Spring 2004

‘The Unbearable Heaviness of Industry’

‘In China, the road to full industrialization is gradually but surely unveiling itself.’

By Zhou Hai

Photographer Zhou Hai’s images of factory workers and miners in China are part of a touring exhibition called “The Unbearable Heaviness of Industry.” In an interview with The New York Times, Zhou Hai, who works independently out of Beijing, said, “As our society has developed, so many workers have been marginalized, and fewer and fewer people care about them. So I felt a need to record this era and these people.” More of his photographs from this project can be found at www.zhouhai.com.

Industry provides the impetus for social development. The industrial establishments upon which modern civilization is built—such as steel-making—impose a heavy toll on those who take part in the process. These people form the very basis of an enormous infrastructure, yet they are also seen as outcasts having to endure pain, physical or mental, in this great industrial age.

In China, the road to full industrialization is gradually but surely unveiling itself. There was a time when people on this road felt great pride. Now a market economy pervades and so does a sense of loss and frustration for the laborers.

We do not know how we become unaware of the unbearable heaviness of industry and industrialization. What wealth can they create, what a wonderful world, we tell ourselves. What we do not see is this: In many of the industrial sectors, what people have been doing is not only physically demanding. Fumes and dust are but physical proof of the hardship. One may be surprised to notice the absence of machinery where it should play a role. When labor is a source of pride, material return is less of a concern for the laborers. When this pride wears out in the course of time and as money sneaks in to be a standard measure, the glory is lost and survival instincts take over.

The Chinese industrial labor force is being pushed to the banks of mainstream society. Victimized by the dull and repetitive pace of their work and living in an ever-fixed social space, these laborers find it hard to fit into China’s fast-paced, ever-changing economy.

While our vision is blurred by the drastic social changes brought about largely as a result of industrial development, we need to wake up to the heaviness of labor and survival that has been haunting us for so long.


A worker near a scruff drain of an iron-melting furnace at Capital Steelworks in Beijing in December 1997.


Workers at an iron-melting furnace at Anshan Steelworks in Anshan, Liaoning Province, in September 1999.


These coal miners work for a small coal mine in Hebi, Henan Province, that is operated by local people and does not have good safeguards. Compared with what they could earn in argiculture, their incomes of $75 to $125 per month are quite high. July 1999.


A painter climbed over the railing of a bridge at Anshan Steelworks in Anshan, Liaoning Province, November 2001.


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