Pictured: A man pumping water from the river, Ningxia province. (Photo: Zhang Kechun)
Chengdu-based photographer Zhang Kechun spent two years photographing from the banks of China’s Yellow River. Though the lunar tones and low horizons feel foreboding, Zhang insists the photos carry a message of hope. See the project on LightBox.
Images from the 2010 “The Yellow River” project by Chengdu-based photographer Zhang Kechun 张克纯 (b. 1980), where he walked upstream westward from the estuary of the river, through Henan, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Inner Mongolia, Ningxia, Gansu, and Sichuan, towards its source near the Bayan Har Mountain in Qinhai. He spent two years along the banks of the Yellow River, traveling on a fold-up bicycle and lugging a large format Linhof camera, and while he started off wanting to photograph his ideal of the river, his photographs document its environmental destruction. He chose cloudy, gloomy days to shoot and overexposed his photos to give a stillness and otherworldly feel. For Zhang:
“While along the way, the river from my mind was inundated by the stream
of reality. The river, which once was full of legends, had gone and
disappeared. This is kind of my profound pessimism. Nevertheless, as a
vast country with a long history, its future is always bright. There is a
descent in the matrix; there is her own nutrition to feed her babies;
there is the power of creation to cultivate them strongly. The weak
moaning finally will be drowned by the shout for joy. From this point of
view, it seems, all shall be optimistic.
Humans have been changing Chinese environment for 3,000 years
For thousands of years, Mother Nature has taken the blame for tremendous human suffering caused by massive flooding along the Yellow River, long known in China as the “River of Sorrow” and “Scourge of the Sons of Han.”
Now, new research from Washington University in St. Louis links the river’s increasingly deadly floods to a widespread pattern of human-caused environmental degradation and related flood-mitigation efforts that began changing the river’s natural flow nearly 3,000 years ago.
“Human intervention in the Chinese environment is relatively massive, remarkably early and nowhere more keenly witnessed than in attempts to harness the Yellow River,” said T.R. Kidder, PhD, lead author of the study and an archaeologist at Washington University. Read more.
The Yellow River (黄河) is often called the cradle of Chinese civilization as its basin - specifically, the Wei River Valley - was the birthplace of ancient Chinese civilizations and the most prosperous region in early Chinese history. However, frequent devastating floods and course changes produced by the continual elevation of the river bed, sometimes above the level of its surrounding fields has also earned it the unenviable names “China’s Sorrow” and “Scourge of the Sons of Han”.
Nevertheless Zhang Kechun seems to question what this sacred river represents nowadays: is it really a foster-mother? A root? Or a mere river that became iconic thanks to popular culture? Zhang unveils the Yellow River’s beauty and contradictions, its contrasts, its colours, its rapids, its stillness, its solemnity, but also its danger for a single flood would destroy countless crops and cause thousands of casualties. In that sense, Zhang’s photos are an outcry over the disruptions in the natural environment, which is constantly facing the “torrent of modernization” as he says.
Chinese Nationalist Army soldiers during the 1938 Yellow River flood.
The Chinese, in a failed attempt to halt the advancing Japanese Army, flooded the river, causing great destruction to crops in 3 provinces, and hundreds of towns and villages.