As tourism and development in western China grows, one writer pays homage to its grasslands.
My Passion for the Grasslands
Intellectual Property Right Press, August 2011 (Chinese only)
In 2010, writer Shu Ni quit her middle management job with an Internet company to concentrate on writing about the grasslands. She threw herself into studying the regions, visiting herding families and helping herd and milk their flocks. Her stories, which have appeared in National Geographic’s Chinese edition and Deep, the magazine of the China Association for Scientific Expedition, are drawn from authentic grasslands experiences.
A Beijinger born and bred, she says herself that “my background has nothing to do with Mongolia.” But despite growing up in a Han Chinese family in Beijing, she has always been fascinated by the grasslands. She wrote a 400,000-character novel about a Chinese woman’s love affair with a Mongolian man as if she was recalling a past life, and she has travelled the length and breadth of the Mongolian grasslands in search of her dream.
For years she has been recording her experiences with the grasslands, herders and nomadic culture. In her writings these vast lands, “as warm as the mountains, as strong as the water,” are home to the horsehead fiddle, which can “smooth over worries and hurt as it resonates with your heart,” and thirteen year old boys who “in the dawn reverently prepare their father’s saddle.” The Mongolians, these “mysterious, serious and taciturn people,” and their land and culture are portrayed exquisitely in her writing.
The book records how Shu came to know, love, understand and care for the grasslands. Initially there is the amazement of first contact: “The green land was endless. There were no people or animals, only the grassland. But what looks empty is actually home to the herders.” Then she moves from the visual impact of the grasslands to the culture and feelings: “Every Mongolian who can sing has a heart full of love: The blue skies and the land deserve love; the people and all living things deserve love; the goshawks deserve love; the mice deserve love; the wolves deserve love; the lambs deserve love, a flower deserves love; a blade of grass deserves love.”
She comes to know the Mongolians themselves, and listens to herders and singers tell stories of their lives and their concerns for the future. Finally she looks at developing and protecting the grasslands and the tensions between the traditional and the modern. Her writings, like the grasslands themselves, are bold and warm, but also worried for the future.
Over the last decade or two, the public have been more aware of the grasslands, as tourism and the economy develop in the west of China. Meanwhile the annual spring sandstorms mean the grasslands are a focus for environmental policy. Industry, led by mining, is bringing huge changes to Inner Mongolia. As the region’s grasslands are closer to more developed areas, they are first to feel political and economic changes.
In popular magazine articles on grasslands travel, this is a land of novelty and beauty. In academic and political meetings on developing the grasslands, the herders are rarely mentioned and it is unusual to hear a Mongolian accent.
For the ordinary reader, Shu provides a bridge. She stands between the grasslands’ tradition and our modern lives and brings us vivid and authentic tales. Her writings echo the melancholy of Mongolian music, as Inner Mongolia’s beautiful grasslands and its people are now the last of their type.
Some say nomadic herding is backward, and that nostalgia for tradition means opposing development. But the millennia of harmony between the herders and the grasslands, and the damage done by recent development, warn us of the dangers of blindly developing the economy. What future is there for the grasslands? Shu Ni lets us hear what the herders would say.