What if nature could speak?

Chinese New Year presents the traveller with an opportunity to see some of China’s most beautiful natural heritage, says Wang Yongchen. But visitors must avoid destroying their country’s environment in the process.

For Chinese people, the Chinese New Year is about family gatherings, meeting up with relatives and valuing the country’s traditional culture. But often I ask myself what impact this has on the natural world.

Many people enjoy the pleasure and freedom of getting close to nature. I do not know if the earth really can speak, but I first wished I could hear it in 1998, when I went to see the autumn leaves at Xiangshan (Fragrant Hills), near Beijing. A friend took me there to enjoy the scenery, but all I saw were visitors snapping off the leaves, keeping them as souvenirs or just dropping them underfoot, leaving weeping sores on the trees.

I felt I heard nature’s lament again in 1999, during the National Day holiday to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic. A group of friends and I used our week-long holiday to visit Lushan, a scenic mountain spot where Mao Zedong once famously posed for a photograph. But we were surrounded by hawkers with megaphones, and had to walk into the forest to be able to hear the birdsong and the wind in the pines. I wondered why we could not hear these things back near the hawkers. A friend suggested that maybe they were making a silent protest against all the noise.

A fellow reporter told me that during the 2006 May Day holiday, 204 tonnes of rubbish was cleared from Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, with cleaners and their machinery working round the clock to keep up with the trash discarded by tourists. At the same time, 30 members of Green Earth Volunteers visited Fanjingshan, in south China’s Guizhou, as eco-tourists, where they could enjoy – and help protect – the mountain scenery.

In 1986, Fangjingshan became China’s fourth internationally-protected nature reserve, known as a treasure both for people and planet. Its environment and forest ecosystem are virtually untouched, a perfect example of China’s natural subtropical forests. It is full of rare plants, including the last survivors of a number of ancient species.

Apart from scientists attracted by its biodiversity, the rock formations on the summit are often visited by geologists. “Mushroom Rock”, formed by wind erosion, and an archway soaring over the “Golden Knife Gorge” are both majestic sights. Following the path upwards, there are numerous points to view the untouched scenery. One of these looks out to a 38-metre-high stone pillar reaching up into the sky.

Before we set off, we knew that we would have to climb almost 8,000 steps to reach these sights. But we never expected that our trip would involve another task – picking up rubbish.

Empty bottles and food wrappers were scattered among the flowers and trees. Visitors ignored nearby rubbish bins, preferring to crush the flowers under the weight of their litter. As we cleared up after them, we wondered how nature would respond, if only it could speak.

Later, we left Fanjingshan and headed for Zhenyuan, a historic town. The Wuyang River runs through it, lined with architecturally-unique buildings. Small wooden boats drifted up and down the river, and standing on its banks there was a sense of man and nature living in harmony.

But a local explained to me that the boats were, in fact, picking trash out of the river. They were not employed by the local government, but were private individuals who sold the rubbish on. And they could make a very good living, he added.

Looking out at the boats we couldn’t help but wonder what the river would look like if there were not people hauling out the trash. And if we could understand the river, what would it complain of?

Moving on to Fenghuang, Hunan province, we stayed by the Tuo River. At dusk we stood by the window, watching a gentle rain fall on the water. With the locals washing their clothes on the banks and the moon hanging bright in the sky we were reminded of the poet Zhang Ruoxu’s Spring, River, and Flowers on a Moonlit Night.

We left our wooden guesthouse for a riverside stroll, and I saw a woman who sold river tours throw her watermelon skin into the river. When I explained that the river needed to be looked after, she just told me to mind my own business, and I saw her rubbish float off downstream.

It rained the night before we left Fenghuang. The next morning we took a boat out on the river and saw plastic bottles floating past, followed by food containers and even shoes. If the river could speak, would it not river ask us why we treat it like that?

Xiangshan is known for a natural spring where one can drink fresh, sweet water. Many Beijing residents carry containers there to collect water. But they leave behind packaging from their food and drinks, which can be seen strewn around the spring, contrasting starkly with the natural beauty of the surroundings. I heard a young non-Chinese boy ask his mother if the water could clean itself when it got dirty.

I have been to southwest China’s Tiger Leaping Gorge a number of times, and enjoyed the beautiful but perilous walks along its sides. But now there is a stone bridge, and the scenery is no longer pristine. Facing this, there is a concrete toilet block, and no matter how you try to frame a photo, you cannot avoid including the toilet.

The cliff face at Xishui, in south China’s Guizhou province, has a natural fresco where the photographer Chen Fuli once stood for three days and three nights, unable to tear himself away. But a few years ago, the local government placed an electricity pylon in front of it, again leaving the scars of human activity on what once was a natural scene.

Xiangshan, Lushan, Fanjingshan, Zhenyuan, Fenghuang, Tiger Leaping Gorge: these are all just individual cases. A little bit more rubbish in our rivers and mountains; a building put here and there – perhaps it doesn’t make much difference to nature as a whole. But China has three major holidays a year, and as people get richer they increasingly use them to travel the country. And as they go out to enjoy nature, I would like them to remember: don’t base your pleasure on nature’s suffering. If you want to live in harmony with nature, you have to try to listen to what it is saying. 

Yongcheng Wang is a reporter for China National Radio. Wang founded Green Earth Volunteers, a Chinese environmental NGO, in 1996. She is also a winner of the Globe Award, China’s top environmental prize.

Homepage photo by Shenxy