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‘The Yellow River: China’s Mythical River and Human Interventions’ by Photographer Zhang Kechun

In 2010, Chinese photographer Zhang Kechun set off on his fold-up bicycle to spend two years photographing China’s legendary Yellow River. During his river odyssey, Zhang would travel for a month at a time, lugging around a large-format Linhof camera. Not wanting to rush the project, he sometimes would not take a single picture for an entire week.

Fisherman wading in the Yellow River near Xiaxi.
Fisherman wading in the river near Xiaxi. (Image: Zhang Kechun)

In an interview with Time MagazineZhang said:

“I wanted to photograph the river respectfully, it represents the root of the nation.”

After the Yangzte River, the Yellow River is China’s second largest river and is approximately 3,400 miles long. It runs through nine provinces and empties into the Bohai Sea, just south of Beijing. The Yellow River has been the inspiration for many poets and artists.

The Yellow River: ‘Cradle of Chinese Civilization’

The legendary river is known as the “Cradle of Chinese Civilization,” much in the same way as the River Nile is to the Egyptian people. During times of destructive flooding, it is nicknamed “China’s Sorrow.”

White deer beside a cooling tower, Inner Mongolia.
White deer beside a cooling tower, Inner Mongolia. (Image: Zhang Kechun)

Zhang Kechun is a professional artist based in Chengdu, China. He was born in 1980 in Sichuan Province, where he began painting as a child. After he studied art and design, he worked in Chengdu as a designer before developing an interest in photography.

Zhang won the National Geographic Picks Global Prize in 2008 and the 2014 Arles Photo Festival Discovery Award. His work was also prominently displayed at the 2013 Beijing Photo Biennial.

For this series, Zhang preferred to photograph on overcast days, overexposing the images and giving them a soft, pastel look. While it wasn’t his intention to document the effects of pollution, he decided to include it, along with images of industrial development, which caused the project to take on a new meaning.

Two men taking photographs by the Yellow River in Gansu.
Two men taking photographs by the Yellow River in Gansu. (Image: Zhang Kechun)

While much of the river has been adversely affected by pollution and industrial development, Zhang was able to still pay homage to it by conveying its gentleness and sense of beauty through his camera lens.

Zhang explained to Time Magazine that he intentionally juxtaposed the river against people who appeared rather small in comparison to instil a feeling of hope for the future of the river, stating:

“The power of humans is nothing compared to the power of nature, even when we try to change it.”

Yellow River in the middle of the mountains, Gansu.
The Yellow River in the middle of the mountains, Gansu. (Image: Zhang Kechun)

Zhang has another beautiful photo series entitled Between the Mountains and the Waterwhere he follows groups of local tourists as they visit various mountains and rivers in China. This series also shows the rapid effects of modernization on the environment. Chinese culture contains a deeply ingrained belief that “mountains are virtuous, rivers are moral.”

Chinese culture contains a deeply ingrained belief that ‘mountains are virtuous, rivers are moral’

Zhang noted that Chinese culture contains a deeply ingrained belief that “mountains are virtuous, rivers are moral.” He wanted to capture that belief, as well as the natural beauty of China’s mountains and rivers despite them being altered by human intervention.

People painting a house in the middle of the river in Gansu
People painting a house in the middle of the river in Gansu. (Image: Zhang Kechun)
Construction of a high-speed rail bridge in Xiaxi
Construction of a high-speed rail bridge in Xiaxi. (Image: Zhang Kechun)
A group of people exercising under a dragon sign in Gansu Province.
A group of people exercising under a dragon sign in Gansu Province. (Image: Zhang Kechun)
A man doing his morning exercises under a bridge, in China.
A man doing his morning exercises under a bridge, Ningxia. (Image: Zhang Kechun)
Fake hill in the middle of a lake, Shandong.
Fake hill in the middle of a lake, Shandong. (Image: Zhang Kechun)

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  • Jessica writes about films, and occasionally gets to direct them. Music, photography, art, poetry, reading and travel are pretty good too. She has a love of silent films, they are the closest she will ever get to "time travel."

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