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    Capturing the Alienation of China’s Young Migrants

    Farmer-turned-photographer Lahem explores how China’s stark rural-urban divide replicates itself in the minds of the country’s millennials.

    This is the first article in a three-part series exploring the meaning of home in modern China. It is being published to coincide with the Spring Festival, when millions of people across the country return to their hometowns to celebrate the holiday.

    Against the backdrop of a ghostly, deserted village in eastern China, a man dressed in a sharp black suit stands ramrod straight, staring at the camera.

    As the shutter keeps snapping, the figure reappears in a series of increasingly bizarre locations: in front of a blazing bonfire, behind an electricity pole, even half-submerged in a murky stream.

    The playful, yet haunting images are the work of Lahem — a Chinese photographer known for his works exploring the fractured identities of the country’s rural migrants.

    Born in a remote, impoverished corner of the eastern Jiangxi province in 1984, Lahem spent much of his childhood working on his parents’ farm, but dreaming of another life. He longed to join the millions of others fleeing their rural homes to seek new opportunities in China’s fast-growing metropolises.

    “I had an impulse to leave very early,” Lahem, who prefers to go by his artistic moniker, tells Sixth Tone. “I thought life as a farmer was too bitter. You spend every day planting seeds … There’s nothing to look forward to.”

    So when he was handed the opportunity to study at a high school in a nearby county town, the then-13-year-old didn’t look back. He even changed his name from Luo Fuping — the birth name given to him by his parents — to Luo Xin, marking a clean break with his rural roots.

    As a student, Lahem excelled, winning a place at the elite Fudan University in Shanghai to study literature — a huge achievement for a kid from his background.

    When he traveled home for summer vacations, the teenager was greeted as a returning hero. Neighbors suddenly treated him like a “big deal,” he recalls. His parents told him he’d brought honor to his ancestors.

    But these gestures only enhanced Lahem’s growing sense of isolation. After swapping the countryside for the cosmopolitan environs of Shanghai, the young man recalls struggling to reconcile the two sides of his identity. Often, he felt like he didn’t truly belong anywhere.

    Photography offered a way to channel these feelings. Starting from 2013, Lahem undertook a series of projects centered on his home region, trying to reconnect with a past he had left behind.

    These efforts would lead to his most personal and best-known work: the 2018 series “Luo Fuping.” Launched in collaboration with the Hometown Project — an initiative run by Beijing-based studio Ofpix dedicated to documenting life in rural China — Lahem revisited the village where he had grown up, posing in sites that evoked special childhood memories.

    Every detail in “Luo Fuping” is designed to capture the artist’s sense of being trapped between two selves — Luo Fuping and Lahem. In the images, he poses in a suit and round-rimmed spectacles, a nod to his status as an urbane intellectual in the minds of the villagers. Yet his feet are bare, as they were when he played in the fields as a child, he says.

    Lahem describes shooting the series as a healing experience — one that finally allowed him to take ownership of his own story.

    “I felt at ease with myself after the project,” he says. “I no longer resist my past, and accept who I am and what the village is now. I try to make myself whole.”

    Speaking with Sixth Tone by phone from his home in the eastern city of Hangzhou, Lahem discusses China’s rural-urban divide and his attempts to create a new hybrid identity. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

    Sixth Tone: Your hometown has been central for many of your photography projects. How has the medium helped you reflect on your past?

    Lahem: When I was little, I found farmwork very annoying. My grandpa would ask me to get up early to herd the cows, but I didn’t want to and thought it was boring.

    I knew I didn’t want to stay in the village my entire life, but I didn’t know what other options I had. It wasn’t until middle school when I learned about the existence of college.

    After I left for high school, I encountered classmates with different family names. It was really mind-blowing. Before that, I thought people all over the world had the same last name as me. The world was much bigger than I’d realized.

    My uncertainty over my identity grew during college. I’d grown up in one of the most impoverished areas in China, but my transformative years were spent in Shanghai — one of its most prosperous cities. I wasn’t taught how to deal with that transition. Photography became a way for me to explore my discomfort.

    In 2015, I spent two months traversing over 1,000 kilometers on foot from Shanghai back to my hometown, snapping photos all the way. It was then that I conceptualized the idea behind the “Luo Fuping” series, and I executed it two years later.

    Sixth Tone: The series is named after your birth name, but you changed your name at a young age. What do these names mean to you? 

    Lahem: My father named me Luo Fuping when I was born, but I changed it to Luo Xin when I left for middle school. A fortuneteller told me that my birth date had left me with a dearth of the gold element, according to the principles of Wuxing philosophy. So I flipped through a dictionary and picked xin (鑫), a character that has three gold radicals. I also thought it was a cool name — it was ungendered and uncommon among my peers.

    Later on, the name Luo Xin somehow became associated with my identity as an educated person in my hometown. After I got into college, people suddenly showed me respect and treated me like I was a big deal. That was when they started to address me as Luo Xin. They would even apologize if they accidentally called me by another name.

    I named the project “Luo Fuping” because I think it represents a part of my identity that shouldn’t be erased. Although it sounds a bit tacky, it embodies my parents and my rural roots.

    Sixth Tone: In the photos, you wear a suit and tie, but no shoes. Why?

    Lahem: Spectacles, suits, and ties — they’re all symbols of the urban elite. The type of glasses I was wearing is associated with intellectuals. They represent a certain social status — you’re either from the city or you made good money there as a migrant worker.

    This outfit perfectly fits other people’s impressions of me. I personally prefer to wear vintage outfits, and my dad often complains about my clothes being eccentric. But when I put on the suit for the shoot, my dad seemed very proud. Other people didn’t think it was strange that I was walking around the village in a suit, because they assume that’s what a college graduate should wear.

    I chose to be barefoot because it feels natural to me. The mountain rocks were sharp. The river water was freezing. Loaches swam across my feet as I stood in the water. The sensations brought back very vivid and specific childhood memories.

    The combination of the two things creates a liminal space, an ambiguity about who I am.

    Sixth Tone: Why did you choose to stand stiff like a pole in these photos? 

    Lahem: It looks like I’m a milestone in time and space, doesn’t it? Time and memories can be located and fixed through this act. All you need to do is stand there.

    The milestones represent an end and a beginning. When you confront a memory, it becomes deactivated. It no longer gives you pain, and it allows new memories to grow from there.

    Sixth Tone: How has your relationship with your hometown changed since this project? 

    Lahem: Before, much of my pain derived from the abstract ideas about rural hometowns that I’d absorbed from China’s literary tradition. The sense of decay and remoteness is romanticized, evoking a vague nostalgia for what the hometown once was.

    But through my photography, I came to realize that this idea is a trap. In reality, a hometown is nothing more than a concrete location — the geographical space where I was born. It’s far from perfect. Once I learned this, I felt deeply relieved. I reconciled myself with my dual identity and learned to move on. 

    After this series, I developed another project that dealt less with these intimate feelings, and looked at the collective experiences of people from my generation and how they’re affected by the rural-urban divide.

    Editors: Dominic Morgan and Qi Ya

    (Header image: “Luo Fuping,” 2018. Courtesy of Lahem)