Spirit of the mountains

By Xu Ming in Xi’an Source:Global Times Published: 2015-7-8 20:03:01

Young photographer leaves it all behind for a secluded life

Xiangzi takes a photo amid blossoming peach trees. Photo: Courtesy of Xiangzi

Young photographer Xiangzi (R) and a friend pose for a picture. Photo: Courtesy of Xiangzi

When I arrived at the village near Xiangzi's house, the young photographer had just finished photographing a couple somewhere in the village. Feet mudded, she led me to her house where it sat at the foot of the Zhongnan Mountains in Shaanxi Province. Her light steps and fluttering skirt made her seem like some image of a fairy.  

Since moving in 2014, Xiangzi (Zhao Yuanxiang) has been living half her time here as a recluse and the other half as a traveling photographer. Her choice to move here, along with her photos of the mountain, have made her a hot topic of discussion on the Internet as well as inspiring numerous other people to come and take their own pictures. 

Her hidden kingdom

Xiangzi's beloved house is a one-floor earthen hut. Almost totally shaded by the flourishing grass and trees the house can be easily missed. On the way home, she stopped from time to time to take photos of the scenery and pick some wild vegetables for dinner. We passed through acres of plum and peach trees weighed down by ripe fruit that would lightly bump our heads as we passed.

This is her kingdom. 

"I couldn't be more content with where I am right now, living in a place I love and doing things I like," said Xiangzi, explaining that she first came across her house in 2014 after having lived there for half a year and while looking for a place of her own.

"This is totally what I always dreamed about, to be surrounded by mountains and brooks."

Traveling as she does, she usually leaves home for about a month or two, each time starting to miss her house even before she leaves. Of course, living in the mountains for a period of time has made it so she finds the noise and dirty air in cities unbearable. "Listen, at least eight kinds of birds are singing right now," she said smiling.

For her, living in the mountains not only means fresh air. It is more of a spiritual practice. "The biggest thing I get out of this is inner peace and happiness," Xiangzi said.

This lifestyle seems to have impacted her photography, which shows a certain amount of serenity and naturalness. "Living alone here does not relate to photographing directly, but I guess it has had an imperceptible influence," the photographer noted. 

Showing courage

Many Chinese say they dream of leaving the big cities behind, but few have the courage to really do so. While most would hesitate at the thought of leaving modern convenience behind, the 25-year-old said she had no such worries at all.

At 17, she made the decision to not attend college because her parents were pressuring her into a major that she didn't like. Interested in photography, Xiangzi found a job as an assistant in a photo studio in her home city of Taiyuan, Shanxi Province, after numerous rejections. Her parents objected to her decision feeling that it was unsuitable for a woman. They fought and her parents even threatened to not let her come back home, but she stuck with her decision. "They didn't think I could support myself," she said, explaining that she had absolutely zero experience with photography before that.

She proved her parents they were mistaken. After gaining some experience, at age 18 she headed to Beijing where her work as a photographer made her financially independent. The following year, she went to Shenzhen and got a job at a rather large studio. Everything seemed going well and even her parents started to come around, but Xiangzi felt she needed another change.

"I was shooting the same thing everyday, and everyone looked alike. It grew painful. To me, every person has his or her own story and pictures should have soul instead of being formularized," Xiangzi said. Half a year later, she quit her well-paying job and traveled to Yunnan Province, where she stayed for two months doing whatever she wanted. "For the first time, I realized that I could have such freedom and just follow my heart. I started to reflect more deeply on my life."

At 20, she decided to start traveling the country and begin shooting in her own unique style. Soon many netizens began noticing her work and began making appointments with her. Over the following three years she traveled across more than half of China and several other countries.

During a trip with a friend to Zhongnan Mountains in 2013, her dream of living close to nature was ignited. With the same love of life and courage to act, she gave up the idea of opening her own studio in Beijing to make the mountains her home.

"I worried about it. I spent two days thinking about it before I finally made my decision," she said.

Weathering the challenges 

Half a year after living in the mountains, Xiangzi found her house. While it looks rather tidy and cozy now with a traditional tea table and cushions, the place was dilapidated and full of rotting branches when she first saw it.

"I was covered with dust every day tidying the place up for the first two months," recalled Xiangzi, adding that she fixed almost everything herself, only asking for help from friends for large tasks such as moving heavy items. She also had to overcome her fear of the dark and living as a young woman all alone in the mountains.

Compared to these challenges, however, what has troubled Xiangzi even more is the controversy she has experienced since she began sharing her experiences online. Numerous netizens have shown admiration for her unique lifestyle, but others have been apprehensive about her reasons for living there and even maliciously attacked her. "They judge others by their own standards. Seeing those malicious words, I was sad at first and I even cried several times from feeling misunderstood," revealed Xiangzi. "But I'm over that now. I'm not going to live life based on their discussions."

Although Xiangzi did not spend much time talking about the practical difficulties of living in the mountains, she warned people who have similar dreams that there are many tests they will have to face. "I've seen many come here excited but go away dispirited several days later. You can't buy anything you want here even if you have the money. And spiritually, you need to be able to bear the loneliness and the plainness of life."

In the near future, Xiangzi plans on publishing a book about her life on the Zhongnan Mountains and stories of her travels.

"Thousands of netizens have written me saying they want to change but lack courage. I hope my book can encourage them."

More photos: Young photographer leaves it all behind to follow her heart

Posted in: Photography

blog comments powered by Disqus