Photo Essay: China’s Left-Behind Elders

Liu Min and Teng Jing Xuan:

In the mountains surrounding the city of Dingxi in Northwest China’s Gansu province, entire communities have lost their youngest residents.

Left behind in the province, one of China’s poorest, are the oldest people who continue to eke out meager existences in a bleak landscape.

In Bailiu village near Dingxi, there are fewer than 4,000 people — nearly none under the age of 35.

Zhang Wenqing, who looks out of place in the 21st century with his full white beard and old-fashioned cap, says he’ll be 80 by the 12th month of this lunar year.

Zhang and his wife, 63-year-old Cai Jiaoying, live in a house he built in 1985. The roof tiles were brought in on a donkey from Huining county, 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) away, Zhang said. It took a fortnight to transport all the tiles to Bailiu. When it was completed, it was the best-looking house in the village. “When he was young, he could walk (into town in) Dingxi and back within a day,” Cai said. “At the time, there was nothing to eat or drink, so he went around peddling goods.”