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Photographer Captures Tibetans with Passion

For years, Beijing-based photographer Hong Xing has had an obsession with Tibetan people and culture.

"My innate desire to travel far and escaping from my home has taken me in the journeys to unknown destinations. It has become part of my way of life, visiting the areas where Tibetan communities live," she said.

And "Hong Xing," whose real name is Zhang Yonghong, has become a household name in Yushu Tibet Autonomous Prefecture, in northwest China's Qinghai Province.

In her new book The Last Soil Unspoiled: My Love Letters to Yushu (Zuihou de Tiantang) she shares with readers her intriguing experiences in remote Tibetan communities.

In five parts, the book chronicles in simple but humorous language five of Hong Xing's unforgettable trips to Yushu since 1998. The stories are accompanied by at least 200 original color photographs.

In the preface to the book, Losong Dawa, governor of Yushu Prefecture, writes: "Photographer Hong Xing impresses me so much. She loves my people as deeply as I do. She brings about great joy to us. She is more than a close friend of ours. Through her efforts, more and more people home and abroad have learnt about the long ignored beauty of Yushu."

The book, published by Encyclopedia of China Publishing House is due to hit bookstores early next month.

Escaping from madness

"I was brought up in a common Chinese city. But from an early age, I have always dreamt of exploring places I do not know," said Hong Xing, 36, an art director at the Chinese Musicians Audio and Visual Publishing House.

"I am often bored of urban life. Living in the big cities like Beijing, the pace of life is fast and people's relationships are complicated. My heart is always yearning for an escape from the familiar, limited space and the boredom of urban living."

She has long cherished a keen interest in ethnic cultures, particularly the Tibetan culture.

During the mid-1990s, she traveled extensively to ethnic communities in the provinces and autonomous regions of Yunnan, Sichuan, Qinghai, Xinjiang, and Tibet.

To satisfy her thirst for traveling and exploring, Hong Xing chose to become a visual artist.

Hong Xing is a graduate of the College of Photography of the Beijing Film Academy. In 1996, she earned a Master's degree of Visual Art of the Queensland College of Art, Griffith University, Australia.

"Wherever I go, I go with a camera, a video camera and a notepad," she said.

Over the past decade, she has reportedly set foot on almost all Tibetan communities in and outside the Tibet Autonomous Region. Since 1998, she has visited Yushu at least once a year.

With a population of about 270,000, 96 per cent Tibetans, Yushu sits high on the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in the southern corner of Qinghai.

"Yushu is called by many the 'water-tank of the world'," said Hong Xing, as the Yellow, Yangtze and Lancang rivers all start in this area and carve deep valleys out of the plateau as they make their way towards distant seas.

Grassland makes up most of the prefecture. The huge and empty plains stretch for hundreds of kilometers. Most of the population lives in small villages and towns along the river valleys and near the snow-capped mountains.

The Yushu Tibet Autonomous Prefecture consists of six counties, namely Yushu, Chindu, Nangqen, Dzatod, Dritod, and Qumarleb.

A culturally diverse area where Tibetan, Hui, Tu, Salar, Mongolian and Han people live, Yushu is at least 4,000 meters above sea level and boasts a diversified geography and plentiful natural resources.

"I visited Yushu before I saw the Potala Palace in Lhasa," she explained. "I strongly believe that Yushu bears a strong flavor of ethnic culture, especially Tibetan culture."

Hong Xing, well-known among professional photographers for her photo series of Tibetan people and landscapes, has many followers.

She has held a couple of photo shows and given lectures on Tibetan culture and people in Beijing, Brisbane and Sydney over the past few years.

She organized a photo tour to Yushu in 2002. Stories about her Tibetan experiences often appear on travel, fashion and lifestyle magazines and newspapers.

However, "too often my photos are misunderstood and misinterpreted by trend-seeking readers. I do not mean to cater to people's curiosity about ethnic people and their 'exotic' way of living," she said.

"Before I take a series of photos, I reach out to make friends with local people though I speak very little Tibetan. I never sneak a photo when people are unaware of my camera. I take photos with my heart."

Before shooting the photo essay about Padma Lhamo, a 25-year-old Tibetan woman in Jielong Township, 76 kilometers to the northwest of Jyekundo, capital of Yushu Tibet Autonomous Prefecture, Hong Xing paid several visits to her home, lived in her village and became a close friend to her.

The unmarried young woman, appearing on the cover of Hong Xing's book, leads a simple life with two babies she had with former lovers.

"At first, I thought she must have had hatred or regret about her lovers. I even sympathized with this woman jilted by her cold-hearted lovers. But I was wrong," Hong Xing recalled. The Tibetan woman was content with her life.

"Only when you got close to her heart, could you really see how she feels about her life and her love. Compared with women like me, she obviously possesses a more relaxed and easier attitude towards hardships and setbacks in life. There are cultural differences. But I believe I understand her now," Hong Xing explained.

During her stay in Yushu, Hong Xing made good friends with local people from all walks of life including drivers, farmers, workers, folk dancers, singers, legendary storytellers, monks and nuns, and even more than 100 "living Buddha’s."

But she is more willing to mention her intimate relationship with 300 villagers and a dozen nuns in the nearby Khango Nunnery, in the Chamzo Village of Nangqen County in Yushu.

As there was no photo shop in the village in 1998, Hong Xing offered to take single portraits and group photos of all the local people. When she returned to Beijing, Hong Xing developed hundreds of portrait photos and mailed them back to the villagers.

"Average Tibetans there rarely have a chance to have their own photos taken. So the photos mean a lot to them and their families. For most villagers, my photos are the only photos in their life," explained Hong Xing.

Hong Xing says every time she is going to take photos for the people in the mountainous village, "everyone is smiling. They are so happy that they rush to put on their best clothes and adornments as if they are preparing for a festival."

"The photo session has become a set program since then. It's just like shooting photos for my relatives who are far away from Beijing," she said proudly.

Publicizing Yushu

With her increasingly close contact with Tibetan culture, she has kept rethinking her lifestyle in a modern society and has found so much in common with local people.

"Finally, I regard myself an integral part of Yushu -- my Tibetan home," she said.

A devoted Tibetan Buddhist believer, Hong Xing has been granted the title of "Daughter of the Sacred Mountain Gatojowo," by the Silkar Monastery of the Gelugpa Sect in Chenduo County, and has been appointed as honorary director of the Khango Nunnery in Nangchen County of Yushu.

"The friendship and trust from my Tibetan friends are the most precious gifts in my life. So I am always asking myself what can I do for them, and for their hometown. I will try my best to introduce Yushu to the outside world," she said.

Over the past years, she has published many articles and photo essays. Most of her photo series and documentaries are about Tibetan culture, living Buddhas, historical routes and heritage.

In July 2003, Hong Xing invited three Tibetan nuns from the Khango Tibetan Buddhist Nunnery in Nangqen County of Yushu, to her Beijing home. The three nuns stayed in Beijing for seven months.

Besides their daily praying and sutra reciting sessions, the Tibetan nuns learned about housekeeping and healthcare. They went shopping, read newspapers and magazines, chatted with visiting guests in simple Chinese phrases.

Hong Xing said she hoped the nuns would return home with more knowledge of healthcare, knowledge they might be able to share with other nuns.

In the rural Tibetan areas of Yushu, a lack of healthcare information has caused many illnesses and even unnecessary deaths, she explained.

This is one of the things she discovered in her many trips which have made her more than just an observer of Tibetan culture but an integral part of many communities. "By chance and maybe a stroke of luck, I became a professional photographer known for my Tibetan photos," Hong Xing said. "But still I know too little about Tibetan culture. Culture is not just something to talk about, to write about, or to study about. For a certain group of people, culture is simply their way of life," said Hong Xing.

"What I am doing is show people a different way of life, give them a chance to ponder over the richness and many possibilities of human existence," she said.

Hong Xing wrote in her book: "I love the land just like my dream lover; I yearn for the land just like my endeared family.

"I can not wait to see my folks up there. I miss my Tibetan friends, their tents, their yaks, the blue sky, the white clouds, the stones, and the grass and flowers."

(China Daily December 9, 2004)

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