An Island in Time: Capturing Dongshan’s Disappearing History
This is the third 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. Part one can be found here, and part two here.
A young woman dressed in a long, flowing robe glares at the camera. Her tied-up hair and fashionable silver bracelet reveal she’s modern. Yet the gown she’s wearing is from another age, its colors faded, its fabric rough and worn.
This self-portrait is the opening photograph from Zhu Lanqing’s “A Journey in Reverse Direction” — a project in which the young artist delves deep into the fast-disappearing local culture of her home town in southeastern China.
The robe has a special significance for Zhu. It was the gown her great-grandmother wore for her wedding around 100 years ago. Zhu found it one day in a chest at her grandmother’s house.
“When I put it on, there was this feeling of having a dialogue with the past,” Zhu tells Sixth Tone. “I believe objects from the past have special power.”
Preserving the past has been a lifelong obsession for the 29-year-old, who grew up during the height of China’s economic boom and witnessed firsthand how unfettered development can undermine communities and erase local cultures.
Zhu was born and raised on Dongshan Island, a tiny collection of isles in the Taiwan Strait famous mainly for being the site of a series of battles during the tail end of the Chinese Civil War.
From a young age, she was sensitive to the rapid changes taking place on Dongshan as China embraced global capitalism and prepared to join the World Trade Organization. Large numbers of people were leaving the island to work in the country’s expanding megacities, with their old houses left vacant.
When she was in middle school, Zhu would often play with her friends in these abandoned homes. One day, she recalls feeling sad about how so many traditional structures were moldering or being razed for new construction projects. She fetched her grandfather’s camera and started photographing the ruined structures.
“I’ve been taking pictures ever since,” Zhu says. “For me, the relationship between photography and documentation, forgetting and memory, is inseparable.”
After graduating from high school, Zhu also left her hometown, heading to Beijing to study photojournalism at Renmin University of China. Over the following years, however, she kept returning to Dongshan with her camera.
“Due to the region’s rapid modernization, every time I went back home it seemed like a new place,” says Zhu. “This strangeness made going home feel like a journey.”
These efforts later evolved into “A Journey in Reverse Direction,” Zhu’s first major photography project. Presented in the style of a scrapbook, the series focuses on capturing fragments of everyday life in Dongshan: locals carrying freshly caught fish, herders moving cattle, and women working in the fields.
Zhu has always viewed her hometown as a place of tradition — a counterpoint to China’s increasingly cosmopolitan megacities. Like many parts of southern China, religion plays a highly visible role in public life on the island. Locals pray to Guan Yu, a god of war and wealth, as well as the sea goddess Mazu.
In Zhu’s view, religion in Dongshan isn’t about superstition, but about knitting together families and communities. In the temples, locals have space to release their emotions in a way they feel unable to do during normal social interactions, she says.
“Every time my grandmother worships the gods, she prays for my health,” says Zhu. “She’ll never say, ‘I love you,’ but when she prays, I know she loves me.”
But the polluting influence of the modern world lurks everywhere in “A Journey in Reverse Direction,” often embodied by red items that stand out in the rustic surroundings: a discarded Coca-Cola can laying by a well, or a banner advertising a new construction project hanging in the center of a verdant field.
In her next project, “Ten Billion New City,” these threats to Dongshan became Zhu’s main focus. The work explores a grandiose, but ultimately disastrous development plan for the island launched by a group of Hong Kong entrepreneurs in the ’90s.
The consortium promised to invest 30 billion yuan (then $3.6 billion) to transform Dongshan into a Chinese Hawaii, with plans to build hundreds of villas equipped with yachts, as well as a variety of tourism venues, casinos, bars, nightclubs, and even a race track.
When Zhu was a child, her mother worked at the local tourism bureau, and the artist still recalls attending a grand launch ceremony for one of the resorts at the time.
But just two years later, the Asian financial crisis struck. The Hong Kong developers swiftly ran out of funding, and with demand for tourism on Dongshan still sluggish, the project collapsed. Construction was left unfinished, and the few already completed venues soon folded.
Though the construction project was soon forgotten by the outside world, it has left a permanent scar on the landscape in Dongshan. For Zhu, photographing the crumbling ruins helps remind the world that allowing capital to run rampant has real-world costs.
“People were trying to turn this remote and impoverished land into a suburb for the rich,” she says. “It happened in the past, and it’s still happening now. I hope that through this project, more people will pay attention to these marginal places.”
Speaking with Sixth Tone via e-mail from her home in Xiamen, Fujian province, Zhu discusses the importance of tradition in rural China and how she went about creating her projects. The interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Sixth Tone: What are your childhood memories of Dongshan, and how did these inspire your project “A Journey in Reverse Direction?”
Zhu Lanqing: Dongshan is a small island located at the southernmost point of Fujian province, on the western side of the Taiwan Strait. Because of its frontier status, it was often affected by political and military forces throughout history. I once went to the Widows’ Village Museum on Dongshan, which tells the history of how the Battle of Dongshan Island affected locals. When the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan, they took all the adult men in one village with them.
I’ve lived with my grandparents since I was a child. My grandmother is a very traditional Hokkien woman who never received a formal education. Her life is completely tied to the family, land, and gods. When I was a child, I was surrounded every day by farmland, village alleys, and ponds. Every month, I accompanied my grandma to the temple to worship the Buddha.
After I went to Beijing, I began to miss the scenery from my childhood, and I realized how deeply the land had affected me. At the same time, whenever I returned to Dongshan, I saw the changes taking place — many familiar scenes were gradually disappearing. So, I started shooting the project, which is both a simple act of documentation and a search for my own identity.
Sixth Tone: What aspects of Dongshan’s culture did you want to highlight in the project?
Zhu: One of the gods that local residents pray to is Guan Yu, who is regarded as a god of war. Dongshan Island has been a major coastal defense area through history, so it used to be a place where armies were stationed. Today, almost every family has a statue of Guan Yu in their living rooms.
Another god that locals worship is Mazu, which originated from the seafaring culture of southern Fujian. Mazu became a god because she saved people from the sea. So, fishers pray to Mazu to protect them before going out to sea.
There’s also a small temple called Dabogong Temple, which I came across in a fishing village. In the temple, there’s a clay pot containing the bones of a person the fishers found when they were fishing out at sea. People come here not only to pray for safety, but also to pay their respects to those who lost their lives at sea.
People also carry out different Buddhist and Taoist rituals at home almost every day, week, and month. In my opinion, it’s a kind of historical link between people and nature, land, and sea.
Sixth Tone: For you, what is the value of local culture and why does it need to be preserved?
Zhu: I studied Chinese and world history for nearly six years in middle school, but we were taught very little about the place where we lived. When I was about to graduate from high school, I finally saw the name Zhangzhou in my history textbook — the city that administers Dongshan. There was one sentence describing Zhangzhou as a tobacco growing area during the Qing dynasty.
This is the way our historical narratives work. Most knowledge production takes place in cities, and as a result many marginal places aren’t considered to have knowledge worthy of research. But paying attention to locality can allow us to resist viewing everything through one narrative perspective. For people living there, studying local histories can also help them regain their connection with the land and find a sense of belonging.
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: “A Journey in Reverse Direction,” 2013-2019. Courtesy of Zhu Lanqing)