expanding cities or cleared by the government, Fu said. In its antipoverty efforts, Beijing has offered farmers new homes in towns, relocating 8.3 million people over the past five years. 

Fu, who was born and raised in the countryside, drove a truck as his first job after graduating from a vocational school in his hometown, Longyou, in 1990.

He later became a policeman and an employee at the local culture bureau, responsible for cracking down on pornography videos, before his 15 years as a photojournalist at the Hangzhou newspaper.

In those years, he won a number of domestic awards, including the Gold Statue Award for China Photography, China’s top photography honour. In the World Press Photo contest, he won second prize in the nature category in 2009, and third prize for staged portraits in 2013.

“I think my various jobs before entering photojournalism were a very good experience for me, allowing me to observe and learn from life in a short period,” he said.

He started teaching at the Communication University of Zhejiang early this month.

“Now I can take advantage of the summer and winter vacations to photograph more villages, and my students can do it with me,” he said.

While he hopes to follow up on some of the villages over a prolonged period, like he did on the Chongqing project, many of the trips will be a week long, recording a village from perspectives including architecture, history and public facilities.