China, the mystery of the Orient, and also its greatest paradox. The fastest growing economy in the world from history’s oldest civilization, whence steel and glass skylines are haloed by crumbling walls and well-heeled bankers rub shoulders with barefooted ethnic minorities.
The following series of photos, taken from my new book of photography CHINA: Portrait of a People, are what I personally consider the most beautiful sites of Old China; those remote villages that have yet to meet China’s wrecking ball; a proud people contented to proceed with their antediluvian customs as they have for five thousand years.
To be sure, villages such as Lijiang in Yunnan and Jiangsu’s Zhouzhuang are at once protected heritage sites and popular tour group destinations offering an accessible and attractive albeit faux look at traditional village life.
For a glimpse into China’s true history though, an excursion in the opposite direction from the crowds, off the proverbial beaten path, will reward the intrepid traveler with sites and experiences incomparable.
Overshadowed by the neon glare of Guangzhou, South China’s notorious capital city of concrete, crowds and crime, lost in the karst peaks of North Guangdong, 1,000 year-old Qian Nian Yao Zhai is the largest and oldest Yao minority village in the country. Over 7,000 red-turbaned Yao tribespeople once occupied the sloping stone and slate homes. However, poverty and generational differences have dramatically reduced the population to less than 200 residents, leaving the mountain village a perfectly preserved portrait of traditional Yao culture.
Nestled beneath the Wuling Mountains and overlooking the jade shoals of the Wu Jiang River, rustic Gongtan was founded in 200AD and is home to the region’s Tujia minority people. For centuries accessible only by boat, the Ming Dynasty-era estates are constructed entirely out of wood and perched on stilts against the steep palisades. Unfortunately, the 2,000 year-old architecture is fated for the pyres of modernization when the municipality’s local government will bulldoze the village this fall to build the Pengshui Hydro Power Plant. Visit while you can!
Langmusi, Gansu-Sichuan border (see first photo)
Historically, Sichuan used to be part of Kham Tibet and it wouldn’t be inconceivable to think that most Tibetans do not recognize the provincial boundaries of government-drawn maps nor the ethnic divisions of census bureaus. Located 3,000 meters atop the mountains of West China and directly on the Gansu-Sichuan border, Langmusi is a slat-board settlement and spiritual stopover for resplendent Tibetan Buddhist pilgrims come to worship at the Sezhi and Geerdeng monasteries. Despite the recent earthquakes in northern Sichuan province, Langmusi was blessed to remain unscathed and thusly one of the region’s last standing traditional villages.
West Fujian’s Hakka people, a subgroup of the Han, migrated to South China during the Qin Dynasty and, to protect themselves from hostile locals, ingeniously constructed clusters of circular, fortress-like homes directly out of the elements. The Tulou rammed-earth structures of Nanjing County span 4 stories and up to 40,000 square meters, housing up to one hundred residents apiece – the epitome of Chinese communal living.
With ethnic minorities maintaining over 40% of the provincial population, Guizhou is China’s least developed but arguable most attractive region. A constellation of uncharted settlements populate the mountains of South-East Guizhou, most notably the secluded Dong village of Zengchong. Surrounded by pyramid-like rice terraces and protected by a crystalline moat, the small islet supports 100 tightly-packed slat board residences and a three hundred year-old wooden drum tower. Master carpenters for centuries, the Dong have beyond a doubt constructed the most beautiful village in China.
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