In 2011, Liu Jie, a Chinese photographer based in Beijing, visited and photographed more than 20 villages in the Chinese countryside, documenting one of the more silent but equally poignant externalities of the Chinese economic miracle: the separation of rural families due to urban migration.
In 1949, city dwellers represented 10.6% of China’s population. In 2012, that number swelled to 51.27%, making China, for the first time in its civilization, a predominantly urban country. The human costs of such a rapid transformation — within a single generation — are increasingly evident.
“Many children meet their parents once a year or even years, therefore some of them have both physical and psychological problems,” says the photographer.
Liu, who spent the summer at NYU as a 2012 Magnum Foundation Human Rights Fellow, was raised in a rural village in Shan Dong Province and is currently based in Beijing, having personally migrated to a city along with his family years prior. Beijing Railway Station, which serves as a gateway for millions of migrants to the capital, is in close proximity to his apartment, giving the photographer a unique view of the daily flood of fresh-faced migrants entering the city.
In Liu’s photographs of rural China, each empty chair signifies the absence of a family member — a mother, father, son or daughter — uprooted from their humble homes. There is an overwhelming sense of isolation in these images, of lonely gazes and empty chairs punctuated by the expanse of a rolling landscape that stretches off into the horizon.
In contrast to many images that seek to show the massive scale of China’s modernization — and in so doing seek to overwhelm the viewer — Liu’s images are quiet and humble. The effect is subtle, intimate, and incredibly heartfelt.
After photographing family members left behind in the countryside, the photographer returned to Beijing and photographed rural migrants in their workspace. In a conceptual twist, Liu reunites family members photographically. Parents, at a construction site or sausage factory, stand beside towering portraits of their children back home, creating a visual contrast—a collision of rural and urban—and a bridging of that chasm of familial separation within a single frame.
Liu Jie is a photographer based in Beijing. In 2012 he was a Magnum Foundation Human Rights Scholar.