Text & photos by Tom Carter
China, the mystery of the Orient, and also its greatest paradox. The fastest growing economy in the world from history’s oldest civilization, where steel and glass skylines are haloed by crumbling walls and well-heeled bankers rub shoulders with barefooted ethnic minorities.
The country is amidst one of the most rapid transformations in its vast history, what this author calls the Change Dynasty, yet also remains a veritable kingdom of the ancients.
During my 2-year, 35,000 mile journey to all 33 provinces and autonomous region in the People’s Republic, I have been blessed to visit both the gleaming metropolises of China’s future and the sepia toned remnants of its past.
The following series of photos, taken from my coffee table 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, and 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.
But for a glimpse into China’s true history, an excursion in the opposite direction from the crowds, off the proverbial beaten path, will reward the intrepid traveler with sites and experiences incomparable.
5) QIAN NIAN YAO ZHAI, Liannan Yao Autonomous County, Guangdong
Overshadowed by the neon glare of Guangzhou, South China’s notorious capital city of concrete, crowds and crime, and 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.
4) GONGTAN, Youyang Tujia-Miao Autonomous County, Chongqing
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!
3) LANGMUSI, Gansu-Sichuan border
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.
2) TIANLUOKENG, Fujian
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.
1) ZENGCHONG, Miao-Dong Autonomous Prefecture, Guizhou
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.
Travel photographer Tom Carter (1973) was born and raised in the City of San Francisco and graduated with a degree in Political Science from the American University in Washington, D.C. Following a political career with a number of high-profile state and national campaigns, Tom decided to “peek over the fence” and subsequently spent 18 months backpacking down the length of Mexico, Cuba and Central America. Tom later spent one year in Japan, one year in India, and four years in the People’s Republic of China, travelling extensively throughout the country’s 33 provinces and autonomous regions. The result was his first book, CHINA: Portrait of a People, hailed as the most comprehensive book of photography on modern China ever published by a single author.
Visit Tom Carter’s homepage. You can purchase China: Portrait of a People on Amazon. Like CHINA on Facebook. See China Daily reviews on CHINA: Portrait of a People here. See more of Tom’s photos of China on YouTube (a must see!).