Li Ju shows life in China familiarly

Thursday October 11, 2012

The mountains behind Yihe Town are sandy, dry and terraced to the summit with fields. A hundred years ago, did Mount Greylock look like this, when the sheep pastures and charcoal kilns had stripped it of trees?

The man behind the camera in Yihe Town stands at the top of a sidewalk that slopes to red pagoda roofs. A bridge crosses the Yellow River. The sun shines on apartment buildings set into the hillside and on the new railway station. But as he takes his photograph, Li Ju thinks of the town 100 years before, when the stream ran clear. He looks down at the trash heaped along the cement wall that hems in the water, and he feels sad.

Li has taken photographs along the route that Sterling Clark traveled, and photographed, between 1908 and 1909. The Clark Art Institute has honored that expedition, and their exhibit of Chinese art will continue through Oct. 21. They also have the book Li has written to gather his own photographs. He tells the story of his search for Clark’s route. (Pages 124 to 127 take him to Yihe Town.)

Li meets people along the way -- a folksinger, school children, women working in the fields, a calligrapher, a postman on a motorcycle, a dancer with an umbrella leading a wedding ceremony. He writes with the detail and intimacy of a newspaper columnist. He is full of curiosity and spontaneous kindness, like a neighbor helping to rake leaves.

And he has written me one of the most thoughtful responses I have ever received. When I wrote a story recently about the Clark’s summer shows, I wrote to Li. We talked by email because of the distance, and because I speak no Chinese, and he speaks a little English, the Clark helped to translate. His response reached me after that magazine had gone to press, and so I will print it here. He can tell you far better than I can how it feels to walk through Yihe Town.

Li Ju, thank you. I am reading your book, and I wish I could talk with all of these people.


Li Ju wrote to the Eagle:

Thanks for your email. I’m very glad to respond to the questions. I can express my ideas clearly by Chinese.

I feel a deep gratitude towards Mr. Sterling Clark and his expedition team. Due to their meticulous pursuit for the scientific spirit and their curiosity to explore the unknown, the crew left behind precious photographic documents, through a peaceful, humane, detailed observation and documentation of the people, nature and history of the Loess Plateau. It’s a region in which westerners have seldom set foot, of which rare documentations survived. I was fortunate enough to discover the precious treasure that the Clark expedition has left behind, having traced their routes multiple times, and moreover to have my work to be admired and exhibited by the Clark Institute. As Clark’s story becomes more and more known in both China and the United States, I believe that the cultural exchange between the two countries will go up a whole level.

When I take photographs of the different locations, I constantly made comparisons of the sceneries in front of me and the pictures Clark had taken, eventually confirming the shooting position from a hundred year ago, figuring out the equivalent focal length of the camera Clark used and the 135 camera used today. I had to analyze and find out when the expedition team passed through a certain location, the specific lighting angle in a day, the best combination of season and lighting angle. Due to the high cost of taking a photograph at that time (a lot different from using a digital camera now), the crew had to be extremely careful and prudent in pressing the shutter each time. In this way, I would get excited every time I discover a location for the old photographs, thoroughly enjoying the pleasure and learning a lot at the same time. It felt extraordinary whenever I pondered over the Clark team’s actual circumstances at each location, as if I was having a conversation with them.

Two aspects of taking those photographs moved me the most: one being the unchanging sights -- two being the altered appearances and spirits of the people. For example the sceneries by the Yellow River have had little changes over the past hundred years. The Yellow River is a totem in Chinese culture, so it staying the same symbolizes the continuity and heritage of Chinese culture. Other photographs that bring me great emotion are the ones spread across pages 120 to 123 of "Through Shen-Kan: Revisiting Loess Plateau." The sweeping changes taking place of the people living on such barren land immensely move me. Barely-dressed children and sorrowful faces can no longer be found.

When shooting human subjects, I would try my best to capture the essential instant. However, in most rural areas, people still cringe unnaturally at cameras, not unlike what it was like a hundred year ago. But I gained a lot of experience working with people. For example, giving out a cigarette when chatting with men could shorten the distance between us; bringing toys and stationary when meeting with students and children could help me ease down tension, break down barriers and make friends more easily, facilitating the shooting process. They would treat me as part of their family after I bring them developed pictures that are carefully chosen.

Of course there were also many changes that made me sad. One is that many exquisite buildings from hundreds of years ago have disappeared. Although natural causes have played a part, most of it is caused by human interventions and destructions, the saddest part being p88-91 from the book. Two is that explosion of population and the increasing rapidity of industrialization have led to deteriorations of the environment. If you compare the pictures in pages 124 to 127 from the book, you will see that the rivers from one hundred year ago must have been clear and full of life, but they have stopped flowing and been contaminated, and thus have lost their fish population. So much human waste has accumulated in the river course in the last picture, that our living conditions are being threatened. Every time I look in the eyes of the woodpecker from p106, my heart breaks because it is clearly accusing humans for destroying its habitat.

Humans are bound to take wrong turns in the course of development, but I also see hope within. For example, the impacts of the one child policy are clearly visible; the conversion of farmlands into forests has helped the ecosystem recover; the rural compulsory education has been widely applied so that illiteracy is almost wiped out; people are starting to realize the consequences of environmental damages and are trying to improve.

My comparison shots and the publicity given to the Clark expedition have achieved unexpected results. For example, ecologists could compare the vegetation changes over the past one hundred years, the ongoing process of desertification, and the conditions of soil erosion; experts of objects conservation could use Clark’s photographs as a basis and evidence for architectural restoration. One village even wanted to immortalize the Clark expedition by sculpting one of Clark’s photographs onto a stone panel. I made use of this opportunity and encouraged the local officials to reinforce environmental protection. They took my advice into consideration and hoped to see changes in the future.

I have often felt rigors, monotony and dangers when shooting along Clark’s expedition trails on the Loess Plateau for the past few years. However, it was with perseverance that I again and again encountered Sterling Clark and his men, felt touched and experienced joy, and was filled with strength. En route, I saw things that have either changed or stayed the same?I saw disappointment and hope, cracks and continuity. My small deed aims to commemorate the heroic act of the Clark expedition, and to open a gateway for cultural exchanges among the people?for the long-term benefits and collaboration of China and the United States, just like what Michael Conforti said: "This is only the beginning."


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