Subscribe to our newsletter

     By signing up, you agree to our Terms Of Use.


    • About Us
    • |
    • Contribute
    • |
    • Contact Us
    • |
    • Sitemap

    The Chinese Factory Tearing Love to Shreds

    A business in North China is helping heartbroken lovers move on by shredding their wedding photos and other mementos — and using the waste to supply a biofuel plant.

    There’s a factory in Langfang, a city in the northern Hebei province, that is adding new meaning to the term “breaking hearts.” On most mornings, the floor here is strewn with photographs of smiling couples taken on their wedding day or some other romantic occasion. One by one, they will be sprayed with black paint and fed into an industrial-grade shredder, to be crushed into tiny pieces that will eventually be used to generate electricity.

    Today, the pictures have been organized into 25 piles, one for each customer whose memories are scheduled to be destroyed. Among these small mounds are photo albums as thick as dictionaries, a red iron box filled with torn-up pictures, and a large roll-up banner emblazoned with the names of a bride and groom alongside drawings of hearts and the words “Welcome to our wedding.”

    Company owner Liu Wei launched this shredding service for sensitive personal items last spring after a friend agreed to let him use his factory and machinery, which previously had been used to destroy documents, car parts, and expired food for corporate clients. He says requests to shred wedding photos account for 80% of his business.

    Most photos are large, the kind usually hung on walls in metal or wooden frames. Some are as tall as an average person. Some pictures look like they were taken a long time ago, but most are new, showing couples holding hands on spiral staircases in European-style castles, sitting on chairs embroidered with Chinese phoenix and dragon motifs, or standing under coconut trees on tropical beaches. The photo albums capture different stages of happiness: marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, the toddler years. Yet, these once-cherished memories are now simply garbage waiting to be shredded.

    Peering into the huge industrial shredder, one can see only a mouth of sharp, square teeth that, once activated, rotate and bite down in perfect alignment, chewing up anything they encounter. It emits a squeal as iron grinds against iron, and the flooring underneath trembles, as if afraid. The resulting debris travels along a sloping conveyor belt and is deposited in a white bag large enough to fit a household washing machine.

    The violent shredding process naturally serves as a form of catharsis for customers struggling with the strong emotions that come with a breakup. Many photos sent to the factory exhibit clear signs of earlier attempts to destroy them: In some, the man’s face has already been blacked out, scratched repeatedly, or scribbled over with a drawing of a turtle, a traditional insult in Chinese culture.

    The type of wedding photos popular among Chinese couples are extremely durable and notoriously difficult to destroy, as they are seen as a testament to eternal love. One common material is acrylic, which doesn’t ignite when exposed to flame, can’t be cut with a knife, and won’t break even if someone stomps on it.

    Many are also covered in large panes of glass, which cannot be put into the shredder, as this can create dangerous shrapnel. Liu’s business partner, Yang, was once hit in the forehead by a flying glass shard while shredding a customer’s photographs, leaving a deep gash. Since then, the factory has disposed of glass-covered wedding photos by placing them in shallow cardboard boxes and smashing them with a sledgehammer.

    “With large photos like these, you can’t just take them outside and put them into the neighborhood dumpster,” Liu says. “Many men may not care, but women definitely do. Especially in small towns, people will gossip.”

    In rural areas, people have the habit of picking up unwanted items to repurpose for home repairs. Made from such sturdy materials, wedding photos can easily find themselves transformed into barricades and fences. If you’re not careful, you and your former lover could end up plastered on someone else’s outhouse or pigsty.

    Letting go

    Liu takes out his phone and begins moving through these remnants of lost love, stepping over this couple, bypassing that couple, all the while taking photos to send his customers so that he can make sure they want to proceed with crushing their mementos. After receiving final confirmation, Liu instructs his employee, Zhang, to start by covering the faces of those pictured with black spray paint, which is done to protect their privacy. He needs to flip through the thick photo albums and spray each page one by one.

    Zhang squats down and begins spraying, enveloping the two heads in what appears like a mushroom cloud from an atomic bomb.

    Slightly chubby, bespectacled, and in his early 40s, Liu used to work in the pharmaceutical industry. He began advertising his shredding services on social media in March last year, and within a month he had started receiving orders. At first, he had fewer than 10 orders a month, but after six months, demand skyrocketed. To date, more than 6,000 people have inquired about his services, and he has destroyed over 700 batches of wedding photographs. He charges by weight, with the average customer spending more than 100 yuan ($14).

    Liu estimates that roughly 70% of the people who contact him are women, although this sometimes can be hard to tell, as some WeChat users conceal their true gender, while others operate anonymous accounts. The vast majority who inquire about his services don’t engage in much conversation: They simply ask about pricing and then send their items via courier, he says.

    Occasionally, clients will share their stories, usually in no more than three sentences. Liu pulls out his phone to show examples: “Divorced, still struggling, currently in the hospital.” Clients sometimes mention other situations, such as infidelity or conflicts with in-laws, but Liu says he doesn’t probe any further or pass judgment. His replies consist of emojis and stickers with encouraging messages such as “I believe things will get better,” or “marriage is for happiness, but divorce is also for happiness.”

    Liu has noticed that those who are truly determined to destroy their items don’t say much, while those who give more information often don’t follow through with their orders. These individuals are still on the fence and looking more for words of encouragement, he says.

    Some seem to achieve clarity after their relationships fall apart. On the ground beside Liu’s feet is a wedding photo with a message written on it in black ink: “See through the formalities.” Yet, other clients remain undecided until the last minute. There have been three cases in which Liu had to send wedding photos back intact because he hadn’t received confirmation before shredding. One customer had reconciled with their partner, another had had a change of heart for reasons unknown, and the third case was simply a mistake — the client had accidentally sent their parents’ wedding photos.

    A few days earlier, a man in his 40s had sent images of his deceased wife as well as snapshots from their life together. He then called several days later to ask if he could send his wife’s clothes and bags to be shredded. Looking at them made him sad, but he didn’t want to sell them. When they spoke on the phone, Liu asked the man to list the items one by one. Halfway through, the man broke down in tears.

    The business has received similar requests from other widowers. Liu feels that the end of a relationship, whatever the circumstances, evokes the same feelings. “You’re emotionally invested, but the other person has moved on,” he explains. “Although you may have been left with some resentment, there’s surely still some attachment.”

    Other recent customers have included a young man who asked to shred a collection of items his ex-girlfriend had left behind after dumping him, including a towel and a flashlight. Clients also send toys and other things that remind them of their deceased pets, including one who asked Liu to destroy a horse’s saddle and mask as well as a riding crop.

    When he first started in this job, Zhang got emotional every time he faced a floor covered with wedding photos. “I doubt anyone who’s single would ever want to get married after seeing this,” he says, pointing at the ground. However, over time, Liu and his colleagues have become largely numb to it all. They have shredded too many happy memories.

    Receiving photos of children still makes them feel uncomfortable, though. Orders involving photos of children have become more frequent lately, Liu says, although he can’t explain why. There are entire albums showing children at different ages, and others containing family photos. Zhang says he struggles every time he needs to spray paint on a child’s face and put that photo into the shredder. “I have children, too,” he says.

    On the whole, Liu feels his business helps people let go of the past. In the videos he posts on Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, he welcomes everyone to vent their emotions through his “violent” services. He even films the shredding process and shares a video with the customer, to add a sense of ritual.

    One female customer scheduled for her items to be shredded on the day her divorce would be finalized. She wanted to mark the occasion by watching a video of her wedding photos being torn to smithereens.

    Personal touch

    Lately, Liu has also attempted to introduce more personalized services. Clients can now write or record a farewell message to be read aloud or played as their items are sent into the shredder. He also offers private sessions, where clients can book the venue for two hours and have all their photos hung up in the factory to bid them farewell, with an emcee and a few workers serving as witnesses. So far, none of his 700 customers have opted for either of these services.

    However, five customers have requested to attend the shredding in person. Some simply wanted to save on shipping fees by delivering the items by hand, while others wanted to personally toss them into the shredder. One woman drove from another city in Hebei in her Mercedes to destroy a large box of mementos. Liu recorded a video for her and paired it with the song “Good Days” by the Chinese folk singer Song Zuying.

    Most customers cut ties with Liu as soon as the work is done. One sent a message on WeChat saying, “I might have to block you because your username includes the words ‘wedding photo,’ and I don’t want my (current) husband to misunderstand.” Another wrote, “I hope this is the first and last time we work together.”

    Ultimately, the remnants of the photos will be used to generate electricity. When the accumulated debris reaches a certain weight, the factory transfers it to a nearby biofuel power plant, where it joins other household waste in a large pit that can hold up to 100,000 tons. Liu visited the plant last summer, but the sight of all those memories mingled together in a pit with rotting food made him feel uncomfortable, so he left.

    At the end of the day, Liu completes his orders but leaves one item unscathed — a white wedding dress, which sits crumpled on the ground like a fallen cloud. It had been sent by a woman who had finalized her divorce that morning, but as the material could tangle the shredder, Liu instead plans to send it directly to the biofuel power plant. As the workers head home, one picks up the dress and hangs it on a wire hanger.

    Perhaps it’s fitting that a dress that once represented an intense energy between two lovers will soon be helping generate a different kind of energy altogether.

    Reported by Hong Weilin.

    A version of this article originally appeared in Zhengmian Lianjie. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

    Translator: Carrie Davies; contributions: Strapko Nastassia; editors: Xue Ni and Hao Qibao.

    (Header and in-text photos: Courtesy of Su Li)