The People of Wanxian, PRC 1983: "I am not sure of that foreigner"

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Ian Stehbens on February 5, 2010

For me this was one of a series of portraits entitled "The Human Face of China". At the time it was a commentary on the One Child Policy and social conditions in rural China, in 1983. I still see the face of this doting Grandmother and her precious "One-Child Family" grandchild. The grandparents have now passed away and 'the only child' has now been displaced.

She has migrated, upwardly mobile, and her childhood home has been demolished for the site is to be inundated annually by the impounded summer floods controlled and stored behind the Three Gorges Dam, 300km downstream.

For an artistic commentary by Chinese artist, Chen Quilin, on the necessary dislocations see her installation of a home displaced by the Three Gorges Dam.

WERMUT on February 5, 2010

Very beautiful portret!!!

Ian Stehbens on February 5, 2010

I appreciate your encouragement, Wermut.



ƤōƝƓ on February 5, 2010

A very touching portrait, Ian. The little girl would have been a grown up. I know how painful it is if one's ancestral village was submerged under water coz my great grandfather's birthplace, in which there was a beautiful creek in Guangdong, is now under water as well, making ways for a reservoir decades ago. When I upload pictures of the landscape of the new settlement nearby, you will be invited to check it out.

Best wishes, Ah-Pong of B@ngk☺k

Ian Stehbens on February 5, 2010

Dear Ah-Pong,

Again, you add the emotion to this special photo. Thank you for your very special response. I do understand the strong attachment to place and home that we carry in our being.

It is not only in China that this occurs. Over the last 4 years there was a battle to prevent the building of a large dam on the Mary River, in Queensland. This was my home valley. The challenges to the government's plan were for a whole raft of reasons including environmental ones. Of course, much of the response was from the threatened communities who would lose their farms, homes and place of belonging. Sanity prevailed in this case because of the strong scientific, conservation arguments.

I look forward to following your uploads.

Tonight I have been on GE seeking to locate a Guangdong commune that I visited in January 1975. I succeeded!!!!! But it is now mostly covered with outer suburbs of Guangzhou. Yet most of the traditional villages remain surrounded by industries and housing estates. Some of the fishponds are still there, including the one that I walked beside. The rate of urban growth and the expansion of industry in China is impossible for me to appreciate.

Stay in touch, especially while I am uploading images of your China!

Warm regards,


bdeh on February 6, 2010

Great shot Ian. Greetings Berend

M.Kranenborg-Torn on February 6, 2010

A lovely portrait. Greetings from Greetje

rlzzza on February 6, 2010

Great!...thanks for sharing Ian.

Rgds, Raz

Ian Stehbens on February 6, 2010

Annie, Vuk, Berend, Greetje, Raz:

I appreciate your affirmation of this portrait of a reassuring and proud grandmother, and her nervous granddaughter.

Thanks also for your greetings. Warmest regards,


©junebug on February 7, 2010

Hi Ian, I am also very much touched by this beautiful photo of a grandmother with her only granddaughter! It is a very sad story that the inhabitants of these ancient villages were deprived of their homes because of a dam! Your photos are very precious and remind us that there is still a lot of injustice! Best wishes, Anne

Ian Stehbens on February 7, 2010

Greetings, Anne. Thank you for your caring response to this image.

Economic growth and redevelopment are occurring at a very rapid pace in China, energy being in high demand. The big dam was mooted as being able to provide 10% China's electricity needs, but the growth in demand has dropped that back to c. 3% + additional c. 1% from the downstream Gezhouba (Dam) as a result of the regulation of the discharge by the first dam. The reduction in the flood hazard has also been of significant benefit to many people.

However the cost of displacement to millions is painful for many, as they renegotiate a new pattern of life. I presume you have seen the installation of Chen Quilin linked above, for she is one artistic voice that has critiqued the dam from a social perspective.

Warmest regards,


gezginruh on February 7, 2010

Thank you so much dear Ian for this special photo.

Warmest greetings. Füsun.

Ian Stehbens on February 7, 2010

Thank you dear . This red pomegranate takes off for Christchurch, NZ this afternoon.

Warmest regards,


Matt Haysom on February 8, 2010

Wonderful portrait Ian. The connection between the camera and the young girl is just so strong.


Ian Stehbens on February 8, 2010

Indeed, Matt And by implication, with the Grandmother. I am sure I can still hear what she is saying to the child.

All the best,

Ian (in Christchurch)

Amelia Royan on February 16, 2010

Dear Ian, I have followed your link for Chen Quilin, she is a remarkable young woman. I have also read all your information about this very touching photo, and of course Ah-Pong's personal experiences as well. I assume, when you mention 'upwardly mobile', you don't mean it in the usual sense.

The flooding of entire villages has also occurred in Wales. Lake Vyrnwy, now a Nature Reserve, was constructed in 1880s, to supply water for Liverpool. In that case the small village of Llanwddyn was submerged. There were also plans to increase the size of the water catchment of the Elan Valley, a water supply for Birmingham, and incidentally, the dam where Barnes Wallis tested his idea of detonating explosives against a dam wall in order to breach it. This would have resulted in the flooding of miles of wild upland valleys. The proposals were eventually abandoned in the face of an increasing awareness of the environment. Sometimes common sense prevails :))

Warm greetings to you, Amelia

Maja Weidemueller on February 19, 2010

This poor little one does not seem sure of anything dear Ian ~ quite expressive photo revealing your message on a figurative level ~ good work ~ all the best to you from Maja

Ian Stehbens on February 19, 2010

Amelia and Maja,

Well I'm back for the land of the long white cloud and a 1000 waterfalls. And with a 1000 images!

Dear Amelia,

Thanks for the conversation on the damming of rivers and its consequences. We live not only in a world of rapid change but of rapidly changing values and principles. When I was young and a dam was to be built a few miles upstream of our riverbank home, we were proud that such development had come to our valley!! But over the last 4 years there has been a battle royal to stop the State Government building of another dam in the same valley, and with "superior science and environmental concern" the battle has been won by the locals, and the dam has been vetoed by the Federal Government.

Water was once seen as a renewable resource and the corollary assumption was that it was infinite! Now that we realise it is finite, the challenges and rethinking that is required become major issues for us (us = Australian's on a dry continent; = Chinese in densely populated river basins; = residents of English cities in small catchments with limited wild ecosystems).

In regard to my "upward mobility" remark. I did intend that in a social mobility sense, for the growth in living standards and the growth of a Chinese middle class have benefited accessible areas throughout China including Wanxian. However, to use the term in the sense of vertical mobility due to rising water levels in the Dam is very good too.

So I am pleased that I have been able to introduce you to Chen Quilin, Amelia.

Dear Maja,

Though this photo is from 1983, there still had not been very many foreigners in Wanxian by then. I was not able to go there in 1976, for example. Little ones were cautious, older ones were curious, and the elderly very welcoming. Thanks for the special comment and praise.

Warmest regards,


Maja Weidemueller on February 19, 2010

Dear Ian, so good to have you back! And yes, isn't this change of practically everything and everyone just amazing? Sometimes I feel somewhat centrifuged when I recall memories like the one you told Amelia above. Sometimes it's frightening ~ but on the other hand it's a learning process~ and life is change ~ you have to change ~ if you refuse, life will change you :)

Warmest long white cloud greetings from Maja

Ian Stehbens on February 21, 2010

Thank you, Maja. My first visit to China was in 1975-76 in the latter years of the Cultural Revolution. The changes that have taken place in that great country since are beyond my comprehension or anticipation. The pace of change that you and I have lived through in our lifetimes has been remarkable, but it is multiplied over several times in China. Truly. But this little girl has experienced all of it first hand.

Warm regards,


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  • Uploaded on February 5, 2010
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    by Ian Stehbens