Environment and Culture: Bode Wang’s photography of the Miao people

6 mins read

Recently students at Swarthmore have had a beautiful accompaniment while studying for midterms and churning out essays in McCabe’s second floor Cratsley Lounge across the large globe. Colorful windows into a pastoral life hang on the walls contrasting the familiar picture outside of the frame of students with readings strewn across the blue couches and McCabe coffees in hand. These photographs depicting lives of the Miao (Hmong) peoples in southwest China’s Hunan province are on display on McCabe’s second floor thanks to the efforts of the Bi-Co East Asian Languages & Cultures Department. The photographer and scholar behind these works, Bode Wang, captured the intimate details of the environment, human communities, social customs, and religious practices in his county of Fenghuang.
This past Wednesday, Bode Wang completed a circuit of presentations through the TriCo with a talk at Swarthmore. As the audience settled into the small throng of chairs set up in McCabe’s atrium, they noticed their future presenter darting around the periphery. Camera in hand, Wang was ushered through McCabe by Professor of East Asian Language and Culture Yonglin Jiang who — fittingly for his temporary role as a tour guide — maintained an impressive backwards stride. Snapping a few final photographs of his audience, Wang settled in at the podium joined by his translator Syuah Luo.
As Miao himself, Bode Wang was particularly focused on providing his audience with an accurate and extraordinarily in depth understanding of the lives and culture of this Chinese minority group. Opening with a map, Wang took the audience through a lesson that delved into nearly every facet of the Hunan province’s environment, threading rivers into the landscape and encircling the entirety of the province with mountain ranges. After taking his audience through the caves and lush forests of the mountainside, Wang allowed the small ancient county of Fenghuang to enter the picture.
The ancient town emerged around the Tuojiang River and over time wrapped itself around the emerald waterway with stone bridges capped with sweeping roofs. However, its banks still hold the same stilt houses that the Miao have built for generations. While the outward beauty of this county is captivating, one of the most unique aspects of Fenghuang county is its population, which is over 60 percent Miao.
“As we look at the landscape of Fenghuang county, we can begin to understand the fundamental question of how the land influenced the Miao culture,” Wang relayed to the audience.
Slowly the facets of Miao culture began to lock into place with corresponding aspects of their shared culture and environment, such as the silver ornaments Miao women wore in the city squares in Wang’s photographs. They clicked with the cultural memory of wearing silver during the many, long migrations their people undertook.
“The use of obvious silver ornaments was to facilitate travel for the Miao who underwent the dangerous migration through the mountain passes  known as ‘carrying home during travel,’” said Bode Wang as his photographs lit up the screen behind him.
A long scarlet table extends toward a misty horizon. On either side, men and women gather around hot pots, some wearing traditional clothing and some younger members of the assembly wearing North Face and holding smartphones. In other photographs, women gilded in silver look over the shoulders of men seated for an evening meal, a canopy of crimson paper lanterns seeming to float gently above them. However, in the majority of cases, Bode Wang preferred to direct his camera toward the land where he grew up. Velvety green mountainsides with cascades of mist running down their faces, and the glassy bottle green surfaces of the rivers are photographed with a special tenderness.
While some of the pieces are on display in McCabe, the exhibit’s center is off campus. Bryn Mawr College currently holds the majority of Wang’s work on display for this exhibit. Bryn Mawr’s professor Jiang planned the event in conjunction with the 360˚ course cluster, “Eurasia in Flux: Trans-Siberian Perspectives on Russia and China.”
Professor Jiang hopes his students  that Wang’s presentation, “will help enrich their understanding and appreciation of the dynamic relationship between the environment and ethnic culture on China’s borderlands.”
Bode Wang’s exhibit “Fenghuang Landscape and Miao (Hmong) Culture” will remain on display in Mccabe’s second floor lounge until April 13th.

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