Caixin
Aug 06, 2021 03:40 PM
CHINA

Photo Essay: A Living Dug Out of the Mud

In the early morning, the lotus diggers walk towards the lake with their tools: a shoulder pole, a spade, and a piece of plastic sheeting. They use the simplest as well as the most primitive tools to dig out the roots. Extremely long, these roots are invariably hiding at the deepest parts of the lake, requiring skill and strength to haul onto land.
In the early morning, the lotus diggers walk towards the lake with their tools: a shoulder pole, a spade, and a piece of plastic sheeting. They use the simplest as well as the most primitive tools to dig out the roots. Extremely long, these roots are invariably hiding at the deepest parts of the lake, requiring skill and strength to haul onto land.

Through the morning fog, the trees in the distance are precisely spaced like the teeth of a comb. A line of people passes by on the narrow riverbank, leaving their reflections on the water. If you didn’t know better, you might mistake the scene for an outing. But in fact, these are lotus root diggers who woke up early, grabbed their tools and headed en masse towards Tuan Lake.

Tuan Lake is a "lake within a lake", silted up to contain a field of lotuses. Over the years, Dongting Lake in northeastern Hunan province has played host to a temporary hoard of the plants. Every year when the root harvesting season comes around, passers-by see diggers scattered across the silt among withering lotus leaves. Walking in the mud with great difficulty, their bodies partly submerged, they put out the lotus roots one by one, using their years of experience and skill. They suffer from rheumatism and frostbite from years of digging, but have no choice but to wade in again and again in order to make a living.

Trapped by the silt, these are the industrious laborers at the bottom of the social ladder. Lotuses are extremely long, hiding at the deepest parts of the lake, and you have to be strong to reach the root. When digging, these workers use the most primitive of tools – a root shovel. When they get a large one, they hold it up in excitement, as if showing off a trophy. The heavier the root, the larger the remuneration. The visible and tangible lotus roots bring in joy in direct proportion to financial harvest. Each shovel plunged deep into the mud reinforces this reciprocity with the land.

This has been the relationship between the majority of laborers and the land for thousands of years: they work on the land and receive its gifts. It is an ancient contract that may not be free from hardship, but it incomparably loyal. Except for the unexpected blow of a calamity, a farmer can get a secure return from the land as long as he puts the work in. Chinese essayist Li Juan wrote in her book Distant Sunflower Field, "The power of the hands cannot change the sky nor the earth, but it is just enough to sustain the life of an individual. It happens to make food come out of the earth and out of the fireplace." These words describe the relationship between the root-diggers and the earth, as they live in the lake, laboring in the mud, earning wages to support their wives and children on shore. Their life is undoubtedly hard and poor, but in a world full of speculation and fraud, this way of getting paid -- simply and through solid labor -- is also a way to feel secure and at peace.

A member of the root-diggers community, Chen Xinguo, said, "I never stop thinking about how great it would be if I didn’t have to do this one day." Every day before bed, he picks up his phone and scroll through the photos of his two daughters, who he says are his motivation. He plans to quit when his elder daughter finishes her master’s. Root diggers rarely speak out about their feelings or express any resentment. They just work silently in the wintery lake. In silence, they labor, they support families, and they grow old.

For them, this photo shows an ordinary morning, the beginning of a new day of work. Yet at the same time, it looks like they are solemnly advancing on the battlefield of life, bearing its hardship and its glory.

2

The root digger wields his shovel with strength, and with each dig he can feel the tremors coming from the silty bottom of the lake. He has to work non-stop for eight to nine hours a day.

3

The lotus roots are hidden a meter or so below the mud. The root digger is bending down into the pits he has dug out to get at the roots.

4

The digger has his hands on a fine lotus root, and holds it up as a trophy.

5

To reach the depths of Tuan Lake, root diggers use small punts. Finding the right place to dig out roots from the thousands of acres of Tuan Lake requires experience.

6

In the evening, Chen Xinguo takes the roots he has dug out to the roadside to weigh them. Mud covers his body. He jumps into the pond to rinse himself clean.

7

 Chen Xinguo drags hundreds of kilos of roots -- the fruit of his day's labor.

8

Root diggers get paid a daily rate, mostly in cash. This way, they are thought to be better motivated. The price is 7 yuan a kilo – a good digger can get a hundred or more kilos a day, while the less successful ones might get 25 kilos if they’re lucky.

9

Washing the mud off his face, the lotus root digger took a broken motorcycle reflector and shaved at the door before the sky darkened.

10

Their gloves and clothes suits are often scratched in the lake, so they have two tasks every night: drying their clothes and patching their gloves.

11

They bathe in an abandoned kitchen in a corner without lights, and boil water with a portable immersion water heater. Chen Xinguo hadn’t taken a bath for two days, saying he was too tired to move. After the bath, he said he felt much better.

12

After dinner, workers lay down on the floor to get ready for bed. They have to get up at 5 a.m. the next day. Some people would make a phone call home, some would chat with others for a few minutes, and some would browse short videos on their own.

13

The village in the early morning. The old houses where the root diggers live in are the first to light up as they prepare to start a new day waist-deep in the lake.

Translated by intern Zhao Shunjie.

Download our app to receive breaking news alerts and read the news on the go.

Get our weekly free Must-Read newsletter.

Share this article
Open WeChat and scan the QR code