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Cultural revelation; in China, a picture of its people takes shape one snapshot at a time.

Updated: Aug 16, 2021

By Peter S. Goodman, Washington Post Foreign Service

Sept 16, 2003

Hong Zhengyong: 28-year-old Yi man; Xuehua Village ©

Ask him to describe what he values about his surroundings and his face tightens into a knot of incomprehension. The mountains that frame the village, the terraced fields carved into the slope, the smell of smoke from the cooking fire permeating the mud walls of his house: Hong Zhengyong knows them as basic elements. This is, for him, the sole familiar place on Earth, a place reached only after a day’s climb up a narrow muddy track. He is unaccustomed to judging it.

But ask him to open the book of photographs he has been creating with the first camera he has ever used and his eyes light up. He turns the plastic-encased pages and the details of village life unfold.

A group of men make a stove out of bricks. A woman cloaked in multi-hued fabric ladles stewed scraps into a dug-out log that serves as a pig trough. His 80-year-old father — a bimo, as he is known, a shaman in the traditional animist religion of his tribe, the Yi people — sits on the ground, a scroll across his lap, his white beard floating beneath his chin. The scroll is covered in pictographs that tell the story of where the Yi came from and how they got here, to this verdant corner of Yunnan province in southwestern China. (“At the beginning of the world, there were only women.”) In another image, his father oversees a healing ritual involving incense and a bowl of chicken blood.

Hong still struggles to come up with the words for what his photographs convey, but he clearly feels it is an unnecessary effort: There they are, the stories laid out for view. “I thought these photos were very interesting, so I wanted to take them,” he says with a shrug, as if further explanation would be superfluous.

The photos are an outgrowth of a project being conducted here by the Nature Conservancy that has placed cameras in the hands of villagers to capture glimpses of their lives as they see them. The project is part of a larger undertaking — the fashioning of a patch of land roughly the size of West Virginia into a collection of nature reserves. The photographs amount to data being collected as the environmental group works with provincial and national authorities to design the protected area. They are visual aids guiding efforts to accommodate the needs of local people by illustrating how they farm, build their homes and generally go about their lives in one of the more remote regions of China.

The argument for protection is compelling. The land within the project boundaries holds mountains reaching 20,000 feet. It is crossed by four of Asia’s great rivers — the Yangtze, the Mekong, the Irrawaddy and the Salween. Red pandas and snow leopards live here in landscapes punctuated by bamboo groves and flowering shrubs, including more than 160 species of rhododendron. Medicinal herbs found nowhere else grow here.

But where the words “nature reserve” tend to conjure up images of wilderness untouched by mankind, not so here. The land is home to 3 million people who belong to more than a dozen ethnic minority tribes, including Tibetans, Naxi and Yi. Roughly 70 percent live below China’s official poverty line, meaning they are extremely poor by any standard. Many subsist on less than $60 a year. Electricity increasingly reaches upland areas, but is mostly used only for nighttime illumination. All but a fraction of the people still use wood to cook their food, putting pressure on forests that play a critical role in absorbing water that could — and often does — unleash floods on the hundreds of millions of Chinese who live further down the Yangtze.

“This will never be Yosemite,” says Ann McBride-Norton, who runs the photo project for the Nature Conservancy, her new life following two decades behind a desk in Washington where she headed the campaign finance advocacy group Common Cause. “There will always be people here. Unless they have a stake in what we’re doing, no matter how many park rangers we have, there will never be any way to enforce what we are doing.”

But trying to give local people a stake is a process fraught with potential misunderstanding. Many ethnic minorities in China fear the encroachment of majority Han Chinese. They look warily upon government-led initiatives. Many are uneducated, making communication with outsiders difficult. Sending researchers out with clipboards to interview villagers about their practices and hopes runs the risk of bringing the same result one gets from Hong when asking why he wants to study the rituals of Yi religion — a blank stare, and incredulity that the answer is not self-evident.

Photographs, on the other hand, are illustrative by their very nature. They put the photographer in a position of control, allowing one to literally frame the subject and select what is important.

“So much of a questionnaire is about ‘I’m the big official person and you are the little villager,’ ” McBride-Norton says. “This equalizes the relationship. They are presenting something.”

Such was the origin of what has come to be known as the Photovoice project, launched two years ago. About 275 people scattered in nearly three dozen villages have been given cheap plastic point-and-shoot cameras. Every month, they are given a new roll of print film with room for 36 images. People conversant in the local tribal languages venture out to meet the photographers on a regular basis, collecting film for developing and bringing in the newly processed prints. Then, they sit down and gather up the stories: Why this photo? What is this about?

The images and the connected narratives have become a visual database drawn on by social and environmental scientists as they try to balance the everyday needs of local people with their mandate to preserve the surroundings. As they have studied pictures of people collecting wood for their cooking fires, they have responded by handing out low-tech but efficient stoves that need less timber. They have used photos of people trudging long distances to collect buckets of water as a way of pressing local and provincial governments to install much-desired tap systems.

But if the project began as a creative way to acquire basic information, it soon evolved into something larger, delivering a wholly unexpected outcome: Many of the images are stunning in their composition. Many are intensely personal, accessible and open in a way that has drawn an emotional response — from the local people who saw them first, to the audience in Shanghai that saw them last month as part of an international art show.

“Our intention was that we would get these very average photos and people would use them as a vehicle for telling the stories,” McBride-Norton says. “We just have been totally amazed by the quality of the photos.”

Many convey a feeling of intimacy rarely glimpsed in portraits of rural life in poor countries. They are shorn of the voyeuristic quality that sometimes infects such images. They look like what they are — photos produced by people who are not outsiders, who did not impose the change on the subject that any traveler with a Nikon almost unavoidably does. As such, they amount to an antidote to the tendency of people in richer places to caricature rural villagers as simplistic and somehow deficient in their sight, as if they are too consumed with the labor of sustenance to properly appreciate the beauty around them.

One photographer captured Buddhist pilgrims from Tibet, their robes colored red and orange, on a steep path carved lightly into a treeless and rocky slope. Another recorded a green meadow sloping down to a lake covered in clouds giving off glints of the last rays of dusk. “I am herding the sheep flock in the high mountain when, looking down, I am very impressed by the beautiful ocean-like clouds,” the photographer explained. (Once, McBride-Norton asked him why there are rarely any people in his photos. “He said, ‘Ann, I’m a herder.”)

The images are nuanced and surprising, sometimes ironic. Yi women giggle as they wear traditional hats — large, black, five-pointed, fabric-covered contraptions that look much like nun’s habits. The photographer explains their origin: “Long ago men thought women’s brains were getting too big.” (Apparently, the odd-shaped hats did not halt such advances.)

The photos and stories evince a pride in workmanship in the daily tasks of producing food and the travails of not always succeeding. Two dugout canoes float empty against a riverbank. “Life is hard for the fishermen,” reads the story. “They have to sleep in the cabin on the boat whenever they guard their fishing nets.” A man cloaked in a brown felt poncho lies on a moss-covered boulder, his dog at his side. “They went hunting one day and came back empty-handed.”

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.

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