The Jinshanling section of the Great Wall of China taken by Zhou Wanping. (Xinhua)
By Xinhua writer Yang Chunxue
BEIJING, Jan. 9 (Xinhua) -- Zhou Wanping is in love with his model. He worries about her weather-beaten shape, but for 30 years, the photographer has remained close to her. In his eyes, she is not beautiful nor cute, but majestic: Zhou's model is the Great Wall.
Few people may know the Jinshanling section of the Great Wall better than Zhou. The section, built in the 16th century during the Ming Dynasty, zigzags across the mountains near his village, straddling Beijing and neighboring Hebei Province. It is one of the best-preserved parts of the world wonder.
Born in a village at the foot of Jinshanling, Zhou, 50, has seldom left his hometown. Everyday he climbs the Wall before sunrise, returning home after sunset. Like many other villagers, he sells beverages and tourist souvenirs on the Great Wall. But unlike them, he seizes every moment to take photos of his lover.
"Life is in fact not as repetitive as it seems, everyday, even at every moment, the Great Wall differs in various weather conditions and light environments," Zhou says.
Zhou observes subtle changes and tries hard to breathe fresh life to the ancient grandeur through his camera lens.
For example, he says, the Great Wall turns glossy on rainy days, as bricks reflect a dim light; when covered with snow, its graceful outline becomes prominent; when shadowed by clouds, it seems within a stone's throw of the sky; during sandstorms, its edge cuts a sharp, rugged line against the yellow sky, laden with history.
Zhou's fascination with the Great Wall dates back to his childhood, when the structure was a wasteland of overgrown weeds and trees. "At that time, few people visited except herders. I often went there on weekends to fetch firewood," he recalls.
But it was such an exciting opportunity for young Zhou to explore that he often forgot what he came for. "I went along the steep slopes as far as I could till darkness fell, leaving watch towers behind one after another and, wondering if there was an end to it."
Built to protect ancient Chinese empires against raids from nomadic groups, the Great Wall was left untended with the decline of dynasties over the past few centuries.
For a long time, the Wall was dismantled by villagers, who used the bricks to build houses. It was not until 1984 that China decided to repair the Great Wall. The Jinshanling section was renovated at that time.
Zhou is so proud that he contributed to the renovation work by carrying bricks. "If not for that experience, how could I have developed such deep love for the great architecture?"
The bricks were long and heavy. The average person could carry four at most at one time. With his left leg injured in a childhood accident, Zhou could only carry two. "Every step was so hard to take and my sweat kept falling to ground."
Despite all the hard work, Zhou couldn't help admiring his ancestors who built the Great Wall.
"The ancient bricks are way heavier than new ones, and steep cliffs are everywhere. How could our ancestors have managed to overcome such difficulties!" Zhou recalls wondering.
Carrying bricks became a full time job for young Zhou after poverty forced him to quit high school. During four years of manual labor, he found a business opportunity that triggered his lifelong craze for photography.
"I noticed that many tourists want to take photos on the Great Wall but cameras at that time were a luxury," he says.
After saving money for 18 months, in the spring of 1986, Zhou finally had 40 yuan to buy a second-hand camera. "That was a great sum of money at that time for a man who only earned three cents a day," he said.
He took the camera with him wherever he went. In order to save film, he seldom clicked the shutter unless the scenery was extraordinary.
The camera helped him earn a living by taking photos for tourists, but he indulged himself in photographing the wall. Never thwarted by failures, he practiced until he finally figured out which light environments the camera worked best in.
With his photographic skill honed, Zhou began to win awards, including a UNESCO prize at the International World Heritage Photo Competition in 1998. The award-winning photo catches the scene when the Great Wall is partly hidden in the sea of clouds.
It was the first time the farmer from a remote village went abroad. When receiving the award in Paris, he said: "It is the Great Wall's own charm rather than my shooting techniques that made my works stand out of 49,000 photographs from 91 countries."
He continues to seek improvement. Over 30 years, Zhou says he has changed cameras more than a dozen times, but never his subject. He says that his past photographs tended to be luck. Extreme weather conditions, such as rainbow, snow or fog, also helped.
"To picture the Great Wall well in a normal environment demonstrates competence, for it needs creativity and novel angles," he says. His most recent endeavor is trying to catch the wall from a bird's view using drones.
While Zhou helped in the restoration of the wall, he now fears its return to rubble as man and nature take their toll.
A survey conducted in 2014 by the China Great Wall Society showed that more than 70 percent of the Great Wall built in the Ming Dynasty is poorly protected, with the wall worn down to the ground base.
"Long-term exposure to open air left many parts of the structure too fragile to withstand bad weather," Zhou says, "especially the wild Great Wall, or the sections not repaired for tourism."
It's quite often the case that several days after taking photos of certain neglected forts, he went there again only to find that the wall collapsed after a rainfall.
To make it worse, some ancient bricks engraved with Chinese characters have been stolen. The bricks recorded the historical data of the Wall's building process. "They are usually sold on the black market under the superstitious belief that it could bring good luck," Zhou says.
Zhou feels he is running against the clock to record the history of the great structure.
"Time may change everything, and the Great Wall is no exception. All I want to do is to record what it is like now with my camera, and that's my own way to protect it," Zhou says.