The Dragon Wakes
Web series originaly published to 14 – 16 year old photography students investigating how text and imagry can work together.
The Dragon Wakes explores often sobering realities behind China’s global rise to fame, interacting with citizens whose ancestors helped galvanize a modern China, yet who rarely travel further than the borders of their province.
An Ancient Culture
One of the Earth’s oldest civilizations, the Chinese not only invented the compass and gunpowder but also printing and paper making, four resources that changed the course of global history. China has long housed a cocktail of sub-cultures, ethnic minorities and deep-rooted traditions that shed light on China’s past, present and future.
This ancient and often conservative culture still permeates through the high-rise cities of 21st century China. Ornate temples, grand palaces and narrow winding lanes interweave with glass sky scrapers, Ferraris and Starbucks with an uneasy elegance. Despite Mao’s best efforts his Red Guard were not able to destroy this resilient culture, indeed much of it remains today in one form or another.
Standing within the world’s second largest economy it is often surprising to see a more traditional way of life playing out alongside the modern. Elderly men whittle away the hours playing Mahjong, whilst women of all ages tend the paddy fields from dusk to dawn. These rural comrades contrast dramatically with the privately educated urbanites in sharp business suits rushing around the manic subway systems. China is a country of contrasts, and the class gaps within society are widening at an alarming rate.
Mao’s proclamation, ‘Women hold up half the sky’, aimed to highlight the importance of women’s role in the growth of society and over time there was an improvement in the position of women in Chinese society. However, in a country where gender roles remain strong, there is little room for maneuver for either men or women. Workplaces are commonly reported to be rife with sexism, racism and ageism with few avenues for petition.
The beauty of China’s natural environment is awe-inspiring; whether it’s the peaks of the Himalayas or the endless sand of the Gobi Desert, the contrast with the industrial, high-rise buildings of the east coast is remarkable.
As one travels west across China, you’ll notice that populations and infrastructure become sparse. As the terrain becomes more challenging you can travel for miles without seeing a soul, a strange phenomenon in a country with over 1.3 billion people!
A Resilient Workplace
People are arguably China’s greatest asset; 1.3 billion reasons that attracted foreign investment and began to drive the cogs of this giant powerhouse in the 1980s under the rule of Deng Xiaoping. Families are often separated for months or years at a time as the younger generation migrate to the cities in search of better paid jobs, in what is the largest migration of humans in modern history.
Not everyone works in the relatively high-tech factories of the east coast. Many rural dwellers live and work in conditions that have changed very little over the centuries. In these rural areas the remaining family, young and very old, have to come together to help bring in a living income.
A Change of Pace?
The Chinese not only invented the compass and gunpowder but also printing and paper making, four resources that changed the course of global history. Things looked up for this oriental powerhouse until various western factions interviened on behalf of far off monarchs with their eyes on China’s assets. Its not been an easy ride since.
Although China’s building at an unprecentdented rate, the ancient and often conservative culture still permeates through the high-rise cities of the 21st century orient. Ornate temples, grand palaces and narrow winding lanes interweave with glass sky scrapers, Ferraris and Starbucks with an uneasy elegance.
The Great Push
There is a saying between construction workers in Tianjin that ‘for every crane you see there have been an average of 40 deaths on that building site’, the more cranes the more deaths. From the 20th floor of our apartment block in southern Tianjin we spot at least 35 cranes peering out from the smoggy air, their little red lights blinking in the dusk and long metal arms drifting slowly from one side to the other. 1,400 people dead. Whilst this number may well be an exaggeration, the message that it sends is unequivocal; the rapid construction, lack of health and safety laws alongside site managers unwilling to put the safety of their workers ahead of profit is killing men and women.
With the industrial development of China’s eastern seaboard we have watched old environments destroyed while new ones built at an incredible pace. The demand for concrete is now so severe that billionaires are created overnight just for suppling the government agencies with enough water and sand to continue this ‘progress’.
Trillion Dollar Tourism
“80 percent of domestic Chinese tourists are in 20 percent of the places”, states the guide book. The famous destinations are notoriously crowded as internal tourism has grown rapidly over the past 15 years. However, in order to escape the suffocating crowds, a short walk away from the main site can often offer surprising relief.
If one hopes to take a quiet break on the national holidays then one can think again; the national holidays are the busiest – during the Golden Week holiday in October 2013 Macau was the most densely populated place on earth! This drive by the central government to increase domestic tourism has boosted GNP and there is no sign of a slow down; municipalities battle one another for this lucrative market in an attempt to reach their astronomically high quarterly targets set by central government. China is pitching provinces against each other in order to take advantage of the growing wealth of the middle class.
The Battle For The Future
China’s economy is set to become the world’s largest within the decade, however political change has not kept pace with economic growth and China’s relationship with classic world powers has, at times, been strained. Ensuring China’s rise is a peaceful one is, perhaps, the greatest challenge of this time and thankfully China appears to be taking its place in the global village with grace. Mostly. Xi Jinping will not let this experiment fail.