A Photographer and a Family: 70 Years of Friendship

By: Dictated by Xu Yonghui and Edited by He SumingFrom:English Edition of Qiushi Journal July-September 2019|Vol.11,No.3,Issue No.40 | Updated: 2019-Nov-14 14:15
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It is a wonderfully strange thing how people come into each other’s lives.

A portrait with four generations of Ye Xingfa’s family, taken on National Day in 2014 PHOTO BY XU YONGHUI, 2014

The family of Ye Gentu (first from right, second row) dressed in raggedy clothes soon after the founding of the PRC. Ye is standing next to his wife Gao A’er and holding his younger son Xingyou in his arms. The two children in front are his daughter Guifeng (left), and his elder son Xingfu (right).

PHOTO BY XU YONGHUI, 1950

The first spring after the founding of the People’s Republic of China (1949), I was working as a press photographer for Zhejiang Daily. On my very first trip to cover the countryside by myself, I met a farmer named Ye Gentu and his four family members in Qixing, Jiaxing. After that, they became an important part of my life.

In 1950, 1959, 1990, 2008, and 2019, over a timespan of seven decades, I captured the lives of four generations of this family through my lens. As I flip through these photos today and familiar faces appear before my eyes, I see not just the people themselves, but all the millions upon millions of Chinese farmers. I see their kindness, their assiduousness, their humble simplicity, and their dependable character, and appreciate how they have built a brighter future through their own efforts.

I am now 90 years old, but thinking back, it feels like only yesterday that I first travelled to Jiaxing.

I. The first meeting

“Bright the sky in the Liberated Areas, and happy the people there...”

On a spring afternoon in 1950, I was drawn into Qixing by these lyrics from a familiar song.

I was no stranger to this place. It was here two years previously that, while travelling on the train to Hangzhou to join in the revolution, I had been caught up in a Kuomintang air raid and narrowly escaped death by lying flat underneath a train. Now, I was a proud CPC newspaper reporter, travelling to rural areas to cover the new changes that had taken place since liberation. I even brought with me the newspaper office’s only camera – a Zeiss captured from the Japanese invaders during the war – which Zhejiang Provincial CPC Committee Secretary Tan Zhenlin had personally given to our editor-in-chief.

Looking over to where the sound was coming from, I saw two children singing and bouncing around the threshing yard, with the sunlight shining down on them casting a circle of soft shadows. My spirits were lifted as I watched, and I couldn’t help myself from singing along with them in my head.

My reporter’s instincts told me to lift up the camera in my hand, but as I got closer my heart sank. The two kids had emaciated looking faces, and clothes patched together from old bits of rags. They each had a straw cord tied around the waist to keep these tattered rags from coming apart one by one.

Was this not the same as how it was when I was growing up? Had the new lives that these children were supposed to be living still not begun?

No, that wasn’t it. Obviously, the plight left to ordinary people in former times could not be totally eliminated immediately after the PRC was founded. However, now that they had stood up, the Chinese people would certainly be able to bid farewell to poverty and have the opportunity to change their lot in life by working hard.

With that in mind, I again started adjusting the aperture of my camera, but just then the smaller of the two children saw the “strange thing” in my hands and ran home crying. Hearing the sobs, the children’s parents came out of the house. The woman was a bit startled at the sight of a stranger, but the man said cheerfully, “What are you up to, comrade?”

That was the first thing Ye Gentu ever said to me. I never would have guessed that his family would stick to calling me “comrade” from then on.

“I want to take a picture of the kids.”

“Lucky them! Old as I am, I’ve never had my picture taken.”

“Get together then, I’ll take a family portrait for you.”

This family portrait was taken before National Day in 1959.

PHOTO BY XU YONGHUI, 1959

When Ye Guifeng got married, her father gave her the portraits as family heirlooms to take with her when she moved into her husband’s home.

PHOTO BY XU YONGHUI, 1962

And with a snap of the shutter, a moment in history was captured. The photo shows a family of five which, despite being out at the elbows, had great hopes for the future written all over each of their smiling faces.

From chatting with Ye Gentu, I learned that he was a hired farmhand before liberation. He married his wife Gao A’er many years earlier when she was an orphaned girl, and together they had been through many hard times. When I met them they already had three children: the eldest daughter’s name was Guifeng, the oldest son who had run home crying was called Xingfu, and the second son, who was still cradled in Gentu’s arms and only as old as the PRC, was named Xingyou.

At the beginning of the 1950s, society was dominated by the themes of toil and struggle. The rousing tunes of work songs could be heard all day as if on a constant loop, and everywhere you looked you would see people buzzing around like busy bees. One day four years later when I was reading about the harvests in the newspaper, I suddenly thought of Gentu’s family again, wondering how they were now fairing in life, and whether the kids had gotten some new clothes.

And just like that, I decided to go. I made it to Jiaxing again the next day, but when I got to that familiar threshing yard, I discovered that Gentu’s home was empty. In town I heard that the family had long since moved away, to where no one knew. I went back to Qixing many times in the years that followed to listen for any news about them. Finally, on my fifth visit, I met an elderly woman who told me that Gentu had been fleeing famine since childhood and came here to beg for food. She said that he saved up a little money from the harvests in the three years after liberation, which he used to take his whole family back to his ancestral home in Liangpengling Village, Huangyan District, Taizhou to reunite with his elderly mother.

After that, Huangyan was stuck in my mind. Every time I went to report on that area, I brought that family portrait with me and tried to find out about Gentu’s whereabouts.

At last, in 1959, somebody took me to Liangpengling Village and showed me right to Gentu’s doorstep.

Things have dramatically changed.

Though it had only been nine years, their lives had changed so much that it seemed as though a lifetime had passed since our last meeting. The Gentu that stood before me looked to be in high spirits, while his wife Gao A’er no longer appeared sick and listless like before. “Comrade,” he said, “I’m now an active member of a production team. On clear days I work in the fields, and on rainy days I do carpentry. I even applied to become a CPC member recently.”

As I listened to Gentu describe all that had happened over the years, and as I looked around at the Ye family’s neat and tidy little courtyard, I was suddenly so moved that I didn’t know how to react. All I could do was lift up my camera again and say, “Let me take another family portrait for you!”

II. The beginnings of new families

“Comrade, my daughter Guifeng is getting married, I hope that you will attend her wedding.”

A few days before National Day in 1962, I received this letter from Gentu and immediately went to the bus station to buy a ticket. I soon realized, however, that I could not attend a wedding empty handed, but what should I bring as a gift? The photos sandwiched between the pages of my notebook gave me an idea.

I arrived at Gentu’s home in the morning on the day of the wedding to a joyous scene. A portrait of Chairman Mao was hanging in the middle of the room, with scrolls exhibiting the slogans “Listen to the Chairman, follow the Party!” beside it. Next to this was the conspicuous symbol of marriage, two “double happiness” Chinese characters, cut out from bright red paper.

As soon as I saw Gentu, I pulled out the picture frames that were wrapped tightly in my bag. “I’m afraid I don’t have anything nice to give Guifeng, just these family portraits that I developed and framed. I hope that she can look at them often when she is with her husband’s family and that they remind her how much her life has changed from the hard days of the past.” These humble gifts were an expression of my friendship, and my way of giving my best wishes to the bride and Gentu’s family. Gentu smiled as he took them, but then quickly tucked them away in the cupboard.

After lunch, the groom was going to take the bride home.

“Gentu, where’s the bridal sedan chair,” I asked.

He replied, “She’s not taking one, our Guifeng wants to set an example in getting rid of the old customs.”

“Then what about the dowry?”

Seeing the puzzled look on my face, Gentu smiled and disappeared for a moment, returning with the picture frames that I had brought.

Standing in front of all the well-wishers present, he turned to his daughter and said, “Guifeng, though our bellies are now full, we cannot forget the past. Twelve years ago when we lived in Jiaxing, this comrade took our picture. Three years ago, he visited us again in Huangyan and took another photo of our family. These two photos are a record of how much our family has changed over the years. Today is your wedding day, and though I didn’t originally prepare a dowry for you, I want to give you these photos as family heirlooms that you can bring to your husband’s home. In the future, you can look at them to see how things have changed, and when you have your own children, you can tell them about how we used to be.” With that, he passed the framed pictures to the newlywed couple.

I was surprised at my friend Gentu’s thoughtfulness, and hurriedly raised my camera to take a photo of the touching scene. Even more surprising was that this wedding later made Gentu a pioneer in the movement to break with old customs and habits in Zhejiang Province. The photos I took at the event were published in the newspaper and reproduced as prints used for decorations during Chinese New Year, and later on they were even included in the Museum of Chinese Revolution’s collection of historical materials on the education of social classes and reform of marriage customs carried out by emancipated peasants.

My wife still remembers me telling her about the great project that I had envisioned after I returned from the wedding: “I want to make each of the five people in the photos individual subjects, and produce a photo report every five years to tell the story of this family over a 30-year period.”

Neither of us could have guessed that the coming Cultural Revolution (1966-76) would upset my plans.

When I finally returned to Liangpengling in late December, 1978, I learned that it had already been four years since Ye Gentu passed away.

At the time, the Third Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee which decided to adopt the reform and opening up program had just begun, and every corner of Zhejiang was awash with the fervor of reform. Naturally, Liangpengling was no exception.

As soon as I walked in the door, Gao A’er rushed over and whispered in my year, “Xingyou has gone to visit his girlfriend!” Back then, A’er knew nothing about the girl other than that her name was Gao Dongqing and that she lived in a neighboring village called Lingu. Enlisting me as her spy, she said, “Comrade, how about you go and take a look for me?”

I asked the way to Lingu Village and then set off on a bicycle. When I arrived at the girl’s home, Xingyou was holding a newspaper containing the report from the Third Plenary Session.

The girl Dongqing was somewhat reticent when I came inside, but Xingyou came right out with it: “We’ve known each other for more than a year. Today I came to tell her about the enrichment policies and talk to her about starting a family together.”

Looking at the two young people before me who were so well matched and so in love, my heart swelled with joy. Raising my camera I said, “Hold up the paper, I want to take a picture of you with it. This is a big moment in history and in your relationship!”

On National Day a year later, Xingyou, who by that time was already chief of a production team, sent me an invitation to visit his new home. I happily accepted.

A pair of couplets pasted on either side of the door once again caught my attention. They said, “Work hard to build socialism, fight to carry on revolutionary traditions.” Seeing that I had stopped to look at the couplets Xingyou paused as well. He told me, “We put those up when we got married. Before he passed, my father always used to tell me that in three decades before the founding of the new China, his family could never eat their fill or wear nice clothes. Life got better and better after liberation, but we must always keep the words ‘struggle hard’ etched in our minds...”

III. The makings of a dream

After that, I would visit Jiaxing and Huangyan three or four times a year to see how the family was getting along. They also made a point of meeting me whenever they came to Hangzhou, and shared all of the big news in their lives with me as soon as it happened.

In May of 1984, I made a special trip to visit Jiaxing at Xingfu’s invitation. Ten years earlier when he was discharged from the army, he decided to stay and build a life for himself there. At the time of my visit, he was already in charge of a large unit of workers at a local farm and responsible for more than 30 hectares of cropland. Coincidentally, the place where he worked was the same place where he was born.

When my boat floated up to the bank, I saw that Xingfu’s whole family was already on the dock waiting for me. Before we even had a chance to greet each other, two lively looking children dressed in nice new clothes bounced over and, under Xingfu’s instructions, called out to me “Grandpa! Grandpa!”

Arriving at Xingfu’s home, I found that his family lived in a spacious and tidy house filled with trendy furniture. They had a bicycle and a sewing machine, and basically all of the other possessions that the average worker’s family had.

Impressed, I said to Xingfu, “Before liberation, your mother would always sigh about your name, saying that giving you a name meaning prosperity was just wishful thinking since there was no prosperity to be found at the time. But now look at you, you’ve lived up to your name!”

“By all accounts, good times have come at last,” he replied. “Since the launch of reform and opening up, the countryside has flourished and rural families have become prosperous. With two of us working in a family of four, we can make 1,500 yuan in net income. Families with more labor power can make even more.” As Xingfu proudly explained his circumstances, his wife Wang Fengzhu watched with an expression of complete affection as their two children ran in and out. “Now the kids can have a good life, with nice clothes to wear and fresh food to eat.”

Xingfu gave me a tour all around the farm. As we walked, we reminisced about the past and also imagined what the future would bring. He said, “We need to become more technologically proficient, expand the market, plant the grain crops that produce the highest yield, and then sell our products all across the country.”

Xingfu’s son Shengzhong chimed in with his father and proclaimed his own lofty aspirations. “I want to keep becoming more capable until I’m a master at what I do!” Listening to this wide-eyed and innocent child speak, I couldn’t help but smile.

Little did I know, Shengzhong would stay true to his word.

1. In late December 1978, the full text of the communiqué from the 3rd Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee was published in the newspaper, whipping millions of people into excitement. Xingyou brought the newspaper to Dong Qing and proposed that they start a family together. This photo is filled with meaning and captured a big moment in their relationship. PHOTO BY XU YONGHUI, 1978

2. Ye Xingfu’s family of four  PHOTO BY XU YONGHUI, 1984

3. Yang Xichen consistently excelled in her academic career, and was admitted to a master’s degree program at East China University of Science and Technology’s School of Biotechnology. She is the first of Ye Gentu’s descendants to become a graduate student. Xu Yonghui, then 84 years old, attended her undergraduate graduation ceremony and had a photo taken of this wonderful moment. PHOTO BY XU YONGHUI, 2013

4. Before the Lantern Festival in 2019, 90-year-old Xu Yonghui (second from left) went to visit Ye Xingfa’s family in Liangpengling. Ye Xingfa’s wife is seen here warmly shaking hands with Xu. PHOTO BY ZHEJIANG DAILY REPORTER SHAO QUANHAI

In the fall of 1992, 20-year-old Ye Shengzhong entered the Minfeng Paper Mill in Jiaxing. Starting as an ordinary shift worker, he quickly became hailed as a young expert.

At the beginning of the summer in 2004, Xingfu phoned to invite me to Shengzhong’s wedding.

“I’ll definitely be there,” I replied excitedly, “and I’ll bring another family ‘heirloom’ to give to Shengzhong.”

Shengzhong’s wedding started at 6:30 in the evening on June 26th.

The banquet hall was decorated with numerous posters of the “double happiness” symbols, and each of the dozen or so tables had a simple but beautiful floral bouquet. The bride and groom walked in slowly down the aisle dressed in a suit and wedding gown.

In his toast, Shengzhong said “Everybody please eat and drink your fill, don’t leave anything left on the tables!” Then the officiator made a toast, saying “I hope that you make the best of your talent in your humble position at work, and make both the Ye family and the Minfeng Paper Company proud.” These words showed that even in the setting of a wedding, the spirit of working hard and not letting anything go to waste was alive and well.

After that, I also attended the wedding of Xingfa’s son Weiping.

Xingfa was born to Gentu and A’er after they returned to Huangyan. I was not at all surprised to find out that he had also made a pretty penny over the years. During the busy season he stayed home to farm, and drove a tractor to transport cargo whenever he was available. Way back in the 1990s, he was already making more than 1,000 yuan per month.

By the time Xingfa’s son got married on National Day in 2014, Xingfa had built a three-story house in the village and was living out his days in happiness.

I was already 86 years old by then. Worried that I would have trouble walking around, my wife stayed with me the night before in Taizhou and accompanied me the following day to Liangpengling.

By that time, I wasn’t just like a relative to the Ye family, but also a friend of the whole village. People called me Grandpa Xu and joked that I had been to the village so many times that I had basically become a fixture there.

With firecrackers popping around me, I ran back and forth with my camera taking pictures of the newlywed couple.

Parked outside of Xingfa’s three-story home was a brand new car that Weiping had just purchased. The red carpet customary at such a celebration extended all the way from the stairs out beyond the entrance. Inside, the newly decorated walls were covered with colored streamers and balloons. A tent was set up in the threshing yard by the entrance, with about a dozen banquet tables arranged underneath.

A’er, who was sitting in the center, waved me over with happy excitement and said “Come sit down!”

“Are you worried I didn’t bring a gift for your grandson?” I joked as I signaled my wife to take out our present – another family portrait! This photo was taken when I came to Huangyan during the Mid-Autumn Festival the previous year.

Seeing the young and old members of the Ye family holding the picture and smiling, I cannot help but raise my camera once again.

With a snap of the shutter, I captured yet another image of this happy family with their hopes and dreams for the future written all over their smiling faces.

IV. The passing of the torch

I spent the Mid-Autumn Festival of 1989 with Xingyou’s family. At the time, he had already been married for ten years, and had built a new multi-story house in the village.

“Uncle Xu,” Xingyou asked, “our new house has finished being built, but it doesn’t look presentable yet. Unfortunately, there isn’t anywhere that sells portraits of Chairman Mao and Deng Xiaoping in town, but you live in the big city of Hangzhou. If you can find them, would you buy the portraits for me so that I can hang them in our new house?” That day, as I sat in the bright and spacious corridor, Xingyou passionately explained his feelings. “As you know very well, my family has completely depended on the Communist Party for three generations. Forty years ago, we didn’t have enough food to eat or warm clothes to wear. Everything has changed since the days when I was a poor cowherd boy. I will always remember the debt of gratitude that I owe the CPC.”

I was utterly moved by the sincerity of his words. Over four decades, I witnessed Gentu’s family grow from nothing. I knew that their love for the PRC and the CPC came from the heart.

Years ago, after Gentu returned to Liangpengling, he became chief of the village’s farmers assistance association. In 1960, he realized his life’s greatest aspiration: he became a member of the CPC. After that, he always maintained absolute devotion to the Party. This never changed, even when he became the target of false accusations during the Cultural Revolution.

Xingfu joined the army at the end of 1964. On the day that he joined, someone from the Huangyan County people’s armed forces division called me and told me that Xingfu would arrive at a new military camp that afternoon. I immediately rushed over, and as expected, I saw him there dressed in his uniform. “I’m going to do my best,” he said as he gave me a brisk salute.

While in the army, Xingfu received unanimous praise from both his commanding officers and his fellow soldiers. Not only was he tough and disciplined, he also excelled on the training ground, earning the designation of special class artilleryman. He eagerly took on any voluntary labor that he could, no matter how dirty or difficult the task, as he enthusiastically emulated the model soldier Lei Feng.

When I went back to visit Xingfu with his unit the next year, he quietly asked me, “Comrade Xu, I want to join the CPC. Do you think I can get in?”

I was so happy to hear him ask. “Of course you can!” I replied, “as long as you work hard.”

Sure enough, Xingfu became a proud Party member in 1966.

Gentu lived by the maxim of “work diligently and always stay honest,” and he passed this on to his sons Xingfu and Xingyou, but Shengzhong’s growth into a Party member left an even deeper impression on me.

At Shengzhong’s wedding, something happened that still moves me to this day.

Standing on the stage giving a speech, he said, “In 1960, my grandfather realized his life’s ultimate goal: becoming a CPC member. Near the end of his life in 1974, he told us again and again that our family was emancipated because of the CPC, and that we should teach future generations to always follow the Party. Now three generations of our family have joined the CPC. Loyalty to the Party is a conviction that the Ye family has passed on from generation to generation. It is because we have followed the Party that we are able to live such happy lives today.”

After he spoke, I clapped as loudly as I could – never would I have expected that he could say such moving words on a day of wedding celebration. People who did not experience what it was like before 1949 could never have the same depth of emotional attachment to the PRC or gratitude to the CPC as members of my generation. But Gentu, who died all those years ago, ensured that these most profound sentiments were passed on from generation to generation. Could this not be considered another family heirloom?

In May of 1996, Shengzhong told me that he had submitted his Party membership application, which was approved by the Party branch committee on December 8, 1998.

V. The dream coming true

Seven decades, four generations. In Jiaxing and Huangyan, the Ye family blossomed and grew. Xingfu’s son Shengzhong got a job at a state-owned enterprise, Xingyou’s son Chengjian opened a seafood restaurant in Taizhou, and Xingfa’s son Weiping ran a hardware business. Only Guifeng’s son Yang Huijun was still a farmer.

However, he was already a very different kind of farmer than Gentu was.

The specialty of Maoshe Village is growing watermelon, with two-thirds of its working-age young people in the watermelon business. Over the years, Huijun not only mastered the skills for growing watermelon, but also developed a keen ability to analyze the market. Going all over the place to plant vast crops of watermelon, he can be counted among the new generation of skilled farmers who have found their talents in high demand beyond the confines of their villages.

As a lifelong friend of the Ye family, if there is one thing that I asked of them, it is that I could see one of their family go to university.

On June 8, 2013, this dream of mine finally came true – Guifeng’s eldest granddaughter and Huijun’s daughter Yang Xichen was about to graduate from East China University of Science and Technology in Shanghai with a degree in bioengineering!

A month earlier, I tried to get in touch with Xichen, but she liked to keep a low profile and didn’t want to appear in the newspaper. She repeatedly urged me not to come to her graduation, saying that the trip was too long.

But how could I miss such an important moment? I had to go. At 4 am on the morning of her graduation, I got out of bed and set off.

When I arrived at the school, the field was filled with students wearing graduation gowns.

Without thinking too much, I stepped up on the podium and introduced myself. “I am a reporter for Zhejiang Daily, I came over from Hangzhou. In Zhejiang, I photographed the Ye family over more than six decades. I wanted to come today to personally take a graduation photo for Yang Xichen, who is a fourth generation member of the family.”

“Sure, I’ll call her for you,” said the dean of the school. Someone went up to the microphone and announced, “Which one of you is Yang Xichen? Please raise your hand.” Amid the throng of students a girl raised her hand.

Before Xichen went to university, I knew almost all of her homeroom teachers. Every time I went to Taizhou, I would make a point of checking up on her at school. Now she was already a university graduate, but her teachers and classmates still spoke of her as being exceptional. She was the first CPC member in her class, and she helped ten of her classmates become members as well. She was secretary of her class’s Communist Youth League branch and did a lot of work organizing its activities, for which she was awarded the school’s community work award. Before graduating, she successfully passed the entrance examinations for master’s studies in the same department of the same university, proving herself to be a true intellectual.

Is this where the Ye family’s story ended? Of course not.

On the eve of the Lantern Festival in 2019, I went to Taizhou, Jiaxing, and Huangyan with a few young reporters from Zhejiang Daily to take photos of the Ye family’s descendants.

Looking out the window as our car sped down the highway, I found the villages and factories we passed looked brand new. All those years ago, it was a difficult journey that required weaving around on many roads, but now you can drive straight there. Since the 18th National Congress of the CPC in 2012, Zhejiang has thrived economically and enjoyed a beautiful environment, and everywhere one goes one can feel that a new era has begun.

The author was a reporter with Zhejiang Daily.

(Originally appeared in Qiushi Journal, Chinese edition, No. 9, 2019)