Photo essay: A living being dug in the mud

In the morning mist, the trees in the distance are precisely spaced like the teeth of a comb. A line of people passes on the narrow bank, 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 to Tuan Lake.

Tuan Lake is a “lake in a lake”, silted up to contain a lotus field. Over the years, Dongting Lake in northeast Hunan Province has hosted a temporary treasure trove of plants. Each year, as the root harvest season approaches, passers-by see diggers strewn in the silt among the withered lotus leaves. Walking through the mud with great difficulty, their bodies partly submerged, they extracted the lotus roots one by one, using their years of experience and skill. They suffer from rheumatism and frostbite after years of digging, but have no choice but to wade over and over again for a living.

Trapped by the silt, it is the industrious workers at the bottom of the social ladder. The lotuses are extremely long, hiding in the deeper parts of the lake, and you have to be strong to reach the root. When digging, these workers use the most primitive tool – a root shovel. When they get a big one, they wave it with excitement, as if showing off a trophy. The heavier the root, the greater the pay. Visible and tangible lotus roots bring joy in direct proportion to the financial harvest. Each shovel driven deep in the mud reinforces this reciprocity with the earth.

This is the relationship between the majority of workers and the land for thousands of years: they work the land and receive its gifts. It is an old contract which is perhaps not free from difficulties, but it is of incomparable fidelity. With the exception of the unexpected blow of calamity, a farmer can get a safe return to the land as long as he puts the work into it. Chinese essayist Li Juan wrote in his book Distant Sunflower Field: “The power of hands cannot change the sky. nor the earth, but it is just enough to support an individual’s life. Sometimes food comes out of the earth and out of the chimney. These words describe the relationship between the root pullers and the earth, as they live in the lake, work in the mud, earn a salary to support their wives and children on the 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 work – is also a way to feel secure and at peace.

A member of the root research community, Chen Xinguo, said, “I keep thinking how great it would be if I didn’t have to someday. Every day before bed, he picks up his phone and scrolls through photos of his two daughters, who he says are his motivation. He plans to resign when his eldest daughter has completed her master’s degree. Root pullers rarely talk about their feelings or express resentment. They just work in silence in the winter lake. In silence, they work, they support families, and they age.

For them, this photo shows an ordinary morning, the start of a new working day. Yet at the same time, it seems that they are walking solemnly on the battlefield of life, bearing its trials and glory.

The scraper handles his shovel with force and with each excavation he feels the shocks coming from the silty bottom of the lake. He has to work continuously for eight to nine hours a day.

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The lotus roots are hidden about a meter under the mud. The root puller leans into the pits he has dug to reach the roots.

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The digger has his hands on a thin lotus root and holds it up like a trophy.

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To reach the depths of Lake Tuan, the root pullers use small punctures. Finding the right place to extract roots from the thousands of acres of Tuan Lake requires experience.

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In the evening, Chen Xinguo takes the roots he unearthed by the side of the road to weigh them. Mud covers his body. He jumps into the pond to rinse himself.

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Chen Xinguo drags hundreds of kilos of roots, the fruit of his day’s work.

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Root pullers are paid a daily rate, mainly in cash. This way, it is thought that they are more motivated. The price is 7 yuan per kilogram – a good digger can get a hundred kilograms or more per day, while the less successful can get 25 if they are lucky.

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Washing the mud off his face, the Lotus Root Seeker took a broken motorcycle reflector and shaved off the door before the sky darkened.

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

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They bathe in an abandoned kitchen in a dark corner, and boil water with a portable immersion heater. Chen Xinguo had not taken a bath for two days, saying he was too tired to move. After the bath he said he felt much better.

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

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

Translated by intern Zhao Shunjie.

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