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

Dragon’s Backbone Terraced Rice Fields received their name because the rice terraces resemble a dragon’s scales, while the summit of the mountain range looks like the backbone of the dragon. The terraced fields climb from the riverside up to the mountaintop, the highest part being 300 feet in elevation, which provides a substantial cooling effect in the summer months.

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.

Personifying China’s new generation of affluent and photographically oriented tourists, this woman was making full use of the high-tech features on her Nikon DSLR.

To me, that experience represented a wholesale turning point in Chinese tourism. Since then, a great deal has been made of China’s phenomenal economic growth and the spontaneous generation of towering cities from the mud of fields and deltas. The offspring of that economic expansion has been a social acceleration best represented by the newly mobile Chinese tourist, some as individuals, but more as bus tours of factory groups enjoying the incentives of meeting quotas, for example. They have become a flash flood of humanity at the country’s key destinations of interest.

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.

Of the hundreds of different ethnic minorities that provide cultural diversity and a connection with the past, the Zhuang, Dong and Yao nationalities inhabit the hill villages around the terraces. The people still wear mostly traditional clothing (although their finery is worn for tourists and special occasions).

One such bucolic place are the Dragon’s Backbone rice terraces of Longsheng, resembling reptile scales, a nearby, but pleasant two-hour distance from Guilin, known for vertical karst-formation mountains. At the pinnacle of the tourist class are the Chinese photo groups that come to this area to record—for themselves, because heaven knows it has been done before—the geometric forms that wrap around the mountain slopes like topographic lines. Perhaps they represent the meticulous alteration of nature. Perhaps they celebrate the cycle of life as symbolized by the cycle of the rice harvest, the promise of the future. For thousands of years, the Chinese have been diligently cultivating their land, toiling endlessly in pursuit of critical harvests. This reliance on the land for so many thousands of years accounts for China’s strong rural essence. At Longsheng, there’s a palpable reverence for rice in a way that one wouldn’t expect to find tourists making a pilgrimage to, like the rolling wheat fields of North Dakota or the Corn Belt of the “I” states.

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.

We awoke early one misty morning to climb the last stages of stairs to the higher viewpoints in time for the rising sun, which never really broke out of the clouds except for one feeble and fleeting moment. We shared the wait with dozens of Chinese photographers, and to pass the time, we took note of their gear and methods. The majority of the men—and true to their gender if one is allowed that generalization—still used their Canons and large zooms, mounted on tripods like scopes or weapons pointed at targets. Only one woman employed her Nikon’s new-tech features, composing with the LCD, leveling with the digital horizon and triggering the shutter with an electronic release. She drew our attention, not only as a new adopter, but as an independent woman traveler in a new China.

As a commercial crop, the rice grown at Longsheng can no longer be sold at competitive prices because of the inefficiencies of farming such terrain. However, hosting and feeding tourists, artists and photographers have become a more lucrative source of income.

The Dong are a particular curiosity with their extraordinarily long hair, bolstered by extra extensions of their own growth. Today, they benefit greatly from the influx of tourist dollars and seldom pose without a price, or at least a sale of their trinkets and crafts.

Blending his father’s methodology with Rowell’s equipment, China is now especially fortunate. Working with a Nikon D800E and its 36-megapixel image files, he’s able to maintain the ease and portability of small cameras while creating big, bold images that easily outperform 35mm film. He’s venturing into what he calls “the realm of 4×5 quality.”

A Room With A View

Proof of Longsheng’s photographic importance is the Li-An Lodge or guesthouse built and operated by professional photographer Keren Su. The accommodations and enviable location prompt the question, “Where can I sign up for this gig?” He discovered this enchanted location during a photography trip in 1997, after which it took eight years to design and finish this traditional guesthouse just below the preferred photo vantage points. Access is only by a one-hour climb up winding stairs through Ping’an, with a stop for lunch including sticky rice cooked in bamboo over a fire.

For more information on Li-An Lodge, visit their website at

Special thanks to Asian Pacific Adventures ( for their expertise in setting up our tour to this extraordinary region in China.