2018 marked the 40th anniversary of China’s ‘reform and opening-up’ — a series of economic and social reforms designed to transition the country away from Maoism towards what national leaders have termed ‘market socialism.’

But while most of the country embraced capitalism, not every place abandoned the socialist dream. Village holdouts such as Nanjie, Huaxi and Dazhai never fully de-collectivized. Life in these areas is centered not around the private enterprise, but massive, collectively-run village conglomerates that promise their residents jobs, access to social services, and prosperity.

Today, these villages claim to be the last bastions of the country’s socialist past. Their leaders are openly nostalgic for a time when Mao was China’s paramount leader and the state — at least on paper — looked after its citizens from the cradle to the grave. But Mao’s China is a thing of the past, and younger, more individualistic villagers sometimes chafe under the reality of life lived inside a time capsule.

Retrotopia seeks to tell the story of places that are at once radical and conservative — grand, yet mundane — relics of China’s past, and ambiguous symbols of its often paradoxical present.

—Yangkun Shi


Editor’s Note: Yangkun Shi’s surreal, cinematic series was selected as a finalist in this year’s LensCulture Art Photography Awards. Be sure to check out the other Winners, Jurors’ Picks and Finalists here.