Xiaoxiao Xu takes us on an eye-opening journey of everyday life along the Great Wall of China
Visiting various points of the Great Wall of China across seasons, Xiaoxiao Xu's expansive project discovers everyday life at the foot of the Wall.
- Lucy Bourton
- 2 February 2021
Wenzhou, in the east province Zhejiang in China, is often referred to as Little Europe for the number of Chinese families who emigrate from the region. From the 1960s through to the 80s, several families, like photographer Xiaoxiao Xu’s, became “inspired by the dream of a better life” relocating mainly for economic reasons. In Xiaoxiao’s case, who was originally born in Qingtian before moving to Zhejiang, her family chose the Netherlands in the 80s, herself joining them in 1999. “Due to this emigration experience, I felt for a long time that I couldn’t really communicate through language,” she notes. Strengthening her wish to tell stories as a result, Xiaoxiao now reflects on this period as “unconsciously looking for a way to express myself” – finding it in watching a documentary about photography on television by chance.
Intrigued by this visual medium, Xiaoxiao pursued photography through studying and in turn developed “the intention to tell stories and convey emotions”. This has now developed into a deeply researched practice which “balances between documentary and autonomous,” as she describes. Largely socially related in subject, Xiaoxiao’s work can link to history, economy, culture and politics, “but above all, it’s about the individual,” she says, “the wellbeing and state of mind of the individual in context with the above aspects.” A perfect example of this approach is Watering my horse by a spring at the foot of the Long Wall, a project Xiaoxiao completed over many years by gradually travelling along the span of the Great Wall of China.
Xiaoxiao’s fascination with the Great Wall began after reading Country Driving: A Journey Through China From Farm to Factory by Peter Kessler. Following the author as he “undertakes a trip across China, following the Great Wall all the way from the East China Sea to the Tibetan plateau,” the journalist’s descriptions evoked a sense of magic for Xiaxiao, leaving her wondering “how the ordinary, everyday life is of the people who live under the foot of the Wall.” In 2017 she made her first trip out, “in an attempt to discover how construction and the people around it relate to each other,” Xiaoxiao tells It’s Nice That.
The photographer began her trip at the Great Wall Shanghai Pass, “which is by the sea in Northeast Hebei province,” timing her visit for the spring of 2017. When late summer turned to autumn she visited again, “this time westward to the loess plateau of Shanxi and Shaanxi,” before heading back during the winter to visit the desert of Gansu by Jiayu Pass, “the end of the Great Wall.” Purposefully timing her visits with the seasons to punctuate the project and “function as a symbol of the circle of life,” Xiaoxiao portrays both “how people live, what traditions they have”, through tender portraiture and expansive landscape shots.
Leading up to this point, however, was two years' worth of researching her subject, reading books and watching numerous documentaries. This level of understanding allowed Xiaoxiao’s mind to picture exactly what she wanted to photograph, drawing up a list of those she wanted to meet and the objects she wished to collect. The trip itself however was full of surprises. For example, the photographer set out on one trip to interview Xu Guohau, the wall’s caretaker (“Wall caretaker are villagers who have devoted their lives to prevent the wall from damage. Their ancestors built the Wall; they see it as their duty to protect it”), but upon meeting him discovered he was additionally the founder of The Long Wall Cultural Relics Exhibition Hall, at the foot of Bangchangyu Great Wall in Qinghuangdao city. Less than a 100 square metres in size, it “holds more than 1000 cultural relics from the Ming dynasty (1366 to 1644)” describes the photographer. “For me, it was like I found a treasure chest full of surprises!”
Spending a full day photographing these relics, this chance discovery adds a further layer to Watering my horse, which is broken up with ephemera found directly along the Wall. Beginning the series on her website (and more recently a subsequent acclaimed book) is a large map detailing Xiaoxiao’s journey. As a viewer glides through her eye-opening photographs and descriptive paragraphs of discoveries, stand alone shots of these artefacts – either weapons used by soldiers or everyday decorations– offer further moments for reflection. “During the journey, the site and the traditions along the Great Wall constantly gave me the feeling that I was travelling through the time,” reflects Xiaoxiao now. “The archive materials emphasise this historical aspect of the narrative, it adds more layers to the story, and provides the viewers another perspective and evoke people’s imagination.”
Spending so much time alone on this journey led Xiaoxiao to see this magic she initially envisioned, but also the everyday truth of this relic. For instance: “As a child, I often heard how glorious the Great Wall is,” she describes, “but during my journey along the Wall, I have discovered that the wall is merely a ruin, some people who live there even think that the Great Wall is an old useless thing.” A distant monument for most, the photographer explains that up close everyday happenings surround the wall as if it were any other, from the fact “they let sheep graze there and they sow vegetable fields on it,” she describes. “I feel sorry that many parts of the Wall have not been properly protected and repaired, so it’s damaged and even disappearing.”
This feeling of time evolving and life gradually moving forward is palpable across Watering my horse, a true testament to Xiaoxiao’s photographic eye. With her trips completed and the project now published, she adds that some of her favourite photographs are the more metaphorical ones, “that appeal to the imagination,” she points out. “A tree has grown on the ruins of the Long Wall, the skeletal, blossoming branches look like fingers stretched towards the sky. An old man carries pink flowers among dried wood. The melting snow resembles a galloping house; a horse’s coat is as white as now. A child stands next to a fallen tree. The growing child and the fallen tree seem to form a promising complementary metaphor.” These descriptions, and the images that lead to them, all fall into the wider approach of Xiaoxiao’s practice: to “address significant themes in life; destruction and hope, old and new, the forgotten and the future, dead and rebirth. I like the contrast, it’s elusive and evocative.”
For those viewing the project (and we implore you to set aside a time to walk along the Wall with Xiaoxiao here) the photographer hopes a deeper insight to the historical site is learned, “to see through the symbolic, and to show the viewer the hidden identity of the Great Wall,” she concludes, “namely, the beauty of the Wall and its surroundings in its purest form.”
Xiaoxiao Xu: Watering my horse by a spring at the foot of the Long Wall. Portrait of a girl lying on corn pile. Gansu, 2018. (Copyright © Xiaoxiao Xu, 2020)
About the Author
Lucy (she/her) joined It’s Nice That as a staff writer in July 2016 after graduating from Chelsea College of Art. In January 2019 she was made deputy editor and in November 2021, became a senior editor predominantly working on It’s Nice That's partnerships. Feel free to get in contact with Lucy about creative projects for the site or potential partnerships.