Why are photographs of China so empty?

I look at images of China – my images of China – and I am amazed. I have travelled to some astoundingly beautiful places since I arrived 14 months ago. I have been incredibly lucky to have the time to get out of the city for long periods, and am privileged with visits from keen and experienced travellers eager to see China (and me). With my wonderful companions I have spent days at a vast number of the most famous of China’s “scenic spots”, as they are dubbed by travel agents and Chinese tourists alike.

At almost every one, there are huge crowds. Whether strolling the walkways of Hunan’s Zhangjiajie (supposedly the landscape that inspired the floating Hallelujah mountains of James Cameron’s Avatar), viewing the rainbow rocks of Zhangye, Gansu, climbing Huashan (flower mountain), or visiting the Terracotta Warriors of Xi’An, Shaanxi, the experience is similar. It is hard to find convenient transport from the nearest city, but once inside the national park (every tourist site is inside a national park or state-run area, so that it can be monitored and monetised) there will be no choice but to hop on (and, usually, pay for) regular buses between different areas within the park. And, unless you arrive before the masses get there (ie. at 8am), you will not meet a tranquil moment for the rest of the day.

The hustle and bustle of extended Chinese families on vacation – struggling up steps with small children and old people, shouting across aisles in buses full of people, music playing like theme tunes from young peoples’ smartphones and old peoples’ portable radios slung across their backs – hands-free technology! – can be intriguing, hilarious and absolutely unbearable. This is part of life in China. Just like the thousands of slow city bicycles, chronically late aeroplanes, people packing luggage into cheap plastic burlap sacks and queuing in perfect lines for trains only to crowd the door when they arrive. The crowds are part and parcel of life in China.

The thing is, the photos of these places have virtually no people in them. The vast majority of images of China’s famous places are utterly devoid of people, totally belying the morass of people out in droves at every scenic spot the country has to offer.

What on earth is going on there, then?

I think the pictures speak for themselves.

In a country of over 1.4 billion people, Chinese people are extremely used to living in close quarters. Apartments, schools, universities, and offices are small and overcrowded. People just ignore one another and shout over the people they do not know in order to be heard by the people they do. It seems socially acceptable to be rude to someone you do not know – you simply cannot be nice to everyone in the world, there are enough people whose opinions actually matter to give a sh*t about the rest of the country. To an outsider with a penchant for personal space, thoughtful behaviour and generosity, I often find this incredibly stressful and even depressing at times. But who am I to judge people for the inner workings of Chinese society?

Surprisingly, Chinese tourists don’t seem to want to get away from the crowds when they go on vacation. In fact, they follow the crowds in their visits to the major scenic spots. They get away from their home crowd only to be surrounded from an uncannily familiar crowd of strangers from other provinces. Sometimes they’ll be lucky enough to spot a foreign face in the crush of bodies, at which it seems acceptable to point, stare, and shout about to your own cohort. Few ever approach for a substantial ‘hello’.

The people I met were generous and kind, more often than not. Many of the pengyoumen I met while travelling were not able to speak more than a few sentences of English, and thus the conversation would dwindle as the bounds of my Chinese level were breached and my vocabulary fizzled out. Communication issues aside, they regularly offered food, refreshments, tours, assistance with transport officials and some took me out for dinner or home to meet their parents (the source of my daily dose of green tea is a box I was given by a young woman from Leshan, whom my mother and I met in May).

Perhaps more so than other tourists in China, I have photos with people in them. The crush of the crowds is what makes China Chinese. Without its 1.4 billion people, China would be a cultural wasteland of pristine mountains, lakes, rock formations and deserts. However hard they try to f*ck it up, the Chinese are the essence of China.

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