The Land of Promises

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In the summer of 1994, a number of Belgian families traveled to China to adopt children there. “Six girls in total were adopted at the same orphanage, at the same time,” Youqine Lefèvre writes in the text on the back of The Land of Promises (essentially an introduction to the book). “I am one of them.” At the time, she was roughly seven months old.

As far as I can tell, any story that centers on reproductive rights never ends there. In fact, most of them appear to originate in domains that have nothing to do with the medical sciences. For example, the anti-abortion movement we’re observing in many countries right now is partly fueled by religious extremists and partly by neofascists who are trying to re-establish the supremacy of straight men over every other member of society.

In the context of China, there’s that country’s one-child policy, which possibly sounded like a good idea to rulers at the time. In reality, though, given parents were allowed to have one child only, age-old considerations about the role of men and women in society entered the equation, with consequences which in principle are too awful to think about but which, of course, unfolded all over the country. It is coincidence that in Lefèvre’s introduction, there are six girls who end up going to Belgium. Confucianism very strongly advocated a patriarchal society, large traces of which still exist in China.

In an essay at the end of the book, Joohee Bourgain considers the larger implications of international adoption. It should be considered, she notes, “as a prejudice that millions of individuals who have been permanently separated from their social and familial environments, and decultured and assimilated into a new milieu that often renders them vulnerable — notably the systemic racism of Western societies — have been subjected to.” (my emphasis) You will want to keep this in mind any time you hear about international adoption. In modified form, this also applies to the systematic kidnapping of Ukrainian children by Russian forces in occupied Ukraine (which, by the way, constitutes a war crime).

In 2017 and 2019, Lefèvre went on two trips to China to re-visit the land where she was born. She connected with people living there to find out how they were engaging with the topic of family, specifically: having children. For a large number of people encountered, there are pieces of text that read like transcripts of what they told the photographer. There is a notable variety of voices, with men and women, older and younger people, people living very traditional farm lives and people living in cities, etc. In addition, there are plenty of photographs of their surroundings in the form of land- and cityscapes, interiors, details encountered, and more.

At the beginning of the book, there is a facsimile reproduction of the original Chinese adoption documents (with translations provided — the text in the book comes in English and French). Furthermore, reproductions of snapshots taken by the Belgian families in China in 1994 form the first major section of photographs.

The combination of all of these elements make for a very successfully constructed book that dives into the many repercussions of China’s one-child policy against the background of the country’s larger traditions — and against people being people: not everybody was happy to comply with state policies.

In a number of ways, you could see The Land of Promises as an oral history of China that focuses on one specific aspect of its recent past and culture. Unlike usual oral histories, the amount of text is a lot smaller than those. But here, the added portraits and photographs flesh out parts that written oral histories mostly can’t get at.

Approaching the book as an oral history also primes the audience for the amount of work they have to do: without reading the text, only a small fraction of the content will be communicated. This makes for an intriguing model for a image-text book that I’m hoping will also be explored by other artists.

If there is one thing I personally miss from the book, though, it’s more of Lefèvre’s own voice. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with what’s on display. But in many ways, it could have been made by someone who did not share the photographer’s personal history. To the extent that this is possible, I was trying to imagine being in the photographer’s position, going back to the place from which she had been adopted. What was that like?

I’ve obviously written the previous paragraph as someone who has lived outside of his native country for over two decades. It’s absolutely not the same situation — I had a choice, Lefèvre didn’t. But coming back to Germany after these two decades is like coming to country that to a considerable extent is foreign but that in other ways is completely familiar. This often makes for a strange, unsettling experience. And that’s why I was wondering about how Lefèvre own experiences.

The Land of Promises; photographs and text by Youqine Lefèvre; essay by Joohee Bourgain; 244 pages; The Eriskay Connection; 2022

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