Tuesday, May 21, 2013
The Dragon's Backbone
Sounds of camera shutters announce the presence of newly mobile Chinese tourists in the cultural destinations that mark a time gone by in the Middle Kingdom
More than 10 years ago, I recall standing in the tram line to ascend Jade Dragon Snow Mountain (Lijiang, Yunnan), where tourists ride and climb to elevations near 15,000 feet. On this day, the mountain was shrouded in mist and the temperatures at the high glacier were sure to be very cold for August. Surrounded by travelers, most in layers of clothing and plastic rain covers, some holding cans of compressed oxygen that were on sale in the souvenir shop, I asked: Why is that chain-smoking man wearing a dark business suit and looking incredibly out of place? The answer: He was likely a manager at his company and he was displaying the uniform of his newfound position of importance—even on holiday.
As industrialized Chinese look back in time from the perspective of their apartment complexes, offices and factories, they find comfort in the notion of a slower-paced, more spiritual place dominated by nostalgic agricultural settings, conceivably in the same ways that Americans are drawn to the myth of wilderness and lands before settlement.
The fire power that's brought to bear on this limited location is impressive. The high-tech demographic of photo enthusiasts are well equipped with camera gear, with a decided preference for Canon and Gitzo, at least to the informal focus groups on the days we were there. I like to think that the "C" and corporate red of Canon resonate more than the trademarks of other brands. DSLRs are dominant, but a few camera-capable iPads are also present. Through an interpreter, it becomes apparent that these photographers are also well traveled domestically, but one gentleman was proud of his visit to Zion National Park and the slot canyons of Utah.
The geometry of the terraces is particularly visible in early June, immediately after the flooding period when the new shoots are planted and the silvery standing water mirrors the sky that's often gray. Photography and the place are at odds during this rainy season in May and June when precipitation means about 14 inches per month, drenching the predominant greens under a heavy overcast. While Western photographers might be dissuaded by the difficult light, the Chinese seem little deterred, showing a more sensitive appreciation for the reality of the scene and the subtle interplay of sky and water. These popular terraces are associated with the Ping'an village, and though dating back to the Yuan Dynasty, most were constructed 500 years ago during the Ming Dynasty.
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