In the Red

Decoding family portraits and traditions in Xiaogan

A large metal steamer prepares buns for lunch at Xu’s relatives’ house, to celebrate the birth of the newest family member. A typical household in China may have small steamers made of bamboo for the same purpose.
PHOTOGRAPHS BY Lidan Xu TEXT BY Sukruti Anah Staneley
31 October, 2023

In the dialect of Mandarin spoken in Tianmen, a region in central China’s Hubei province, there is a single word to refer to one’s niece or nephew: zhí ér. When the photographer Lidan Xu visited her maternal relatives in the countryside, in 2020, she was given an invitation to attend the birth celebration of the newest family member, her zhí ér.

The family lived on the Jianghan Plain, in the Tianmen hinterland. Born and raised in Xiaogan, a city in the same province, Xu eventually left home to attend university in Shanghai, and later moved to Japan for further studies. Her visits home are no longer frequent, and she has limited contact with her extended family.

A poster of Mao Zedong hangs in the living room.