I took the following photos while on a trip to Wuyuan in the Jiangxi province of China. Wuyuan is well-known for its beautiful yellow flowers, you cai hua (oil meal flower, literally) or canola flowers. The fields are everywhere around the city of Wuyuan, and I took these photos while going up the well-known Huangling terraced fields.
As soon as you get to the parking lot at the bottom of the hill, local women await to welcome the incoming flow of tourist with flower crowns made of fresh canola flowers. The Chinese love this stuff – a vague word us foreigners in China use to refer to cheap trinkets you can buy in tourist spots to make photos pretty.
Any foreigner that first gets to China from Europe will notice this: in China, plastic consumption is high and people don’t seem to understand that the ground isn’t a bin (bu shi laji) and that it is a huge problem for our biosphere and natural ecosystems. Only in 2019 did the government start putting recycling in place.
Although recycling doesn’t solve our plastic pollution problem as a whole, it does prevent huge amounts of toxic chemicals from going into the ground and wasted energy producing packaging that will be tossed away the minute it is used. This matters, especially when we’re talking about the consumption of 1.4 billion people.
The problem isn’t just with plastic, it’s with consumption in general. Along the way up and down the hill, I spotted flower crowns on the ground, on rocks, on trees – the inglorious post-photoshoot scenes, not photographed, not deemed pretty enough for Chinese social media. I felt like capturing them, they were the perfect representation of the problem we’re facing in our societies today, not just with plastic, but with throwaway culture.
It would be so easy for me to bash Chinese culture and feel superior – look, haha, the Chinese, they don’t even use bins haha and they only just set up a recycling system 2 years ago, haha! But aren’t those flower crowns just an image, although weirdly beautiful, of the way we live in a capitalist world? Whether we know to use bins, or even apply zero waste principles in our life, who are we to judge when we still buy new clothes, new phones, new kitchen gadgets only to get rid of their supposedly old versions?
Trends are changing, of course, but are we honestly not all part of this culture, tricked by consumer companies to buy more and new, to use and throw out when we get tired of a product? What’s the difference between a yellow flower crown we use for a 15-minute photoshoot and an iPhone 8 we swap for an iPhone X?
Should I add that these flowers will be picked up later in the day, when the tourists are gone and the place isn’t photograph-worth anymore, by underpaid and overworked locals? Workers who, one can imagine, also spent their early mornings picking flowers and putting them into crowns for the consumptions of the hundreds, if not thousands of tourists that will come for the time of a snapshot.
So I photographed these flower crowns, maybe as a way to capture the state of our world, maybe as a poetic way to make us all think, maybe as a way to keep me accountable – or maybe all three of them. I, too, bought a new iPhone two years ago when mine broke; I, too, get tempted by marketing campaigns to buy new, however ethically made, pair of pants. I cannot help but think that these flowers and everything I buy isn’t simply the fruit of my hypocrisy and laziness, but the result of a powerful system set up on just this – our throwaway culture.