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  Hunting Lost Tradition

Global Times

Feb 11, 2010
By Wang Fanfan

Gu Tao. Photos: Guo Yingguang

If Henry David Thoreau had to move to the Walden woods to be a hermit and be inspired, then modern-day Chinese eccentric Gu Tao moved in the opposite direction. He came from the isolated forests of Inner Mongolia to teeming Beijing, intending to tell unique stories about his birthplace to the rest of the world.

Gu's studio is like Thoreau's cabin in the modern city. The two-story loft building contains a Mongolian cuo luozi, where he sleeps during warmer weather. The conical-shaped tee-pee is made of thin tree trunks, covered with canvas and animal skin, giving the studio a touch of nature.

There is no heating; he uses a charcoal furnace to keep warm, probably aided by the empty bottles of beer, wine and whisky scattered on the floor – one wonders how many hours a day is he sober. But from such an inauspicious-looking studio, photographs, documentary films and paintings of high artistic quality flow out naturally.

Drifting and drinking

Gu's first step after leaving the forests was when he attended college in Hohhot where he majored in oil painting. After that, it was but a small leap to Bejing, when in 1999, he was considered to be one of the so-called "artistic youth." He had no plans; he had painting and photography skills, but had not found the focus he needed.

A photography series set in Qinhuangdao in 2001 called Boat was published in Photo China magazine. The tone of the photos was gray, telling the story of a wandering soul, who could not find direction in life. "From the age of 25 when I graduated from college till 35, I've tried many things for a living. But none of it seems to reflect my inner need," says Gu.

Gu's wild woodland youth was a barrier preventing him from being in tune with Beijing urban life. He moved from a basement in Wangjing, to the 798 Art Zone, and now to a studio surrounded by withered grass fields and trash sites, further and further away from the city. "When I grew up in the woods… the stars were like little torches shining from above. I felt suffocated living in the city. The night sky is like a black canvas with nothing on it," he says.

Gu still keeps many of his Mongolian habits. Drinking is a notable one, and wearing a tall hat is another. "I cannot fit in anyway, so I concentrate on what I really care about and just be myself," he says.

The further he lives from Inner Mongolia, the stronger his nostalgia is. However, every time he returned home, it was no longer what he remembered.

In 2000, Gu started a long-term project, Mongolian Facial Expression, in which he wanted to use 16,000 Mongolian expressions to form the face of Genghis Khan. "Although tiled houses have replaced the yurts on the prairie, shepherds ride motorbikes to feed their flocks, and every facial expression still touches me," says Gu. "I want to photograph Mongolians living everywhere, from shepherd to celebrity, from home to abroad."

Now, among his multiple personalities as photographer, painter and film director, Gu believes the latter suits him best. He has devoted much of his time in recent years to an open-ended film project, documenting the lives of one of China's least known ethnic minorities, whose way of life is on the verge of extinction.

Disappearing hunting culture

Gu was raised in Alihe on the border between Inner Mongolia and Heilongjiang provinces, where the Greater Higgnan Mountains meet the Hulunbeir Prairie.

It's a place where Oroqens live, together with Mongolians, Daurs and Ewenkis. Gu himself is the product of a mixed Manchu-Han marriage.

"The southern slopes of the mountains where we live have less snow, so we hunt animals on horses. The neighboring Ewenkis live on the northern slopes. Reindeer are crucial for their hunting culture. Men hunt, and women use reindeer to carry the kill back," explains Gu.

The Ewenki migrated from Lake Baikal in Siberia to the mountain forests in the 18th century to form their distinctive hunting culture. Since the 1950s, the mountains' natural resources have been exploited, and the hunters moved to settled villages; now there are only five hunting sites and about 750 reindeer left.

Gu's father, Gu Deqing, the author of Hunters' Diaries, recorded their hunting culture in the 1980s. Gu picked up his camera to follow his father's path, although there wasn't much left to record.

In 2003, a policy of "ecology migration" finally decided the Ewenki's fate. The majority signed government documents and dropped their guns to settle in villages, while the reindeer were supposed to be bred in captivity.

"TV news reported that the hunters happily moved to their new houses, but behind the camera, they were shedding tears in private, because the reindeer were dying. After a week, some of them returned to the mountains to raise the reindeer there," says Gu.

In Ewenki, aoluguya means a place where poplar trees flourish. Gu uses it as the name of the documentary, to symbolize the Ewenki homeland.

There is no complete story in the documentary; it records life for three years after the enforced migration. Liu Xia, He Xie and Wei Jia are the three main characters in the documentary. When the hunters' guns are confiscated, alcohol becomes their major pastime.

No matter how humorous they are in life, they cannot escape their tragic fate. He Xie was a hunter who lost his father, brother and son; Liu Xia lost two husbands and became an alcoholic; Wei Jia is an artist who burns every painting right after he finishes.

Many might wonder why Maliya Suo, matriarch and the last spiritual leader of the Ewenki, who still lives in the mountains with her reindeer is not the center of Gu's documentary, but Gu explains: "Maliya Suo does not like the spotlight. She treasures her private life. She has glaucoma. She suffers from the camera flashes."

To the Ewenki, Gu is not an outsider trying to abruptly gatecrash their lives with a camera. His documentary Aoluguya. Aoluguya was edited down from several hundred hours of film, which to Gu, is an archive for future generations.

"Every year, I live with the Ewenki for several months and film their lives. I put the films in different categories." This enables him to record the subtlest details and the most real moments. In one scene, Liu Xia suddenly throws a chair at her younger brother Wei Jia's head, drawing blood. Another relative slaps her, to warn her off.

"You might find it brutal and violent, but this is their life. They hit each other all the time, but there is no hatred," says Gu. In another scene, Liu Xia holds a reindeer like a child. The reindeer licks her face and she says happily, "can you taste alcohol?"

Gu's next step is to form an NGO, to preserve the ethnic minority culture on film. "I care about these people, I care about what happens to them when hunting is forbidden and their traditional culture is dying. I'll keep filming the next generation; for me, this is a project that will never end."


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Changing Inner MongoliaChanging Inner Mongolia: Pastoral Mongolian Society and the Chinese State (Oxford Studies in Social and Cultural Anthropology)

Grasslands and Grassland Science in Northern ChinaGrasslands and Grassland Science in Northern China: A Report of the Committee on Scholarly Communication With the People's Republic of China

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