Disappearing Villages


In 1980, 81% of people in China lived in rural areas. In 1995, after economic reform, 69%. In 2014, only 46%.

The village is the foundation of traditional Chinese society. Everywhere in China villages are emptying, village life is disappearing, the rural underpinnings of the Chinese way of life are being swept away.

At first the shift is gradual. The younger generation moves to the city to make money while their elders stay on the land, managing the farm work and often raising the grandchildren, until local schools close or the elders’ health fails, and the family home is bricked up… one less family in the village, one more in the city… and so on, all across China: the largest rural-urban migration in human history. 

By 2025, the government plans to move 250 million people into cities, leaving only 30% of the population on the land.


Village Profile

Niujiatan, Zhangbei County    张北县牛家滩村


Niujiatan (pronounced NIU-ja-tahn) Village is on the Bashang Grasslands (坝上草原), north of the Great Wall, near Inner Mongolia, former grazing territory of Mongolian nomads. The land is not good for cultivation - the soil is rocky, growing season short, and water scarce. Winters are long and harsh. But when the ancestors - three brothers surnamed Niu (Cow) - arrived four generations ago with immigrants from Shanxi (山西), they staked their claim on this highland and began to farm. Their descendants, the Nius of Niujiatan, like farmers all over the Zhangbei region, herd cattle and grow subsistence crops - oats, potatoes, beans, millet, and corn.


At its peak in the early 1990s, over 100 people lived in Niujiatan’s 30 homes. Ten years later, in 2003, half the families had moved away, leaving 30 adults and 5 children, who walked to primary school in the next village. In 2014, after local schools closed and the children left to join their parents or go to boarding schools, only ten couples - 20 people, most in their 60s and 70s - remain. 

When I first visited Niujiatan in 2003, the only way in was by rutted dirt track. Donkey carts were a more common sight than cars. There were TVs in every home but no phones. Phone calls were made from the store in the next village, a kilometer away. It was like other half-empty villages all over China, more cut off perhaps, a small group of aging farmers working the land in the only life they'd ever known.


Below is an overview of the village (click on a photo to open the lightbox).

Village in Transition: where we began


Transformation of Chinese cities is recorded daily in Chinese and international media. But the dying villages left behind this sweeping urbanization are forgotten. Ways of life and livelihood practiced for centuries are quietly passing away.

Traditional village life is either denigrated or idealized in China - but generally not recorded.

In 2007, with help from my friends in Niujiatan, we began to record their life - in sculpture, photography, and writing. At first some of the older villagers viewed this work with suspicion. It took several years and repeated trips to gain the trust and understanding of the whole community.

Below is a portrait of Niujiatan - the 27 full-time residents in 2007 (click on a photo to open the lightbox).


Sculpture: making hands 

In a land of small family plots and little mechanization, the hand is the most basic tool, the direct link to sustenance from the earth. The hand represents the physical hand-driven way of life, the life of farmers engaged in traditional agriculture. In 2007 I began to sculpt the hands of the farmers in Niujiatan, those who still rely on their hands to survive. 


Photography: recording LIfe

The hands on their own do not tell the whole story. We needed images to record the movement of village life through the year. In 2007 I also began to document, in stills and video, the farmers' everyday lives, focusing on the busy seasons - spring planting and fall harvest.


For further reading

World Bank data on Rural Population (% of total population)

Wikipedia article about Migration in China

Wikipedia article about Urbanization in China


Current News

Feb. 2014 NY Times article by Ian Johnson about rural-urban migration: "In China, 'Once the Villages are Gone, the Culture is Gone'"  

Nov. 2013 Telegraph article/video by Tom Phillips about vanishing villages: "China's villages vanish amid rush for the cities

June 2013 NY Times article/video by Ian Johnson about government plans: "China's Great Uprooting - Moving 250 Million into Cities"


Academic Works

Classic text on rural basis of Chinese society by Fei Xiaotong (费孝通): From the Soil, The Foundations of Chinese Society 《乡土中国》

Compilation of articles by Harvard scholars on Rural-Urban Issues in China edited by Martin Whyte: One Country, Two Societies