Chinese photographer Yang Dong’s journey along the Great Wall
Capturing majesty
Published: Nov 23, 2023 09:22 PM
Photo: Courtesy of Yang Dong

Photo: Courtesy of Yang Dong

In the 3 am quiet stillness, photographer Yang Dong stands poised along the rugged expanse of the Great Wall at Jinshanling, North China's Hebei Province. His camera, set and ready, waits patiently for the first shards of light to unveil a breathtaking spectacle of rolling clouds. 

This moment warrants just a simple mention in Yang's eight-year odyssey, during which he has traversed over 100,000 kilometers across China, documenting the various facets of the Great Wall, from the Warring States Period (475BC-221BC) to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

In 2016, his work documenting the morning view of the perilous Jiankou section of the Ming Great Wall in Beijing's Huairou district earned him a gold medal at the 45th New York Photography Awards.

"To me, the Great Wall is like a treasure trove and a rich mine. It embodies the labor of the people for over two thousand years and carries profound national sentiments," Yang told the Global Times.

Yang told the Global Times how he has been using his lens to record the Great Wall and his profound emotional connection with this ancient symbol of China's rich history and cultural heritage, amid the construction of the Great Wall National Cultural Park.

A photo of the Great Wall shot by Yang Dong Photo: Courtesy of Yang Dong

A photo of the Great Wall shot by Yang Dong Photo: Courtesy of Yang Dong

'Planting a seed'

The Great Wall's origins can be traced back to the Western Zhou period, and has undergone renovations in various dynasties. Spanning over 21,000 kilometers across 15 provinces, municipalities, and autonomous regions, it not only stands as an enduring monument to the power of the Chinese civilization, but also ranks as one of the top wonders of the world as a universally acclaimed feat of human engineering.

For Yang, capturing the Great Wall is not just about using a lens; it's about channeling emotions. Born in 1992, Yang's hometown is at the foot of the Tiger Mountain section of the Great Wall in Dandong, Northeast China's Liaoning Province. The first photograph he took was of this section. "The Great Wall planted a seed in my memories from a very young age," Yang said.

In 2013, Yang made his foray into photography, and it was in September 2015, during a climb up the Jinshanling section, that he found himself awe-struck by the majestic scenery of the Great Wall amidst the clouds. 

"I wanted to use my camera to capture and preserve this cultural treasure, directing my photographic endeavors toward themes that best represent the nation and its people," Yang said.

Photographing the Great Wall is not merely an artistic pursuit; it is a journey of patience, perseverance, and emotional connection, Yang learned. Waiting for the perfect moment, enduring harsh weather conditions, and navigating through challenging terrain are all integral aspects of his life.

"For example, during spring, the blossoms may disappear overnight due to strong winds. In summer, chasing the perfect shot of a sea of clouds might require repeated attempts, sometimes over dozens of trips after rain," Yang explained.

As many parts of the Great Wall are built on mountains, his pursuit of ideal vantage points often involves carrying heavy equipment through dense forests and steep slopes, and has to contend with unpredictable weather conditions. 

Yang recalled a particularly challenging experience in December 2018 at Jiayuguan, Northwest China's Gansu Province, where he endured a 22-hour train journey to capture the Great Wall in the snow.

In temperatures as low as -29 C, electronic devices rapidly lose power. His tablet computer used to control the shooting drone failed due to the below-freezing temperatures. To avoid missing the perfect moment, Yang used his body heat to try and revive it. Such dedication paid off, and Yang captured a striking photograph despite the adverse conditions.

"The greatness of the Great Wall is something I'll never finish capturing in my lifetime," Yang remarked.

Photos of the Great Wall shot by Yang Dong Photo: Courtesy of Yang Dong

A Photo of the Great Wall shot by Yang Dong Photo: Courtesy of Yang Dong

A chronicle of greatness

For Yang, the Great Wall is more than a cold stone barrier; it is a "warm elder" with stories to tell. 

"The process of photographing the Great Wall makes me feel the greatness of history and the transient nature of our individual lives. Especially when standing alone, engaging in a dialogue with the Great Wall and nature, there is a feeling of conversing with history," Yang told the Global Times. 

In 2018, his photographic series about documentary featured the Great Wall were showcased at the Pingyao International Film Festival.

Since 2019, Yang has set his sights on a new project: Capturing the snow-covered landscapes of the 13 significant passes of the Great Wall. Spanning from Shanhaiguan in the east to Jiayuguan in the west, these 13 passes cover vast geographical and historical terrain. Having completed nine of them, Yang aims to finish all 13 by 2024.

After spending extensive time on the Great Wall, there is an inherent instinct to feel the need to protect it. In Shanxi, Yang came to know Lü Chenggui, a guardian of the Great Wall. Lü and his father have dedicated themselves to preserving this ancient fortress.

In the future, Yang plans to train his lens on the people connected to the ancient wall, including those Great Wall guardians, those who restored the damaged parts of the wall, and those dedicated to preserving this heritage.

"Photographing the Great Wall has made me appreciate the greatness of history, and I want others to see not just its grandeur but also witness how generations have, in their own ways, protected this monumental structure," Yang expressed.