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By Chris Cherry

Wang Ming

Renjia Village, Sichuan, to Beijing

For an introduction to the Factories without Smoke photography project, see here.

Chris Cherry is a photographer loosely based in Beijing.

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By Chris Cherry

Wang Jia Yi and Gao Tian Ci, Dalian to San Li Village, Anhui Province

For an introduction to Chris Cherry’s “Factories without Smoke” photography series, see here.

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By Chris Cherry

Li Fei
Beijing to Zhoujiapu village, Hebei

For an introduction to Chris Cherry’s “Factories without Smoke” photography series, see here.

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By Chris Cherry

Chen Jun

Tianjin to Shahe Village, Henan

They are China’s most precious economic asset: migrant workers. Each year, millions upon millions untie themselves from the rhythms of rural life to chase down a future in the prestige cities and sudden boomtowns of the eastern and southern coasts. In doing so, they begin a dramatic journey from farmer to worker; one marked by a profound shift from cultivating land they own, to producing goods they don’t. But few will be allowed to transform completely. Oft belittled for their unsophisticated ways, to urbanites they are forever “waidiren” — outside people. Most will be marked by their speech the moment they open their mouths.

On the factories and construction sites where they will find work they are considered lower still. Here migrants are merely human capital, valued for their sweat and energy — the raw materials of capitalist growth. As anonymous as lumps of coal, their sheer numbers only act to deepen their insignificance; if one decides to revert from worker back to farmer, more will inevitably arrive to fill the vacancy. But such a throwaway quality is also what makes them of unique value to the nation. Over three decades of growth and development, it is they who have supplied China with its competitive edge — a miraculous, low cost, infinite resource. Chinese newspapers even like to celebrate them as such with a heroic communist sobriquet: 不冒烟的工厂, or “factories without smoke”.

This is the beginning of a series of photographs that tries to return a modicum of identity to these people. It will be a set of portraits taken at various train stations across the country — the most obvious place to locate a transient population, and what seemed a fitting backdrop for a people in flux. Subjects are either on their way to cities, or are returning home to their villages. Often, candid postures make it easy to guess at which. After the click of the camera shutter, I conducted brief interviews, during which I was repeatedly reminded that these are men and women who have been dealt hard hands in life. But what could I really know of that? I decided only to take a note of their names, and their individual journeys — to try and etch a few humble lines of migration onto an imposing map. It seemed appropriate. Each of these has surely made a mark on the rise of a great nation.

Chris Cherry is a photographer loosely based in Beijing.

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Panic Room

Panic Room

On my (continuing) walk across China, I have occasionally come across the kind of construction featured in the attached image — a farmhouse with a door half way up the wall, no stairs attached. I have previously assumed the house was still under construction, or perhaps they ran out of money before doing the stairs. But as I passed his one, in Guang’an county in the middle of Sichuan, last Saturday, it struck me that this is in fact a “panic room”, a way to seal off and protect the family and its assets in the top room, safe from marauders. A man I met on the road asked me how the law and order situation is in England compared to China. I replied: “I really have no idea.”
— Graham Earnshaw, author of The Great Walk of China: Travels on Foot from Shanghai to Tibet

To read an excerpt from The Great Walk of China, click the link above; to listen to Graham Earnshaw in dialogue with Jeffrey Wasserstrom and Zhang Lijia in Shanghai last month, check out this podcast at Popup Chinese.

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