Stunning images show Chinese families and everything they own

Story highlights

A Chinese photographer has spent a decade taking pictures of families and their entire belongings

Most photos show a variety of landscapes and lifestyles, along with their neatly lined up possessions

His goal is to tell the stories of those who have not been able to enjoy the success of China's economic boom

Beijing CNN  — 

For more than a decade, Chinese photographer Ma Hongjie has asked dozens of families across the country to empty their homes and pose in front of everything they own.

His goal is to tell the stories of those who have been bypassed by China’s economic boom – the people living on the bottom rung of society that haven’t enjoyed the fruits of the country’s transformation.

“The possessions are not even wealth. It’s just their lives – showing how the grassroots try to make a living,” said Ma, a photo editor at Chinese National Geography magazine.

While the mesmerizing images show a variety of landscapes, lifestyles and cultures, what’s most striking is their similarity – the neatly lined up possessions are mostly daily essentials and tools of trade. Their owners appear proud yet humble.

Almost all of Ma’s subjects are rural families. He has asked richer families living in cities to participate, but they weren’t willing to take part in the project, he said.

They possess a lot more, and were afraid of the repercussions of showcasing their wealth, Ma explained.

“Yet grassroots were fully at ease showing me whatever they have,” he said. “They’d first feel wary about my request, but when I showed the samples they thought it was interesting.”

Although China now is the second largest economy after the United States, it is also home to the second largest number of poor people in the world, according to the World Bank.

Almost 100 million people lived below the national poverty line of $1 a day in 2012.

Humble endurance

In his book, which is due to be published later in May, Ma gives the back stories of the families he’s photographed.

The deepest impression the people he profiled has left upon him is their attitude. Powerless, they never demand anything, Ma said.

“Are they satisfied? No. But they have no choice but to accept whatever happens to them,” he added. “But they try to live with however little they possess.”

Although humbling, it also frustrated him.

“They suffer from silence.”

Ma recently revisited the first family he profiled. They lived in a rural town in a mountainous area of Hunan province in southeastern China, back in 2003.

Long Yunping and his wife now live with their two sons and Long's 88-year-old mother in Huangsiqiao, Hunan Province. The family has an annual income of just over 3,000 yuan ($482). Their house, situated in an ancient village, was left to them by his father, and has a history of more than 100 years.

To his dismay, nothing had changed in the 10 years since his first visit; their shabby house had become even shabbier, he said.

Their sons wanted to get married, but the family couldn’t afford to build new homes for them.

They had hoped tourism would develop in this old town so that the family would be subsidized for moving out—then the sons would be able to marry, he said.

Things unchanged

Similar stories unfolded everywhere Ma traveled.

The Sun family live on boats on the Yellow River that winds through China’s heartland. Sun Guiyou, who has been traversing the rivers and lakes for his entire life, says his biggest dream is to one day have a permanent house built on the land.

Although the family say they are better off since he first photographed them in 2006, nothing much has changed and they haven’t been able to build a home on solid ground.

The Sun family currently owns two large steel boats and two small wooden boats, which are worth more than 60,000 yuan altogether. Currently run a floating restaurant, and between this and fishing can bring in more than 30,000 yuan ($9,650) a year.

“The way they make a living doesn’t change, they are still fishing,” he said.

“The grandchildren didn’t get a good education, or even dropped out of school. You can see them repeating their grandparent’s life in the future.”

Vanishing traditions

Ma said he was stunned by the diversity of cultures and lifestyles he came across and that it was harrowing to witness these traditions erode.

Only a few of the local artisans and performers he met said their offspring were willing to carry on their crafts. Instead, they go to the cities and become migrant workers.

When he visited a village in Hainan province in 2010, people lived in small huts. On his return years later, the huts had been replaced by brick and cement dwellings built by the government.

Fu Naguo's family grows rice and sugar cane in Echa village, Dongfang city in Hainan Province.   There only source of income is from selling wild berries they pick from the mountainside, making about 600 yuan ($96) per year.

In response, the villagers had built new huts next to the government subsidized housing instead, because they were not built in a way that suited their lifestyle. Ventilating smoke from how they cooked meals became difficult in those houses.

“The local government thought living in huts was uncivilized, but they were unique,” Ma said. “Why should everything be uniform?”

The families he documented also shared a hatred of red tape - they bemoaned interference from the local government. So when the government decided to scrap an ancient tradition of taxing farmers for agricultural produce in 2006, farmers and peasants were thrilled by the news.

“They simply want to be left alone – ‘Don’t make our life so troublesome, let us farm and let us live,’ they told me.” Ma said.