The Tibet of the imagination—windswept, timeless, and impossibly vast—does not deceive the Tibet of reality. Its majestic isolation and inhospitable terrain command a certain reverence. The majority of Tibet is desert, steppe, coniferous forests, and ice-capped massifs with an average elevation of 14,300 feet (4,380 meters). What precious land that is flat or arable has been passed through the generations and reserved for subsistence farming by families that have worked the same plots for hundreds of years.
The fourth episode of Zhao Rongjie’s ethnographic docuseries Seeds & Seeds is set in Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in the far northwest of Yunnan—historically, an independent eastern Tibetan kingdom known as Kham. Every spring, snowmelt from the Himalaya and monsoon rains cascade through its three parallel river basins—the Yangtze (world’s 3rd longest), Mekong (12th), and Salween (26th)—forming some of the deepest, most precipitous gorges on earth. Thousands of miles away, government planners in Beijing have sought to “alleviate poverty” and modernize the region through the construction of highways, suspension bridges, and large-scale infrastructure projects. Development and deforestation, however, have only exacerbated the stress on the fragile environment, leaving cliffside villages (and newly built roads) at risk of being swept into the gorges by falling boulders and mudslides. In response, the government built new settlements with modern accommodations and amenities on higher ground, and encouraged Tibetan families to leave their old villages, farmland, and ways of being behind.
Zhao Rongjie’s latest documentary offers an intimate view into the perspectives of Tibetans as they navigate evolving environmental and political landscapes in northwest Yunnan. As with each episode, the conflict between tradition and modernity lies at the heart of the narrative, as does humanity’s relationship to nature. We are left with an homage to a land and people who face decisions riddled with uncertainty, while the continuity of their cultural inheritance hangs in the balance.
Stayed tuned for the fifth episode of Seeds & Seeds from the Lisu regions of Yunnan.