Montréal to Shanghai, Shanghai to Kunming, Kunming to Abang. Last November, when the car dropped me off alongside the dusty road in the little Red River village, I’d traveled more than thirty hours from my home. Even though I know China well, I’d never ventured so far from my normal points of reference: deep in the countryside, among farmers, and some of those farmers growing bananas. Zhou Lifu had been at the meeting point since early morning, and there he was, a smile all over his face. He greeted me like an old friend, whereas in fact he’d never seen me before, and then led me confidently down the lanes leading to his home, where a feast was waiting for me. All the members of his clan – even the pig – sprang to their feet when they saw me on the doorstep with my oversized suitcase! The fabulous adventure of what would become the first permanent exhibition at the Chinese Garden could now begin.
The connection with the land of today’s Chinese farmer
From the very beginnings of the project for the first Chinese Garden permanent exhibit I wanted to document the Chinese land – the land that feeds so many people, that weaves such close ties among them, that bears their history and that above all contains unsuspected treasures of resilience, resourcefulness and perseverance. The land that the Chinese mistreat in these times of forced-march industrialization but that has always been part of their identity.
Still-active contacts kept by the researcher I once was made it possible for me to meet three rural Chinese families and to document – based on get-togethers and long conversations around steaming bowls of tea – the day-to-day lives of farmers, who still account for almost half of the Chinese workforce. Well assisted by a museologist and a professional photographer, I met Zhou Lifu and his family, who grow bananas in southern Yunnan; the Chens, who grow tea where the “mountains touch the sky,” in Honghe, also in the south of the same province; and finally the Lis, where I got to witness the important stage in rice harvesting, this time in the geographic heart of China, in Anhui.
Heart-touching encounters with generous farmers…to be translated into an exhibition
Back in Montréal, it was essential to find a way to convey to Chinese Garden visitors the beauty of the encounters it had been possible for me to make in that fascinating country. China: Ties to the Land had to allow people to feel the warm welcome of the jovial Lifu, a thirty-something grappling with banana wilt who resigned himself to slogging as a chef in order to make ends meet. For this exhibition, I had to get hold of his electric tricycle, his backpack basket, his mother’s traditional jacket. Also, I couldn’t ignore the fact that I’d been a privileged witness to a wedding in his village, a touching moment when the roughly 800 inhabitants all worked together to joyously celebrate the union of two of their own. The exhibit also had to win the hearts of visitors by way of the patriarch Chen, the head of a clan growing tea for generations, where the baijiu flows endlessly from early morning and the women sing as they go about pruning tea bushes. I even wanted to be able to convey the taste of his tea, which he proudly presented to me in the palm of his hand. Finally, the project had to give a sense of why, in China, young people are moving away from rice growing more and more. I’ll always remember the tireless movements of old Li beating the rice plants with his hand and the penetrating gaze of his son when he whispered to me that “one grain of rice requires three drops of sweat.”
When we put the finishing touches to China: Ties to the Land early last summer, I could see before my eyes the essence of what had been captured during the three weeks spent alongside those endearing families: the breathtaking beauty of China and its inhabitants; the unrelenting efforts to cultivate a rich and precious land; clans united both in the celebration of life and in adversity; and a deep attachment to nature, which the Chinese farmers experience in their own way, adapting as best they can to a China that is possibly evolving too speedily for them…
And you: what’s your tie to the land?
Until October 31
Every day, from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
Chinese Garden, at the Jardin botanique