China is a continent, for me, not a country. I vividly recall this realisation the moment I first flew over China in daylight. My airborne gaze spied a seemingly endless, craggy rock. It must have been some wild, western region. I do not recall the route of that Air France flight – was it Xinjiang region? or Qinghai? Sichuan? Perhaps not even ‘China’? Was it ‘Tibet’? I had glimpsed first sight of China, and I have been glimpsing China ever since.
The rock below was sandy and stark, marked by countless lines – rock falls, rivers, ravines? Either way, those visible lines called to mind a memorable passage, more of an image, conjured by the irrepressible Borges…
“A man sets out to draw the world. As the years go by, he peoples a space with images of provinces, kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fishes, rooms, instruments, stars, horses, and individuals. A short time before he dies, he discovers that the patient labyrinth of lines traces the lineaments of his own face.”
Beyond that ‘endless’ bedrock, the nation revealed itself all the way to Beijing… the browns of the bedrock beneath gave way to the greens of changeling geography and, eventually, the kaleidoscopic colour spectrum of man-made conurbations.
Innumerable experiences awaited me in the future cities and ancient heartlands of China: noisy, pungent, stark… From the tourist traps to travelling far off the beaten track. In travelling alongside Chinese nationals, other Asians, or with Europeans, to journeying solo… Through mountainous climbs to stand among the clouds, and back down through caves, to shadow the riverbeds… Experiencing moments of sheer wonder yet, in turn, staring into the bare-faced truth of a fresh, human death stumbled upon in the soft mulch of rural forest… I saw, heard, smelled, tasted, felt so much yet I have only glimpsed China.
One of my favourite ways to glimpse China from afar is to view as rangy a selection of photojournalism as possible. Hence the picture below that links to a short series of stark images about mental illness in China. It is tough subject matter to deal with in any sense, yet perhaps the largely wordless and entirely ‘still’ imagery of photojournalism make it an evocative, effective, emotive platform.
In fact the pictures – by young ‘visual journalist’ Yuyang Liu – won TIME’s photojournalism award for quality, young photographers. The winner’s imagery has real resonance with some of my experiences and sights and memories of China… also the pictures may speak to every viewer as a stark counter to the fact that we, usually, only ever see a sanitised glimpse of any place.
I am still glimpsing China: having spied it through the window of a plane, savoured many sensuous wonders, ‘dim sum’ style before crashing back down to Earth in witnessing death and abject poverty off the beaten track. If I am only ever able to skim the surface of China – dragonfly style – then that will have been utterly compelling. When the country in question can lay claim to a diversity, population and scale usually reserved for an entire continent, such glimpses can be enough.