Why did Zhang Kechun travel along the Yellow River?

Zhang Kechun - A Buddha Head in the Mountain, 2015
Zhang Kechun – A Buddha Head in the Mountain, 2015

About the Yangtze, China’s Yellow River

The Yangtze River, Asia’s longest river, is the main subject of The Yellow River, a series of photographs by Zhang Kechun. The Yangtze is praised as the cradle of Chinese evolution owing to the central function it played in the civilization of ancient China. Paradoxically, the river is also referred to as China’s sorrow, based on the ferociousness of the river during flooding season.

Kechun’s initial motivation

For many years, the matriarch river of the Chinese nation has been cited in various writings of poets and artists, and it, therefore, comes as no surprise that Chengdu-based photographer Zhang Kechun took it upon himself to photograph the river. As a young boy, Zhang had read about the river, and he understood its significance as a pertinent symbol of the Chinese nation. On this, he says, “I wanted to photograph the river respectfully,” “It represents the root of the nation.

Zhang’s two year journey

Having spent two years at the bank of the river, Zhang formed an affinity for it. Not only was he taking his time capturing its essence, but he also acted as a sort of tour guide to tourists that visited the region. The end result of his 2-year labor is an expansive portfolio that has the essence of a pilgrimage. He manages to expertly capture the silent moments of the Yellow River and the expansive gray skies that nearly envelop every corner of the landscape. The photographs emit a stillness that is almost wraithlike and transient. His pictures also include the people within the landscape as well as classical relics he found along his photography journey.

Photographer Zhang Kechun portrait
Portrait of Zhang Kechun

Pollution and ecological destruction of the Yellow River

The photographs also expose the environmental destruction that has come with contemporary living. According to Zhang, the purpose of his artistic pilgrimage was not to reveal the ecological destruction of the Yellow River but he ran into so much pollution that to fail to capture it would have been negating the truth and the essence of the photographs. “I started off wanting to photograph my ideal of the river, but I kept running into pollution,” he said. “I realized that I couldn’t run away from it and that I didn’t need to run away from it ”, says Zhang.

The severed head of Buddha

A Buddha statue was thrown in the middle of a coal mining plant. The area is surrounded by mines and coal, and there is a temple in the mountain. A coal mine owner built a golden statue of a dozen meters. The Buddha’s head of at least 5 meters, big and heavy, was broken. Because of Buddha’s concept of people, no one wants to smash it and throw it away, so it stands in the coal factory.

Zhang Kechun - Buddha in Coal Yard, Ningxia Province, 2011
Zhang KechunBuddha in Coal Yard, Ningxia Province, 2011

Conclusion

Although the project has overcast and foreboding undertones, he hopes to spread a message of hope to his Chinese counterparts; that regardless of how much change the world undergoes, some things like nature and the Yellow River are bound to stand the test of time.

Photos

Chongqing Municipality

Zhang Kechun - Stone in the Middle of the River, 2013
Zhang KechunStone in the Middle of the River, Chongqing, 2013

Gansu province

Zhang Kechun - Workers Taking Midday Rest beside a Bridge, Gansu, 2010
Zhang KechunWorkers Taking Midday Rest beside a Bridge, Gansu, 2010

Zhang Kechun - The Yellow River 1
Zhang KechunTwo Men Painting a House in the River, Gansu, 2011

Zhang Kechun - People Doing Morning Excercise under a Dragon Lamp, Gansu, 2011 Archival Pigment Print, 90.2x109.2 cm
Zhang KechunPeople Doing Morning Excercise under a Dragon Lamp, Gansu, 2011

Zhang Kechun – A man photographing by the river, Gansu province
Zhang KechunA man photographing by the river, Gansu province

Zhang Kechun - Painted people in the river house, Gansu (粉刷河中房子的人,甘肃), 2011
Zhang Kechun – Painted people in the river house, Gansu (粉刷河中房子的人,甘肃), 2011

Zhang Kechun - Yellow River in the Middle of the Mountains, Gansu, 2011
Zhang Kechun – Yellow River in the Middle of the Mountains, Gansu, 2011

Zhang Kechun – People Roasting under a Tree, Gansu, 2010
Zhang Kechun – People Roasting under a Tree, Gansu, 2010

Zhang Kechun – Kong Fu Practitioners, Gansu, 2010
Zhang Kechun – Kong Fu Practitioners, Gansu, 2010

Henan province

Zhang Kechun - People Crossing the Yellow River with a Photo of Mao Zedong, Henan, 2012
Zhang KechunPeople Crossing the Yellow River with a Photo of Mao Zedong, Henan, 2012

Zhang Kechun - Xiaolangdi Dam, Henan, 2011
Zhang Kechun – Xiaolangdi Dam, Henan, 2011

Zhang Kechun – A Bridge Under Construction, Henan
Zhang Kechun – A Bridge Under Construction, Henan

Inner Mongolia province

Zhang Kechun - Rockery under construction, Inner Mongolia (建造中的假山,內蒙古), 2015
Zhang Kechun – Rockery under construction, Inner Mongolia (建造中的假山,內蒙古), 2015

Zhang Kechun - White Deer under a Cooling Tower, Inner Mongolia, 2010
Zhang Kechun – White Deer under a Cooling Tower, Inner Mongolia, 2010

Zhang Kechun – Sculptures beside a Country, Inner Mongolia, 2011
Zhang Kechun – Sculptures beside a Country, Inner Mongolia, 2011

Ningxia province

Zhang Kechun - Man Pumping Water in Wasteland, Ningxia Province, 2011
Zhang KechunMan Pumping Water in Wasteland, Ningxia Province, 2011

Zhang Kechun - Man Doing Morning Exercise Under the Bridge with Mask, Ningxia, 2010
Zhang Kechun – Man Doing Morning Exercise Under the Bridge with Mask, Ningxia, 2010

Qinghai province

Zhang Kechun – Men Climbing a Billboard, Qinghai, 2011
Zhang Kechun – Men Climbing a Billboard, Qinghai, 2011

Zhang Kechun – An Overturned Cement Truck, Qinghai, 2011
Zhang Kechun – An Overturned Cement Truck, Qinghai, 2011

Shaanxi province

Zhang Kechun - Workers Building Bridge Piers for a High-Speed Railway, Shaanxi, 2011
Zhang KechunWorkers Building Bridge Piers for a High-Speed Railway, Shaanxi, 2011

Zhang Kechun – A Man Standing on an Island in the Middle of the River, Shaanxi, China, 2012
Zhang KechunA Man Standing on an Island in the Middle of the River, Shaanxi, China, 2012

Zhang Kechun – People Fishing by the River, Shaanxi, 2012
Zhang KechunPeople Fishing by the River, Shaanxi, 2012, Archival Pigment Print, 90.2×109.2 cm

Shandong province

Zhang Kechun - Fake Hill in the Middle of the Lake, Shandong, 2011
Zhang KechunFake Hill in the Middle of the Lake, Shandong, 2011

Zhang Kechun - A Family Spending the Weekend Under the Bridge, Shandong, 2011
Zhang KechunFamily Spending the Weekend Under the Bridge, Shandong, 2011

Zhang Kechun - House in the sea, Shandong (海中的房子,山东), 2010
Zhang Kechun – House in the sea, Shandong (海中的房子,山东), 2010

Shanxi province

Zhang Kechun - Temple of the Peak, Shanxi ( 山顶的寺庙,山西), 2015
Zhang Kechun – Temple of the Peak, Shanxi ( 山顶的寺庙,山西), 2015

Zhang Kechun - People in a Cable Car, Xiaxi, 2011
Zhang Kechun – People in a Cable Car, Xiaxi, 2011

Zhang Kechun - People Fishing on the Top of the Pavilion, Shanxi, 2011
Zhang Kechun – People Fishing on the Top of the Pavilion, Shanxi, 2011

Sichuan province

Zhang Kechun - People Drink Tea by the River, 2013
Zhang KechunPeople Drink Tea by the River, 2013

Others

Zhang Kechun – View of the Yellow River from a window of construction site
Zhang KechunView of the Yellow River from a window of construction site

Zhang Kechun - Lake in the Desert, 2014
Zhang KechunLake in the Desert, 2014

Zhang Kechun - Dai Mount, 2018
Zhang Kechun – Dai Mount (黛山), 2018

Zhang Kechun - The Yellow River (City)
Zhang Kechun – The Yellow River

Zhang Kechun - The Yellow River
Zhang Kechun – The Yellow River

Zhang Kechun - The Yellow River
Zhang Kechun – The Yellow River

Zhang Kechun - The Yellow River
Zhang Kechun – The Yellow River

Zhang Kechun - The Yellow River
Zhang Kechun – The Yellow River

Zhang Kechun - The Yellow River
Zhang Kechun – The Yellow River

Zhang Kechun - The Yellow River
Zhang Kechun – The Yellow River

Zhang Kechun - The Yellow River
Zhang Kechun – The Yellow River

Zhang Kechun - The Yellow River
Zhang Kechun – The Yellow River

All images by Zhang Kechun/zhangkechun.com unless otherwise noted.

Video: Zhang Kechun speaks about his Yangtze river photos

2min 55sec

Photographer Zhang Kechun captures the beauty and sorrow of China’s Yellow River and how it represents a changing society.

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