Field Research | Coal Mining Project

Yang Shaobin: Coal Mining Project

Time: 2004 – 2008

Artists: Yang Shaobin, Long March Project

Location:Hebei Province (Tangshan,Qinhuangdao), Shanxi Province (Changzhi,Shuozhou,Datong), Inner Mongolia (Baotou,Dongsheng)


Long March Project — Yang Shaobin Coal Mining Projects

This bulk of artistic research features a series of problems brought about by radical changes in agricultural production methods, industrialization, and social change. Immersing themselves into the coalmining world, Yang Shaobin and the Long March team addressed key problems caused by modernization – calling on geographical, environmental, ecological and ethical issues, as well as rapid industrialization, manufacturing economics, the collective consciousness and human rights.

The first stage of this project is titled 800 Meters Under and focused on the Kailuan and Tangshan coalmining districts. The second stage, X – Blind Spot continued Yang Shaobin’s visual exploration of the coalmining industry, covering a larger proportion of China’s coalmining world by visiting mines in Hebei Province, Shanxi Province and Inner Mongolia.

The project delves into the collective memory that sprung across the industrialisation and social growth in China. As part of the Long March Project, the research contemplates the nodes that connect contemporary Chinese culture, social development and the sense of history.

In the 1960’s and 1970’s, contemporary Chinese artists were focused primarily on collectivism, with artistic production organized around specific social bodies such as workers or the military. Artistic resources were distributed among the different collective organizations, leading to a particularly vibrant social life. For example, coal miners would have their own exhibition of works, with each coal mine having a dedicated art production team. Additionally, the artists from the National Arts Association had a close relationship with the coalminers, working with them to produce works. During the period of the Cultural Revolution, several works were produced collectively by these groups.

China’s attempt at building a market economy with socialist characteristics and its historical experiences of collectivism have undoubtedly contributed to the ideology of the post Cold War era.  However, what do those previously experienced memories of collectivism, society, production, and the livelihood of the people mean today when the market has become so prevalent in society? Today, the question of the value of the individual in relation to older forms of production emerges as a common, and at times overt motif in contemporary Chinese artists’ thinking, as they encounter and confront the relationships present in their social realities.

Yang Shaobin was born in the Kailuan coalmining district in the 1960s to a coal mining family. The memory of this period left a distinct impression on him, as from an early age; growing up within the coalmining community he witnessed firsthand the lives of the coalminers. Inspired by works of art made by coalminers that he had seen at primary school, Yang Shaobin decided to become an artist. However, after graduating from art school in 1983, he returned to his hometown, Kailuan, Hebei Province, to become a policeman. Through archival and artistic portrayal, Yang Shaobin’s work shines light on an underground world rarely seen, and brings individual experience to its audience, highlighting coal miners’ lives; a juxtaposition of hardship and happiness, despondency and courage.

2004-2006:800 Meters Under

July 25-27, Zhaogezhuang Coal Mine, Kailuan, Hebei

July 31 - Departs the mine

Tangshan Mining History Exhibition Hall

Miners in the 80's Illustration Picture Scan

2007-2008:X—Blind Spot

May 11, 2007

10 a.m., ate breakfast at the hotel and discussed the project. Lu Jie’s friend Yang Bo, Director of the China Coal Group came to the hotel to discuss the issue of visiting the big mine. At 11 a.m., we drove with Yang to the Sanyuan Mining offices to have lunch with the mine manager and other managerial staff. I was reminded of the procedures before entering the mine at Tangshan for the first time, it was very similar.  After lunch, Xiao Wang, Xiao Ma and I went back to the car to grab the camera equipment. Lu Jie was talking with the mine manager and Xiao Xiong was recording the scene. We went to the managerial staff changing room to change into mining uniforms before heading underground, after we changed a safety inspector took us into the big cage to descend into the mine. The mineshaft here is 300 metres deep, we reached the bottom after a few seconds, it’s very clean down there, we drove on a small cart through the tunnels. There are 1,200 workers in this mine, it’s a joint-stock enterprise with annual profits of RMB 400 million: RMB 200 million of that goes to the shareholders and each worker gets around RMB 60-70,000.

Started shooting. At first, Xiao Ma was a bit confused, I kept on telling him to be more sensitive and focus on the details of what he was shooting. Everything was going smoothly and we entered into the main part of the mine. The workers were overhauling the machinery and had started up the equipment especially for us. We shot using two cameras from different angles, we had to turn off the flash on the cameras to avoid causing an explosion. After two hours we went back up aboveground, the cameras had a record of everything we had done.

In the evening, Yang Bo held a banquet for us, we drank and ate a lot and started playing drinking games. The seven of us drank a total of five bottles of twenty-year old fenjiu. Yang Bo flew to Beijing at 10 p.m.

May 12, 2007

In accordance with Yang Bo’s plans, we travelled on to Suzhou.  Before leaving, Lu Jie proposed we head into the city to visit a few historical sites. We saw a Tang Dynasty temple of great quality, it gave us a new understanding of Buddhist architecture.

May 13, 2007

We waited at the hotel for the mine team leader to arrive then drove to the Antaibao open-pit mine. We entered the mine area, the sight of the pit was shocking. It is massive, more than 200 metres across and just as deep. We started shooting, and kept at it as we drove down into the pit. I opened the car’s sunroof, Xiao Ma took the camera and stood up out of the sunroof to shoot. By the time we stopped and got out, Xiao Ma was covered in coal dust. We went into the workers changing rooms to film, Xiao Ma and I took photos of the workers’ shower area. We went back to the car and drove further down to the place where the coal is dug up. The scene was spectacular, we worked so intensely it felt like a battle. After he finished filming, Xiao Ma took panoramic shots on 120 film.

We said goodbye to the team leader once we finished our work and returned to the hotel to discuss the day’s work. Every time Lu Jie looks at the footage he falls asleep, he told us that these past days, whenever he has a chance to relax he feels exhausted. When he woke up, he started to summarize what we’ve dine and gave his thoughts on how the work has been made thus far.

May 14, 2007

We abandoned the Taiyuan segment of the plan and instead headed to Datong following a friend’s introduction. We called up Li Qing, an artist from Datong, who told us he’d be waiting at the highway toll booth for us. We arrived an hour and a half later and met Li Qing, Professor Guo and Yang Yanbin and drove in Li Qing’s car towards Datong’s southern suburbs. Arrived at a restaurant, Director Wei had already arranged everything, the other guys there were all very welcoming. They are all artists and all exceedingly cordial, had a wonderful time drinking together happily. Yang Yanbin is very persistent when it comes to drinking, I shared a toast with our Shanxi friends on behalf of all of us from Beijing.

Yang Yanbin called around and found two high-clearance vehicles for us to drive, we headed off to small coal mine.

The drive there was pretty rough, there were a lot of shanty towns along the road, I started to film and once we reached the mountains went to explore the small mine which was closed. There were a few workers mulling about and an old man looking at the mountains. Director Wei drove us to a legally-operated open-pit mine. When we got there, as soon as the workers there saw us they stopped working because they were too scared to continue. I didn’t understand why, and as soon as we left the machines started up again.

We kept on driving and reached an area where the road was under construction and entered into the workers’ residential area. It reminded me of what I experienced as a child. The miners and their families were sitting in the alleyways chatting and playing chess. Lu Jie was impressed by Director Wei’s driving and I said I could drive us back out in reverse gear. We drove around for a bit and found out there was no other road out so had to retrace our route back out. We stopped for a bite to eat and returned to the hotel.


May 15, 2007

Professor Guo arranged for us to visit the Wuguantun mine close to the Yungang Grottoes. We met with Director Zhao and watched their corporate publicity film, had lunch and then rested. At 1:30 we reached the opening of the mine and took a group photo. At 4:00, went to the Sitai coal mine to take photos of the workers coming up from the mine shaft and some group shots. Got back to the hotel in Datong around 8:30 in the evening and rested.  

October 4,2007

At 10 a.m., Shen Xiaomin, Xiao Xiong, Li Xiang and I left for Datong. We had lunch at the Kong Yi Yi Restaurant in Beijing first and started driving around 12:30, we reached Datong by 4 p.m.  Director Yang stopped by the hotel to see us and ask us about our plans. I suggested we head out and shoot in the shanty town area to get some shots of the area in the evening light. 

The roads heading to the southern part of Datong are really bad. The entire route was dirty, dust filled the air. In the summer, the air is humid so it doesn’t seem as bad as it does now. We reached the squatter settlement but it wasn’t the place I wanted to film. Director Yang has forgotten where the shanty town we went to last time is. The sky was getting dark, even if we could have found the right place the video equipment wouldn’t work because there was no longer any source of light. Heading back into the city, Director Yang took me to the shanty town around a second mine. That one wasn’t so bad, and would work well if I could photograph it. We went back to the city and had dinner, got back to the hotel around 10 and went to bed.

At 8:00 the next morning we got up and went to film the shanty town being torn down. In row upon row of decrepit narrow hutong alleys, Shen Xiaomin started working. He is a professional photographer (he went with me to Korea in early September) and once he sees something he wants to shoot he rushes head on into his work regardless of the danger. After shooting for about 40 minutes in the hutongs, we left and shot some people who were breaking up the steel re-bar left in the ruins of the buildings. After that we headed up to the roof of a nearby building to shoot the entire scene from above. In the afternoon, Director Yang went with us to the Datong Television offices to get information and reports on mine disasters and small-scale artisanal mining. The director of the television station had previously agreed to give us some information, but it turned out that what he provided was useless. Director Yang was extremely unhappy, but I felt that it couldn’t be helped considering how sensitive that information is.

We drove to the southern suburbs of the city around 10 in the evening to shoot the houses that had been demolished. Half an hour later we left for the hotel. We looked over everything we had shot the past two days. Xiaomin, Xiao Xiong and I discussed what we had shot and how to structure the final video, returned to my room around 2 a.m.



Foundation-laying Ceremony at the Former Shanty Town site 

December 14, 2007

Visiting Antaibao and Baotou again

Beidaihe sanatorium for Chinese coal miners

Tangshan Fushun