Her new book, Watering My Horse by a Spring at the Foot of the Long Wall, takes us on a 15,500 miles journey along the Great Wall of China. The Great Wall—or Long Wall if we want to use a more literal translation—is not a unique, continuous construction but a series of walls and towers built in different centuries.
“The camera has become my voice. [...] I communicate with pictures. Photography for me is more than a passion or an obsession: it’s a necessity. As a photographer, I persist with my own dreams.” These were the words used by Xiaoxiao Xu, a Netherlands-based photographer born in Wenzhou, during her 2016 TED talk.
Having emigrated to Europe at 14 years old, she felt for a long time that she couldn’t really communicate through language. After seeing a documentary about photography on television, she realized that “it appealed to me, and that is how I began with photography, with the intention to tell stories and convey emotions.” After graduating cum laude from The Photo Academy with the series Wenzhou, Xu’s work began to attract international attention. In 2016, her project Aeronautics in the Backyard appeared in The Guardian’s list of best photography books of the year.
When asked what inspired her to embark on this journey that explored the sections built during the Ming dynasty (1399-1644), Xu told us that she got fascinated by the Long Wall after reading Country Driving: A Journey Through China From Farm to Factory (2010) by the American journalist Peter Hessler. “While reading, I was thinking of how magical it is to follow such a historical monument,” Xu said. “I was very curious about the northern part of China, and I wanted to see the ordinary, everyday life of the people who live under the foot of the Wall. So I visited the older parts in an attempt to discover how a construction and the people around it relate to each other.”
The images taken by Xu create cracks, open windows, and clean the rubble of what we thought we knew about this monument, its history, and how it still influences the lives of those around it. The photographs show an unexpected, lesser-known side of the Wall. Nature is taking back its place as stubborn trees and grass grow over the watchtowers, birds make their nests undisturbed, and sheep graze quietly around the ruins.
Aside from natural erosion, vandalism is also a real concern for the preservation of the Wall as tourists have been caught scribbling on the ruins and leaving their trash around. In order to prevent this, the Chinese government pays some of those who live under the Wall to act as guardians for 100 yuan per month (less than $15). Tourism is still encouraged though, as the hope is that it will allow these communities to flourish.
Xu feels that the Long Wall has been equally over and underestimated. The parts of the Wall that have not been properly protected or restored speak of loneliness and abandonment. Her photographs show that, what in our imagination is a powerful, endless, and ever-existing symbol of the long history and strength of mainland China, is also just a wall. Yet, even in its simplicity, this wall defined and shaped the lives of those who live under its shadow. “By looking at the Long Wall today, I hope to gain deeper insight into this historical site, to see through the symbolic, and to show the viewer the hidden identity of the Long Wall, namely, the beauty of the Wall and its surroundings in its purest form.”