ON 4 NOVEMBER 2008, water rose over Kaixian, China, ending its history of nearly 2000 years. Located on the Yangtze River, around 290 kilometres upstream from the Three Gorges Dam—the largest water-control project ever built—Kaixian was the final town submerged by the dam’s reservoir. By that day, the reservoir had claimed more than 150 cities and towns, and 1,300 villages, displacing an estimated 1.3 million people. Some 1,300 archaeological sites, many of which were thousands of years old, were lost under the water. Most of the residents of Kaixian had been relocated to higher ground a short distance away, to a new city taking the name of the submerged one. The buildings of the old town had been demolished to prevent underwater hazards; everything of value had been removed or scavenged.
Zhang Xiao, a photographer then working for a newspaper in nearby Chongqing, documented the town’s final dismantling. In these photographs—as in his other projects picturing China’s rapidly changing coastal cities and young, working class Chinese struggling to find their identity—Zhang examines the price of his country’s economic development. The dam and its reservoir are physical manifestations of the trade-offs being made in the name of progress throughout China—the dislocation of millions of individuals, the loss of old ways of life, an expanding sense of placelessness. “History and culture have disappeared,” he said of the dam’s effects. “The only advantage is economic development. But this is reckless development.”
This series was partly inspired by the film Still Life, by Jia Zhang-ke, which sets personal stories of loss and renewal in the midst of the damming of the Yangtze. Zhang Xiao’s photographs offer glimpses of experiences of loss and displacement, of people disconnected from their past and people working on an uncertain future. But the photographs also show the overwhelming, impersonal, physical immensity of the Three Gorges project—and we are seeing only a minute piece of a much larger effort, the last town of many more dismantled in the same way.