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China’s Ready-Made Urban Forests

Since the past few years, the Chinese government has been planting thousands of trees in cities across the country hoping to create an urban forest that would fight pollution as well as bring shade to public spaces. The effort is laudable, but if you are to investigate the origin of some of these trees, you’ll discover a disturbing process. A large number of these trees were not grown in their current urban location, but were relocated as mature trees from rural areas.

“The whole concept of trying to be green is being abused,” says Chinese photographer Yan Wang Preston, who uncovered the disconcerting trend more than five years ago while working on a project to photograph the entire length of the Yangtze river at 100 km intervals.

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Photo credit: Yan Wang Preston

In March 2013, Preston had stopped at a tiny village called Xialiu in Yunnan Province, where she noticed a beautiful 300-years-old ficus tree. The village was scheduled to be demolished because a dam was being built nearby. So Preston began photographing the village to document as much as possible before they are gone. Three months later when Preston returned to Xialiu she found the entire village flattened. Not only the houses were gone but even the trees were missing. Preston learned from the villagers who had relocated to higher ground that all the old trees in the village had been sold for the equivalent of about £10,000. The biggest of these trees—the 300-years-old ficus she named “Frank”—was sold to a five-star hotel being constructed at Binchuan City, about two hours’ drive away.

When Preston followed the trail, she found the tree standing in an empty construction site. The hotel hadn’t even begun construction. “It was a heartbreaking scene,” Preston recalled. “I’d seen the tree in its home, covered with leaves as villagers lived their lives around it. Now it was like a person with their arms, fingers and hair all chopped off.”

The tree was crippled and to keep it alive it was covered in needles and nutritious bags, “like drips in the hospital”. When asked whether the tree would survive, one of the guards replied confidently that it would. Yet, when Preston returned to the site in 2017, she found Frank gone. The tree had died two years earlier.

“The transplantation of trees in China is a serious industry,” Preston told the Guardian. “Enormous numbers are uprooted and sent great distances to new cities and redevelopments. Some developers don’t even care if the new climate is suitable. I’ve seen trees that were taken from Vietnam planted in places far too cold for them. They have to wrap them in giant plastic bags.”

These images are from her recently published book Forest, where he chronicles the life of sixty trees uprooted from their original place of growth and transplanted into new, often dystopic-seeming habitats.

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The tree “Frank” at its new home, in 2013. Photo credit: Yan Wang Preston

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Photo credit: Yan Wang Preston

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Photo credit: Yan Wang Preston

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Photo credit: Yan Wang Preston

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Photo credit: Yan Wang Preston

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Photo credit: Yan Wang Preston

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Photo credit: Yan Wang Preston

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Photo credit: Yan Wang Preston

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Photo credit: Yan Wang Preston

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Photo credit: Yan Wang Preston

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Photo credit: Yan Wang Preston

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