Inside the villages where China’s collectivist dream lives on

Photos: Shi Yangkun

In the mid-1980s, just 30 years after it began, the curtain fell on China’s grand experiment with collectivization. In the decades since, life in the nation’s vast countryside has become defined by terms like marketization, privatization, and individualism. Yet, not every Chinese village abandoned the collectivist dream. Village holdouts such as Nanjie, Dazhai, and Huaxi, in central, northern, and eastern China, respectively, never fully de-collectivized. In their own ways, each stands testament to the ideals that once animated a nation — islands of red in China’s ever-expanding capitalist sea.

“Retrotopia” explores the fundamental tension between the utopian visions that lay beneath these communities and the reality of life lived inside a time capsule. Through nostalgia-tinged landscapes, quiet portraits, and evocative still-lifes, it seeks to tell the story of places that are at once radical and conservative; grand, yet mundane; relics of China’s past and ambiguous symbols of its often paradoxical present.

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Depiction of the town’s future, Huaxi Village.

A meeting room, Huaxi Village.

The town square, Nanjie Village.

Wang Hongbin, 67, head of Nanjie Village.

Li Xuyu, 23, Dazhai Village.

A kitchen table, Huaxi Village.

Cups and thermoses, Huaxi Village.

Two dancers, Nanjie Village.

Zhao Minfei, 30, Huaxi Village.

Chen Jing, 22, Nanjie Village.

Su Chuncheng, 20, Huaxi Village.

A banquet hall, Huaxi Village.

A presidential suite’s bathroom, Huaxi Village.

A plant in a meeting room, Huaxi Village.

A hotel bathroom, Nanjie Village.

Nanjie Village-born Guo Tianlong, 18, Zhengzhou, Henan province.

Village committee office, Dazhai Village.

Chen Haiting, 17, Huaxi Village.

House near farmland, Huaxi Village.

Ge Xiaming, 32, Huaxi Village.

Motorcycle cage riders, Huaxi Village.

Fireworks at a restaurant-opening, Huaxi Village.

Horse grazing in a park, Huaxi Village.

Li Zilong, 16, Dazhai Village.

Hot air balloon, Huaxi Village.

Forest park doorway, Dazhai Village.

Abandoned swimming pool, Nanjie Village.

Zhao Zhibing, farmer, Dazhai Village.

Li Aoxin, 12, Nanjie Village.

Sun Zheng, animal tamer, Huaxi Village.

Zhou Hui, 28, Huaxi Village.

Hotel room TV, Huaxi Village.

Assembly hall auditorium, Huaxi Village.

Zhu Jifang, 25, Huaxi Village.

A resting schoolgirl, Nanjie Village.