On the Kang: A Chinese Family Album

Portraits from the Heart of the Home

In rural northern China, the kang is the heart of the home. The two meter wide brick platforms, heated beneath by a coal, wood, straw, or corn cob fire, are hearth, family bed, and living room all rolled into one. Especially during the winter when fields are frozen and work can be scarce, families often spend the better part of the day on the kang, chatting, dining, and playing, before returning to sleep.

The photos in this series, shot in March and April of 2015 in Gansu province, use natural light to turn the kang into a kind of studio set for family portraits.

I have paired the portraits with details of the families’ homes; elaborate embroidery, posters of tropical resorts, carefully tied bundles of wood give us glimpses of the skills and aspirations of the homeowners. Together, they form a patchwork of a way of life that—as more and more Chinese relocate from traditional housing into newly built housing—is quickly vanishing.

Jing Dingxia, 72, and Zhao Nunu, 68, Qingtai Village.

A new village is being built 1.25 miles away from Qingtai. Jing and Zhao have already put down the 5,000 RMB (U.S.$800) necessary to reserve a plot of land in the new town, but they can’t afford the 200,000 RMB (U.S.$32,000) they would need to build a house there. Behind them, Jing and Zhao have used a poster from the State Grid, explaining basic safety rules for electricity use, to cover the walls. Newspapers, advertising, or propaganda posters are often used for both decoration and insulation.

Wang Yandi, 16, Wang Lei, 5, and Wang Yanxia, 21, Jinshan Village.

Lei’s mother works more than 600 miles away in a supermarket in Xinjiang where she can earn more money. Her sisters, Yandi and Yanxia, care for their little nephew. Both of their parents have passed away. They will soon move to a new house nearby. Outside, cabbage, at right, dries on a window sill in their courtyard.

Jiang Shuanwa, 62, and He Mingyi, 64, Jinshan Village.

When she was 17, Jiang’s relatives introduced her to a local young man they had chosen for her to marry. Jiang found the match unsuitable, so when her path crossed He’s on a village road, she decided he was a better fit and married him. Jiang and He care for their granddaughter, who is in middle school. It’s a heavy burden on a household with little income. School is free, but the grandparents have to pay for food, books, and a school uniform, all of which amounts to 2,000 RMB (U.S.$320) a year. Soon they will have to rent a room in the city so that their granddaughter can go to high school. This will  add another 2,000 RMB to their education bill, money that, thus far, they do not have.

Li Shutao, 90, Dashi Village.

Li has 20 grandchildren, most of them migrant workers. In his youth, Li traveled by rail on train car roofs from county to county, following the harvest season and working on farms. He traveled all the way to the neighboring province of Shaanxi, the farthest he has ever traveled. During the Great Leap Famine (1959-1961), Li urged his sons to leave the village and go and beg for food in Shaanxi. He told them to pretend to be mute in hopes that would make it easier for them to board trains for free.

He Guanghui, 6, Chen Xiuling, 32, and He Yawen, 9, Jinshan Village.

Chen’s husband is a migrant worker in southern Gansu province, four hours away by bus from the family home. He works constructing electric lines in the countryside and returns home every two months. They started building a new concrete house a year ago. Chen says the old house, which was made of mud, was warmer, but she says she is happy with the new one. The construction of the house is not finished, so for now they are living in just one room. Chen met her husband in Lanzhou, the capital city of Gansu province, where they were both migrant workers. She then moved to her husband’s village, where she is taking care of their children.

Ma Xiyang, 12, and Jin Fen’er, 63, Shanmen Village.

Jin’s son, Xiyang’s father, is mentally ill and recently cracked his skull open in a bad fall. He has been bedridden for a month. Jin has to look after both of them with barely any income. Her husband farms and was away spraying pesticides in their fields, half an hour outside of the village. They also produce honey, which they sell for 60 RMB per kilogram. At right are stacks of firewood and straw for the family to sell.

Fu Decang, 50, and Fu Wenbin, 15, Xincheng Village.

For five years, while his father was away, Fu Wenbin was brought up by his grandmother. She passed away two years ago. Fu will be entering middle school next year and would like to go on to high school if he can, but his father wants him to find a job.

Wang Juju, 74, Baituo Village.

During the Great Leap Famine of the early ’60s, Wang’s nine siblings left the region in search of food. He never saw them again. He went two weeks without eating anything. Nowadays, he survives by producing honey from four beehives. A comforter on Wang’s kang has the word “Love” printed on it.

Liu Luying, 74, Huangmen Village.

Liu comes from a village three miles away, but moved here at 18 when she had an arranged marriage. “Whether you like your husband or not it doesn’t matter,” she says. Her husband died nine years ago and she has 10 grandchildren, from her four children. One of her grandsons is a baker in Shanghai. She says she has never had one of his cakes. At right is a washing basin, a fixture in most rural houses that don’t have running water.

Zhang Guizi, 71, Huangmen Village.

Before the revolution, Zhang’s family lived in a cave with no land of their own. He keeps a huge poster of Mao Zedong, whom he credits for getting his family out of poverty. But he also laments the destruction of the local Taoist temple during the Cultural Revolution. The temple was recently renovated through financial contributions from all the villagers. Zhang says it’s nowhere near as beautiful as it was before, but he is still happy to see it alive again. At right, next to the kang is Zhang’s coal-burning stove.

Zheng Julian, 65, Huanghui New Village.

Zheng sits on her broken kang. Eight years ago, she and her family were relocated from their village 30 miles away. The reason given was desertification. She says that the land they were given is no better than what they left behind, and says the houses built by the government for the relocated farmers are poorly constructed. “When I had to leave, I cried so much I thought I would become blind.” On the wall behind her are her grandson’s school diplomas and awards, as well as a four-year-old calendar with a picture of then Prime Minister Wen Jiabao visiting her region when he made a pledge to fight desertification.

Chen Guiqin, 72, and Liu Yanggao, 73, Baituo Village.

Chen and Liu, husband and wife, are cared for by one of their two daughters who recently gave birth to a daughter of her own. They say she is unhappy to have to stay in the village and would rather be in Shanghai, where her husband is a migrant worker. At right is the couple’s altar for their ancestors and calligraphy with a quote from former Communist Party Secretary Jiang Zemin.

An Shoujia, 73, Baijiawan Village.

An is a strong believer in Buddha and says he is helping her with her ailments, mainly her back pain. Her husband was working in the fields when this picture was taken.

Peng Xusheng, 76, Peng Jinjin, 70, and Peng Xiyuan, one month old, Anjiawan Village.

Peng Jinjin is all smiles with his newborn granddaughter, Xiyuan, lying on the kang by an open window. One of his two sons committed suicide after his wife left him, leaving Peng in charge of another granddaughter. To Peng’s left is his older brother, who never married.

Niu Binggui, 32, and Niu Haoran, 3, Anyuan Village.

Niu Binggui is a cook in charge of catering for a construction company in neighboring Ningxia province. For 10 years, he has been working as a cook in restaurants and dreams of opening his own place, but so far he lacks the funds to do so. He was home with his family for Chinese New Year and won’t see them again for several months.

Niu Wenxuan, 65, Changjiahe Village.

Niu, a farmer, has a passion for calligraphy, and he occasionally works on restoring old scrolls. The scrolls hanging above his kang date back to the Qing Dynasty.

Yao Gouwa, 72, and Liu Yinxiang, 72, Baituo Village.

Liu suffers from pain caused by hypertension, a common affliction among the elderly in the region.

Liu Dexiang, 75, Baituo Village.

Niu Taotao, 22, Anyuan Village.

Niu left her village at 17 to work in Beijing, but after three years came back to care for her younger brother. Their parents are dead. She has a boyfriend whom she met through a relative. He is from the same county but works in a factory in Beijing. They have only met twice in person but talk regularly via the Internet. She says she prefers life in the village, which she finds more comfortable and safer than Beijing. In Anyuan, she tends the small family apple orchard and enjoys watching TV during her free time.

Dong Juming, 67, and Yu Zhanglai, 67, Yujiaping Village.

More than half of the population of Yujiaping has moved to a new village, but a new house costs 200,000 RMB (U.S.$32,000) and Dong and his wife can’t afford to move. When a new road was built between the old and new villages, each family was supposed to contribute 1,000 RMB, but the couple didn’t have the money.

Li Caiping, 46, Dashi Village.

Li has two daughters and a son. Her eldest daughter is a dancer in a show for tourists at the National Park of Jiuzhaigou in Sichuan province and sends part of her wages back to Li. Li has a bad leg from a birth defect. Her teenaged son quit school last year and doesn’t work. “Boys are harder to raise than girls. They are lazy,” she says. She rents out her land to neighbors and keeps 1 mu (0.16 acres) for herself.

Wang Yuxiu, 71, Xie Hong, 12, and Xie, 74, Jingshan Village.

Twelve-year-old Xie Hong sits between her grandparents, who are her primary caretakers. Her mother left her after her father died. Often widows don’t stay with in-laws in rural China, even though they may leave their children behind. Hong says she wants to study to become a doctor “to take care of my grandparents, [who are] too often sick.” The frames above the kang are embroidery made by Hong’s grandmother.

Rural Life