The four-wheel drive stopped in the compound. Through the tinted windows I could see a fearsome dog straining at its chain and baying at the vehicle. Its fur was the same muddy yellow color as the sandy soil beneath its feat and the packed earth walls of the farmhouse buildings. A rickety wooden door in one of the walls opened slowly, as if commanded by a magic cipher, and a woman stepped out. She was the same shape and color as a boiled potato, and she motioned for us to come inside. We filed into the central hall and were served lunch.
I was in a village in Inner Mongolia, a huge autonomous region that forms a large part of China’s north, which wraps around the People’s Republic of Mongolia (often confused with the latter autonomous region). Landscapes range from craggy mountains, swathes of grassland, and alpine forests. For three years I lived in the western part of the vast region, which is dominated by the Kubuqi and Ordos deserts, and the formidable expanse of the Gobi desert has its periphery here as well. For centuries it was a backwater of the Qing Empire, a string of lonely forts and outposts guarding the imperial frontiers, but this would change after the Communists won the civil war. The unlovely mining town that I lived in, Baotou, was developed with assistance from the Soviet Union in both urban planning and heavy industry. It is now a major steel producing center in northern China.
I had taken a trip out of Baotou that day with a local friend of mine, Sun Jing. She had spent her childhood on the frigid plains of Shenyang province, but the explosive growth of the steel industry in Baotou had convinced her family to relocate there to work in the immense refinery now located on the edge of town. When she became of working age, Sun Jing proceeded to spend 30 years working in a munitions factory. Eventually years of monotonous labor were rewarded with a sizable military pension, and she was able to pursue her passion for painting. This weekend I had been invited to see one of her artist friend’s latest endeavors: a statue of the Han-dynasty princess Wang Zhaojun. Renowned for her beauty, the princess was married off to a chieftain of the Xiongnu, a warlike tribal people who incessantly harried the Han frontiers. Satisfied with his new bride, the chieftain made peace with the Han, and for this reason the story is celebrated in Inner Mongolia. I found it slightly distasteful to celebrate what was essentially treating a woman as a political bargaining chip, but the parallel universe of official Communist Party mythology is a strange place. (Another example: Genghis Khan, who lead a rampaging army into China, is celebrated as a national unifier.)
I stepped out of a gate along the compound wall onto the banks of the Yellow River. The statue of the princess stood on an unceremonious dark yellow mound of a hill, about five meters tall and cast in solemn grey stone. She gazed over the Yellow River, northward, away from the civilization of her ancestors and toward the one she had been bartered into.
“The gate price is fifty yuan,” the gatekeeper, another weathered looking woman, said. The potential of this place as a tourist destination seemed to have been overestimated.
“But we’re the artists,” a member of our party protested. “We helped build the statue.”
“All right, fine, but the laowai needs to pay.” The woman pointed at me.
“Oh that’s quite all right,” I said. “I’ll just have a look around the village.”
Laughter emitted from the group of artists, the kind that is deployed in China as a smokescreen to cover a massive loss of face; the foreign guest had no interest in seeing their work up close. This was a blunder I had made many times in China: committing egregious pragmatic errors with my Australian bluntness and clumsily trying to repair it post hoc.
“The statue is really nice,” I offered lamely.
“Thank you,” they replied, crestfallen.
I left them and walked toward the banks of the mighty river, mud oozing between the toes of my sandals. At this point I could only see a stretch of marshy undulations, covered with reeds. A solitary wooden shack in the distance had been unwisely erected on a soggy protrusion of earth. Nearby, on firmer ground, someone had inexplicably established a park for games of laser tag. The ill-conceived entrepreneurial spirit behind the place had vanished, leaving a cobwebbed kiosk in its wake. The grounds of the laser tag course were overgrown, haunted by memories of hyperactive children.
I continued to skirt the statue, nearing the outskirts of the village. A mudflat yawned in front of me, and I gingerly picked my way over an archipelago of stones and soft patches of ground. A tumbleweed had come to rest here, uncharacteristically inert in the middle of a murky puddle.
The village was slowly being consumed by the dreadful eastward march of the Gobi desert, a desert that is expanding so quickly that it causes sandstorms as far away as South Korea. The village was a panorama of neglect. I walked past rows of farmhouses, their adobe walls flaking and ornate door frames splintering and sagging. The earth beneath them was softening into the rows of sand dunes that can be seen to the south and west of Baotou. The village seemed half abandoned; the remaining inhabitants were the very old and the very young. This was a sight I had seen many times in rural China: the able bodied had left, either for the coal mines or for a dismal job as an undocumented internal migrant, working for meager pay in the factories of Beijing and Tianjin.
I thought of Hiroshi Teshigahara’s surreal and disturbing film, Woman in the Dunes, where the protagonist is abducted by villagers and forced to shovel encroaching sand dunes away from their doomed village. Even though most of these villages had cut their losses and left, the desert would still reach them eventually.
When I showed these images to local Chinese friends, they were baffled. Why had I decided to take photos of decrepit farmhouses when the majesty of the Yellow River was just over the horizon? At first I felt guilty: why indeed had I decided to do that? Wasn’t I just being incredibly voyeuristic toward the plight of people eager to escape grinding rural poverty? But then I felt indignant: why couldn’t I take photos of these places? Didn’t they find them compelling at all? I felt like I was capturing a facet of the Chinese experience that would be completely gone in little over a decade, when villages of crumbling adobe would be covered over with bland apartment blocks.
The images grated against what they had been taught in political education classes; against the necessity of a rapidly modernizing China, symbols of a poor, backward past. When I posted these images on my Weibo account (a Chinese equivalent of Twitter), one of my students commented: “lao cun cun, huai fang fang,” meaning roughly “old village, crappy buildings.” The tragedy of the village in the dunes was compelling not only because it was a victim of socio-economic upheaval, ideological conceit, and environmental catastrophe. A way of life, an entire community was literally being consumed by the ground beneath it.
My name drifted to me through the air, English consonant clusters distorted by Mandarin syllables. Sun Jing was waving to me from the top of the hill. I jumped a rickety fence and began to climb toward the stone princess. As I gained altitude the Yellow River revealed itself to me on the horizon, a ribbon glimmering in the afternoon sun.