Five Villages near the Great Wall of China
Photographs and text by Mark Ray
Text and interviews by Xiao Xiangyi
Copyright 2014: Mark Ray and Xiao Xiangyi
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One grey morning during my second spell in Beijing – July 2013 to June 2014 – I was whingeing to a colleague, Roger Bradshaw, about the pollution. He told me he got away from it every weekend by going up into the mountains north of the city.
“The Great Wall is up there and there are trails all over the mountains. The air’s good. I go up there to clean out my lungs. You’d enjoy it. In one area I go to there’s a Ming walled village. They’re rare. You should come up some time.”
“Ming walled village” was enough for me. “Let me know next time you’re going.”
Roger had been doing these trips on and off for the 15 years he’d been in Beijing, sometimes with company, sometimes on his own. He’d been in China for 25 years, teaching at universities in the south before coming to the capital, first to work for Xinhua news agency then for China Daily.
From November 2013 to the end of May 2014, Roger and I spent 16 days in the back of a cab on the way to and from those mountains and the villages among them. Each weekend he hired the same taxi driver, Liu, to make the two-hour journey there and back. We left China Daily at 8am and usually returned by about 4pm. They felt like short visits, but I was in their hands and had to make the most of it.
Roger’s head was in the mountains, mine in the villages. I did a few treks with him and they were superb, but from the first time I walked into a village and was greeted by happy, elderly people, I wanted to spend time with them. Most days I’d get off at one of four villages and Roger would jog off into the distance. Liu and I would pick him up three hours later and head home.
My Chinese was as limited as Liu’s English and, after a while, the language problem became frustrating. It was restricting my access to these warm, open people who, as subsistence farmers, had lived through much of China’s tumultuous 20th century: the Japanese invasion and occupation in the 1930s and 40s, the civil war that followed World War II, the founding of New China under Mao Zedong (1949), the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) and the Great Famine it caused, the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and the reform and opening-up started by Deng Xiaoping in 1978.
Eventually I took a journalism student, Wen Jia, on one trip to be my interpreter for the day. At last I started to get some interesting information. From then on, a colleague from China Daily, Xiao Xiangyi, helped me. Xiangyi (Zoe was her English name) was from Jinzhou, Liaoning Province, and was genuinely interested in the history and culture of these villages.
We visited five villages, four in Huailai county in Hebei province. Hebei surrounds Beijing and the county border was about 90 kilometres northwest of the centre of the capital. Those villages were Zhenbiancheng, Hengling, Dayingpan and Fangkou. They were close together. The first two had been strategic posts, fortress villages, since the Ming Dynasty (1388-1644) because of their proximity to a section of the Inner Great Wall. Both were walled villages. The other two were smaller and off the main road. The fifth village, Yangcun (Yang Village), was just on the Beijing side of the Hebei border. We passed it on every trip and, one day, the sight of a wedding dragged us in for one of our most memorable days.
At first, I just walked through Zhenbiancheng and Hengling; sometimes with Liu, sometimes on my own. I had no plans and few expectations. I didn’t even learn the names of the villages until my third visit. I was just wandering around waiting for interesting things to come my way. That was what I did in Beijing on my days off.
But even on my first visit, in the cold of late November, I took photographs and realised that most villagers were at ease in front of my small, black camera. On subsequent visits I took back prints and this quickly established trust between me and the villagers.
The fact that I was living and working in Beijing meant that the villagers saw me as more than just a tourist poking a large, weapon-like camera in their faces and disappearing soon after. With every visit, the relationships developed until I was invited in for cups of tea or lunches as a familiar face. As Roger said whenever he saw a villager coming out to meet us, “Look out, here comes another lunch invitation. We’ll never get back to Beijing.” Even then, I wasn’t taking people’s names. I knew I couldn’t remember all of them anyway and not knowing them was to me a way of keeping things loose and open to chance.
With Zoe’s arrival as interpreter and “interviewer”, some of the villagers began to tell us their stories, and we gathered their names and ages. The relationships were deepening and growing in number as word spread about this Australian man taking portraits of people and even copying and restoring old family photos. Soon after that, as summer took hold, my second contract at China Daily was up and I had to return to Australia.
This project would not have happened without the warmth and openness of the villagers, Roger Bradshaw’s willingness to share his passion for getting out into the mountains and Zoe’s enthusiasm, easy manner with the old folks and excellent skills in interviewing, translating and writing.
Beijing, May 2014