Perhaps the most striking thing about the collection is how these images challenge the notion — common in the West — that upland villagers in remote places are not built to handle change and abhor it as an assault on their pure way of life.
The glimpses of life in these photos reveal how even this corner of the world — seemingly as far from the capital markets and advertising dens as one can get — is nonetheless imbued with a palpable sense of upward mobility. Modernity is not the enemy so often portrayed by those intent on preserving village life and villagers themselves as if they were breathing display pieces. While the photographs revel in scenic beauty and tradition, they are not hung up on the conceptions of innocence that underlie every narrative about the next destroyed Shangri-La.
In the village of Wenhai, a settlement of 800 beneath the often rain-obscured peak of Jade Dragon Mountain, the arrival of cameras last year produced an abundance of photos of the new drinking water system. One villager took a picture of a water buffalo pulling a cart set against yellow flowers. The viewer sees a pastoral scene; the villager is focused on the fact that the cart is full of bags of cement. “Now we know how to use cement and don’t have to hire workers from the urban areas,” he says.
One of the photographers, He Huanzhen, 50, speaks emphatically of his desire for a road connecting the village to Lijiang, the largest town in the area, allowing more goods to flow to the shelves of the local shop, where a bare light bulb illuminates packages of instant noodles, toothpaste and bottles of Dali beer. He shows a picture of people carrying sections of pipe on their shoulders, another of people carrying in the pieces of a disassembled tractor. He shows a photo of his family threshing grain by hand in their muddy courtyard. “We need machinery,” he says. “This is too traditional.” He shows a picture of the table saw that one of his neighbors brought in. The whine of its blades now fills the valley.
He is a physician, one of the original “barefoot doctors” trained in the days of Mao to provide a basic level of care in the hinterlands. His green jacket is shredded and fraying, his blue pants worn down to holes. Many of his photographs document his working conditions in a thatched-roof house with a single thermometer and blood pressure machine. In one picture, an old man lies on a bed suffering from pneumonia, a small child sleeping next to him. In another — a photo taken by his daughter — He kneels on the porch of his clinic examining a 5-month-old infant cradled in her mother’s arms. His doctor’s kit, a weathered leather suitcase, is propped on a log. Mud cakes his boots.
For He, every click of the shutter is a kind of political act, an effort to focus the attention of the people who run China on injecting more resources here. He wants more equipment for his clinic — a stomach pump, tools to extract abscessed teeth, oxygen canisters for respiratory troubles. “We feel our life is very poor,” he says. “We were happy to have this camera to show people how we live. It’s kind of a tool to report to the local government.”
In the village of Xuehua, where Hong Zhengyong grew up, a satellite dish now dominates the courtyard of the family home, its metallic shine strikingly anomalous against its surroundings — the soot-stained boards of the house, the tattoos on his mother’s arms that identify her as a member of this family, the long pipe his father smokes, the scroll he nestles in his hands.
Hong’s brother brought the dish from Lijiang last year. Now the television is almost always on, bringing in 18 channels, the sound blasting as smoke from the cooking fire fills the room.
Mostly, the family watches special news and dance programs broadcast in the Yi language by Yunnan government television. But one recent day, the bimo — well versed in the art of coaxing spirits from the bodies of sick people — struggled to change the channel with the remote control. Its batteries had run out. The television was stubbornly fixed to CCTV, the national network, on which a man with a necktie in Beijing, more than 2,000 miles away, spoke in Mandarin Chinese — a language the bimo cannot understand.
“Basically, we didn’t know about the outside world before this,” the bimo says. “Now I know about the good things in the world, but also many bad things — wars, earthquakes.” He is pleased with the skyscrapers going up in China’s cities, happy to see “the good life of the people,” but saddened by the images of American bombs falling in Iraq. “Why the war? I don’t know why it started,” he says. “Who is right or wrong?”
It reminds him of the war between the Chinese Nationalists and Communists more than a half-century ago, when he fled here from ancestral land farther south seeking safe storage for the scrolls given to him by his grandfather. He recalls the days of the Cultural Revolution, when marauding Red Guards came through the area destroying religious artifacts.
Now there is peace in the area and a growing if meager prosperity. His family sells goats and cows in Lijiang, earning cash to buy salt, tea, rice and clothing that they carry back. He wishes for a road to ease the flow. Of the bimo’s seven sons, only Hong Zhengyong shows an interest in learning the practice of the religion. The rest are consumed with making money.
But if a road connects this spot to the rest of the world, won’t the draw of the town increase? Won’t the culture and religion erode? The bimo is the liaison between this world and the spirit realm. It is a link he cannot imagine severed, and he scoffs at the suggestion. “Yi culture is very strong,” he says.
In Hong’s photos, the bimo still attends to rituals. He teaches Hong how to read the scroll, how to write the pictographs. “I want to protect this, just as my father did, as my grandfather did,” he says. “Try to preserve it.” The pictures, he figures, will help people keep remembering how things are supposed to be done, even as their present lives focus more and more on mastering home electronics and figuring out how to buy them.
The bimo smiles at the photos and breaks into delighted laughter at the thought that his face will soon be on a wall in Shanghai’s Grand Theater, at an international festival, to be inspected by whoever comes along in China’s most cosmopolitan city.
“I’m very happy,” he says. “I’ve never been to Shanghai, but now at least my picture can go.”
Two weeks later, it is indeed on the wall, hanging near a refreshment stand selling chilled bottles of Perrier. Inside the theater, a symphony orchestra performs the latest work of the Chinese-born composer Tan Dun, whose arrangements draw on folk music from his native Hunan province. Then comes intermission. The crowd empties onto the lobby’s marble floors beneath a crystal chandelier. Some head to the wall for a look at the photos.
In many ways, the crowd’s reaction says more about urban China today than the subjects of the pictures themselves, its people longing more and more for a mythologized and uncorrupted state of nature as consolation for the increasingly traffic-choked, smog- infested lives they lead. It is a longing steeped in irony and made possible only by the passage of time, now that sufficient decades separate today from the time when Chairman Mao’s adherents sent city people “down to the countryside” for a difficult taste of peasant life.
“It’s very pure, very natural. It hasn’t been polluted by the modern world yet,” declares a 28-year-old English teacher, taking in the images of rural Yunnan. “It’s a primitive lifestyle.”
“This is the root of culture for all human beings,” adds Cheng Xinguang, a local musician. “As we get more and more developed, we have to understand it.”
He studies the face of the old man with the silver beard. He reads the caption.
“My father is 80 years old this year. He is the only bimo in Xuehua. Among seven sons in my family, two were forced to work due to the Cultural Revolution, four lost their interest in Yi traditional culture. And I become the only volunteer to inherit my father’s knowledge and job.”
Without the image, the words don’t make any sense. More to the point, without the image, Hong Zhengyong almost surely would not have spoken them.
The images illustrate a tendency toward collectivism that predates the advent of communism in China and still endures. “After wheat is harvested, the land needs to be trimmed before rice is planted,” reads the story attached to a panoramic view of golden stalks, mist-covered mountains looming in the background. “Villagers help each other in the work.” Older men in blue cotton robes encircle a table, playing cards. A family kneels in a half-cut wheat field, over a pot of rice they eat together.