These photos are from a part of a series of ‘Changjiang’, which I have constantly worked on for 5 years. I was 26 when I traveled to China for the first time in 2008. I didn’t know much about China then. I only knew its population was unevenly distributed across its huge landmass.
“Japan and China are nations that are geographically close but politically distant.” I often heard this on TV. A teacher in my high school once said as well, “The Chinese are aggressive in everything they do and all their meals taste the same, because they only know how to sauté.” I don’t know why I remember these lines. One day, I caught a movie about Sansha, a city in central China. It is known for its huge dam by the Changjiang river. The silent movie beautifully depicted the lives of people in a small town, which was about to be demolished for the dam. There was a scene where a middle-aged man riding on his shabby motorbike looked at the distant town at the opposite shore. He was the only one who could hear the flowing stream. Even now, this scene comes to mind when I hear the word ‘China’. As long as I live in Japan, China will remain mysterious to me. For instance, I can find the results of football games in Europe but I won’t be able to access that of table tennis games in China, even though we play table tennis in Japan as well. I think it may be impossible for me to understand China. If I look at something unchanging, such as the river, which has existed for a long time, I may be able to learn about China’s philosophical environment. Even though there are numerous people along the river, and they all have their own lives. I hope to explore and look at those who may have similar ethnic origins as us a long, long time ago. This is the private diary of my travels since 2008 from Shanghai to Tibet, as I traveled upstream along the Changjiang river to observe what China is like.
This part was created in the time I stayed in a coal mine village in Sichuan for a month. The village I stayed is called Huangcumjing (the Chinese name is 黄村井), located about 200km south from Chengdu. Huangcumjing is the end of the Shibanxi Railway which is famous for its old steamroller in Sichuan nowadays. I worked as a labourer with daily meals and accommodation, but without a wage. I did not perform tasks that would normally be conducted by a miner. I carried logs (30-60kgs each) to the blast furnace to be burned for coal. I was never on par with the miners, I was viewed as a tourist with some curiosity.
The main energy source of China is still coal. This village that I stayed in had coal readily accessible for any normal person, all they needed to do was dig to find useful-quality coal.
In the above photo, one day some of my colleagues, who were miners, went out to fix the electric wiring near our accommodation after a big storm had passed. Normally, I worked once or twice a week. In the remaining time, I would walk around the village, would watch TV to learn Chinese or would visit the nearest metropolitan area which was accessible through a 1 hour tram.
On a day off, I was the only one left in our accommodation and was watching comedy TV program to study Chinese. The rest already went down to the nearest city to play around. When I first moved in, some of the miners were interested in discussing Japanese culture, tradition, the economy and my views on China but that faded. The daily life was exhausting so we would basically just go to work, eat and then sleep. But I always felt like a tourist, I never truly belonged.
In the accommodation, I stayed with five other miners, one of which was a woman who was good at cooking. We almost always waited for her food. The accommodation was kind of shabby and old. There was one big dorm with 6 beds, a small kitchen and a dinning room– we had no shower room. It was far from the modern conveniences that we are used to but it was enough for a basic subsistence. I left in the beginning of Autumn but I wondered about how my colleagues would be doing in the winter. When I left, the accommodation was already cold – and I shivered under the thin blanket.
Xu was one of my colleagues. This picture shows him after his daily work. His daily wage was about 100RMB nearly equal to 15USD. Xu was married and had his wife and child at home in Shangxi. Like many others, Xu became a miner in his early 20’s to earn more money. His home province, Shanxi, was known for its abundance of coal mines but Xu wanted to find any good job except one in the dangerous mining sector. He struggled to find work and eventually decided to become a miner. Shortly after, he got married and still couldn’t find work – even as a miner. That’s how he ended up 1,000km away in Huangcumjing. In Huangcumjing, he dug coal in the mine-tunnels 10 meters below ground. One time, he recounted a time when the tunnel collapsed on him, forcing him to find a vent to breath through until he would be helped.
Just before going to bed, I asked my colleagues to take some pictures as a memory. For me, developing a personal relationship with the subjects in vital. I build relationships with the subjects to make them rely on me. I didn’t tell my roommates that I was a professional photographer, they just thought I was a tourist. They were interested in me taking pictures but no one ever looked uncomfortable.
During the one-week vacation around the Chinese national day in October, even the coal mine was closed. Most of the miners went back to their family homes with some ducks and full of sweet treats in their big bags – symbolizing their financial success. For most middle-class Chinese, including the miners, there is an ambitious drive to be richer – which forces them to move around to look for well-paid jobs. With the increased number of people working away from their families, the significance behind these holidays similarly increases. This drive for wealth also explains why so many people were willing to work in exceedingly dangerous conditions.
After one month of work in the village, I said good bye to my colleagues and used the mountain tram to get to the bank of Changjiang river, which took about two hours. I started my venture towards the riverhead. In my previous travels from Shanghai to Tibet, I never stayed long in a town. Huangcumjing was the first place where I had an opportunity to actually interact with the local people in a meaningful way. In my time in the village, I saw how open, honest and kind the Chinese were. I was very surprised about the difference between the depiction of China by the media in Japan and their daily lives on site in China – in person, they were much more independent and possessed a strong mentality. In my time in Huangcumjing, I not only developed a greater understanding of Chinese people and their culture in general but I also developed a sense of intimacy with them and their culture.