The face of 'Old Hundred Names' with Andy Keller

Culture, Travel | by Andy Keller
Posted: May 4th, 2011 | Updated: July 25th, 2012 | Comments
China Photography_travel photography_chinese culture_chinese landscapes tea_geluandyani_Andy Keller_ top In 2009, a trio of friends set out on bike to meet the ordinary and often extraordinarypeople behind the imposing face that China presents to the rest of the world, documenting the experience as they went on website China Travel's Ric Stockfis talked to one third of their party, Evan Villarrubia, about their two-wheeled quest in search of 'Old Hundred Names', and now, one year later, Andy Keller reminisces with us in pictures about some of the intriguing characters, faces and places they encountered on the road.>>> Much is written and shared about big trends and big names in China. Go to the bookstore and visit the Asia section, and you'll find books on China with sweeping titles like "One Billion Customers," "The Party," "When China Rules the World," "The Coming Collapse of China" or a biography of Mao Zedong or Zhou Enlai. One reason is that China is such a big place, from which we are so far removed. We are tempted, as a starting point in our understanding, to find a formula that can be applied to the whole of a billion and a half Chinese. This is what I had been doing until summer 2009. I'd been in China for three and a half years, but I was still seeing the country as if from an airplane window. I could see cities being built and millions of people flowing toward them from the countryside, becoming caught in the daily tide of humanity that seemed to obey the laws of some strange, alternate universe, gushing into the areas already most occupied—subway cars, buses, sidewalks, the Second Ring Road. They were everywhere, but in this ocean of people, seldom did I meet individuals. It was time for a change of pace. That summer, along with a friend I had met studying abroad in Beijing, I quit my job, bought a sturdy bike, drew a 10,000 km circle around China on Google Maps and hit the road. Evan and I ended up riding for a week shy of a year and a bit short of 17,000 km, passing through 26 of China's provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions. On the road we met thousands of people from all walks of life, from businessmen to party hacks to factory workers to farmers, in eastern cities, western mountain villages and high on the plains of the Tibetan Plateau. After years in the faceless grind of the city, we were looking for people who inspired us, people who were doing things because they loved doing them or because they wanted to do them well. We found them in the "Old Hundred Surnames" (lǎobǎixìng, 老百姓). These are the "common people" of China, with little power to move beyond their station in life and little guanxi to pull outside of their extended families.

Yunnan Province

tea_tutuyani_Andy Keller "I was cheated out of 80,000 yuan by my old business partner," Tutu told us as we sat in the courtyard of his house atop Bulang Mountain, overlooking the jungle-covered mountains of northern Burma. Set before us was a country meal of pumpkin leaves and other fresh vegetables from the family's courtyard garden, a paste of sweet bee larvae and bony squirrel fricassee ("If we don't get them first, they'll eat all our corn!"). "I'm not going to let that happen again. I want to get rich, but I want to be honest. I'm learning everything I can about pu'er tea so when I start my own factory I can make the best product." Among sips of Tutu's homemade moonshine, Evan explained the English saying about building the better mousetrap. "That's exactly it!" Tutu lit up. tea_geluandyani_Andy Keller Tutu was full of dreams. Once the money started flowing in from his investments, he planned to get his daughter Yani the best education he could. If his other dreams pan out, maybe she'll grow up to be a second-generation pu'er businesswoman. The five-year-old was already a proficient tea taster, slurping with equal relish the tart, green liquid made from freshly dried leaves and the dark, smooth and earthy nectar made from aged cakes. Tutu also had a new home in mind. "I want to build one of my people's traditional wooden homes, but with improvements. Not another one of these concrete boxes," he said, motioning to the squat building behind him. "Our culture is disappearing under the Han Chinese influence, and I think it's important that we keep it going." It was the first time I had heard these words from anyone in China.

Shandong Province

baijiu_shandong_Andy Keller Maybe booze is just easy to be passionate about, but some of the most passionate people we met in our year on the road were involved in its production. "At one point we tried to cut the sorghum with rice to keep costs down, but the quality oversight team wouldn't have it," Mr. Wu, the head distiller at a Shandong baijiu factory called Taishan Shengliyuan told us. "The competition is fierce, and not many people have heard of Shandong baijiu, but it has a very distinctive flavor that is much different from Moutai in Guizhou or Wuliangye in Sichuan. We make a quality product, and I hope someday more people will recognize us for that and we'll be able to stand with the big guys." And the big guys are big. Later in our journey we passed through the town of Maotai in Guizhou province, an entire town dedicated to the craft of baijiu and home to Kweichow Moutai, a massive factory complex employing some 40,000 people. Kweichow Moutai wouldn't even let us through the front gate. The recipe and production processes for the baijiu the state-owned giant pumps out are "state secrets," we were warned. baijiu_maotai_Andy Keller We found the people most involved in the process to be most passionate about their work. And they'd have to be, because the process, the "state secret" of baijiu production, is tedious. Sorghum is steamed, mixed with yeast and shoveled into pits where it is covered with a layer of mud and allowed to ferment for a month. Workers then dig the now-alcoholic grains out of the pits and cart them over to other steamers, where the grain is re-steamed, and the steam, now between 57 and 60 percent alcohol, is collected. But the process doesn't end there, as the inefficient fermentation/steaming process gets nowhere close to converting all the sugars in the grain to alcohol or getting all that alcohol off the grains. Workers mix more yeast with the used grains and haul them back to the pits where they are again covered with mud and left to ferment for a month. The process is repeated seven times for any given batch of grain!


tibetans_yakherders_Andy Keller In Yunnan Province Tutu had told us that one of his dreams was to travel to Tibet, "the place on earth closest to the sun." Tutu's family and nascent tea business tied him to those jungle-cloaked mountains, and he seemed content to build most of his dreams around the very obligations that anchored him there. But Tibet was different. "I want to see what's in the Tibetan spirit that allows them to thrive in such a harsh place," he said with a grin. Harsh was far from our minds as we set up our first camp on the Tibetan Plateau with the help of a group of yak herders next to a wide, wandering stream. Sitting together in the low grass next to our tents, cast in tawny hues under the setting Tibetan sun, one of them, Norbu, asked where we were from. "We love Americans," he said with uncertain, toneless Chinese, fingering a loop of prayer beads. "You support our Dalai Lama… Our hearts are filled with pain from his long separation." tibetans_dalailama_Andy Keller We hadn't expected the conversation to turn serious so quickly, but as we spent more time with the Tibetans, we realized that they hid little and expected the same from us. True to Tutu's assessment, the Tibetan people are indeed some of the hardiest around, living at an elevation at which most vegetables won't even grow and subsisting mostly on highland barley, yak and yak products like yak milk, yak yogurt and yak cheese. Just as rugged are their barely tamed dogs, Tibetan mastiffs, gargantuan curs of which we lived in fear during our month-long ride across the plateau. One helpful Tibetan mother asked if we were carrying any protection against the beasts, which are rarely tied up and are known to attack wanderers in the night. "You'll need mastiff-beating sticks to scare them off," she said, leading us to the firewood pile and offering us each a hefty baton, which we thankfully fastened to our bikes in an accessible place. "Wave the sticks if they chase you and hit them if you have to, then pick up stones and throw them at them to drive them far enough away that you can escape!" For more great images and tales from this fascinating journey around China, check out Portrait of a Laobaixing. You can also find more of Andy's photography from China and beyond at his anyongfu photostream on Flickr. All images © Andy Keller Editor's Note: China Through My Lens is a regular photo series featuring the work of photographers and avid travelers living in China. Photographers are asked to share five to ten of their favorite photographs of China with short explanations of each photo. The idea is to share each individuals' unique focus and view of China—moments captured through their camera lenses. Contact us if you would like to show China through your lens.

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