Documentary. China's heartland is the centre of a 5,000-year-old civilization and home to the giant panda, golden snub-nosed monkey and the golden takin.
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Protected by the Great Wall in the north,
and fed by the Yellow and Yangtze rivers,
China's eastern heartland is the centre of a flourishing civilisation
which spans more than 5,000 years.
To outsiders, this is a mysterious land.
It contains dazzling man-made structures.
And it's home to some of China's rarest
and most charismatic creatures.
The people who live here, the Han Chinese,
comprise the largest ethnic group in the world
and their language, Mandarin,
is the world's oldest and most widely spoken language.
In the last 50 years, China has seen massive development,
bringing many environmental problems.
But the relationship of the Chinese
to their environment and its creatures
is in fact deep, complex, and extraordinary.
In this programme,
we will look for clues to this ancient relationship
and what it means for the future of China.
Our journey starts at the very heart of China, Beijing.
China's capital is a vast metropolis,
home to 15 million people.
This bustling modern city
seems an unlikely place for traditional beliefs and customs.
But beneath the contemporary veneer
it's possible to see glimpses of a far older China.
Every morning, people head to the parks around the Forbidden City,
to continue a custom which is centuries old.
Many Chinese keep birds as companions,
specifically a type of laughing thrush from Southern China.
But they know that, cooped up indoors, birds may become depressed.
So, they try to brighten their day by meeting other birds.
This surprising scene in the heart of modern Beijing
is a clue to China's oldest spiritual ambition,
the harmonious co-existence of man and nature.
But from the 1950s onwards
this ancient belief was to be severely challenged.
After a century of humiliation and intervention by foreign powers,
Chairman Mao sought to rebuild China's dignity.
Mao believed strongly in self-reliance,
achieved through using all of nature's resources.
Mao's first concern was to feed the Chinese people,
by turning as much land as possible over to grain production,
destroying non-cereal crops
and uprooting fruit trees in the process.
A campaign to eliminate crop-raiding sparrows backfired
when insect-eating birds were also targeted,
causing an increase in insect pests.
Efforts to make China self-reliant in steel
resulted in 10% of the country's forests
being felled to feed the furnaces.
This had a profound impact on China's environment,
with effects in some cases lasting until the present day.
Mao's policy towards the countryside has been described in the phrase
"Man must conquer nature."
Quite different from the ancient concept
of harmonious co-existence with nature.
As modern China engages with the outside world,
which of these attitudes seems likely to prevail?
To find the answers,
we'll travel to the far reaches of the heartland
to see how its traditional cultures and unique creatures
are faring today.
Beijing has always depended on the North China Plain,
a rich farmland twice the size of the UK.
The fertility of this plain derives from further west,
from the Loess Plateau.
The mineral-rich soil of the Loess Plateau is incredibly fertile.
People have lived here for thousands of years,
hollowing their homes out of the soft soil.
The caves might lack the glamour of Beijing,
but people can survive here, warm, secure, but, best of all, well fed.
As a result of centuries of farming, the landscape has become scarred
with thousands of water-worn gullies.
But this spectacular erosion has had an unexpected benefit.
The streams which drain the gullies
carry the fertile yellow soil into the plateau's major river.
Known to the Han people as the "Mother of Chinese civilisation".
This is the Yellow River.
Each year, the Yellow River carries billions of tonnes of sediment
from the Loess Plateau eastwards
to the crop fields of the Chinese heartland.
Historically, the Chinese relationship with the river has been uneasy.
Sediment, building up on the riverbed,
has caused the Yellow River to burst its banks periodically,
unleashing devastating floods, resulting in millions of deaths.
But when tamed with dykes and channels
the river's bounty is legendary.
Even today, half of China's wheat
comes from the Yellow River flood plain.
For thousands of years,
the sediment-rich Yellow River
has underpinned the prosperity of the Chinese heartland.
But increased demand for water by people and industry
now threaten to run the river dry.
And the source of its fertility, the Loess Plateau, is also under threat.
Loosened by cultivation, its soft soil is blowing away.
The North China Plain is choked with dust storms
that even loom over Beijing,
so much so that the Chinese government
has made improving the city's air quality
a priority in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics.
Heartland China's life-support system is in trouble.
Yet, in a few places,
it's still possible to find landscapes
that appear to have remained untouched.
At the southern edge of the North China Plain
lie the Qinling mountains.
At 15,000 kilometres long,
they run like a backbone through the middle of China.
Deep within the mountains is a maze of remote valleys and forests,
home to strange and wonderful creatures.
These are golden snub-nosed monkeys, a species unique to China.
Seldom seen, they are frequently heard.
Their strange child-like calls and extraordinary appearance
may have inspired the local tales
of a Yeti-like "wild man of the mountains".
As winter temperatures drop to -10 degrees Celsius,
their dense fur keeps them warm.
Mutual grooming not only keeps their precious fur in good condition,
but also helps to reinforce bonds within the troop.
In summer, the monkeys go around in huge bands,
but at this lean time of the year
they split up into smaller foraging parties.
In the dead of winter,
the monkeys are forced to rummage around the rocks
for a few meagre morsels of lichen and moss.
As the world surrounding their mountain home
has filled up with towns and crop lands,
the snub-nosed monkeys' habitat has changed dramatically.
Today, there are just 10,000 left in existence.
To the people who live in the Qinling mountains,
the forest and its wildlife are a resource to be used,
the basis of their livelihood.
These people share the forest with an even more elusive inhabitant.
It's probably China's most famous animal,
but very few have ever seen it.
Unlike the monkeys, this creature has a very specific diet -
It's a wild giant panda.
Secretive, and sensitive to noise,
the giant panda is often gone before anyone can get close to it.
The panda has long been known in China.
It was mentioned in dictionaries more than 2,000 years ago
and the Imperial Garden is said to have housed one.
In the dense bamboo of the forest, one panda rarely sees another.
Instead, they communicate by subtle scent signals.
At a metre and a half long and 135 kilos,
the giant panda is a member of the bear family.
But its bear-like digestive system is built for eating meat,
not this tough, fibrous stuff.
And to make matters worse the bamboo leaves are frozen solid.
But the panda has devised a cunning way of breaking the ice off.
It rubs the bamboo over its snout.
Unlike other bears, the panda can't fatten itself up
and hibernate through the winter.
Bamboo is so low in energy
that the panda must spend most of the day eating.
Once it has exhausted one area, it must move on to the next.
The panda's paw is surprisingly un-bear-like too.
It's flexible, with an enlarged wrist bone
which allows it to grasp and manoeuvre the bamboo
with a dexterity and precision that a monkey would be proud of.
Twisting the bamboo leaves into a cigar shape
makes them easier to munch.
Hungry pandas once roamed across vast tracts of bamboo-rich forest
that covered much of China's heartland.
But, since the 1950s, logging has fragmented
the Qinling mountain forests.
Its remaining wild pandas are now confined within isolated reserves.
In the last 50 years,
China's heartland has been subjected to desertification,
drying rivers and deforestation,
affecting not only people, but wildlife too.
The relationship between the Chinese people and their environment appears to be out of balance.
But if we dig a little bit deeper
there are some surprising and intimate connections, even today.
Clues to the nature of these links can be found in everyday life,
even in the centre of China's capital city.
In the parks of Beijing,
Mandarin ducks keep a close watch over their young.
Believed by the Chinese to pair for life,
they have been seen for centuries as a symbol of love and fidelity.
Images of these birds are believed to improve personal relationships.
As a result, Beijing's Mandarin ducks are highly protected.
The alleyways of the capital's ancient Hutongs are home to
a very different kind of creature.
Each day Zhou Guoguang tends his brood of pigeons,
his chance to escape the pressures of city life for an hour or two.
Up here on the rooftops, Zhou is confident his charges will be safe.
But in the streets below lurk dangerous spirits
that scavenge and steal.
Deeper into the Hutongs, the influence of modern Beijing recedes.
These alleys are full of ancient beliefs.
As night falls, spirits emerge from their hiding places.
The yellow weasel.
Some people believe that offending this crafty predator
can bring bad luck,
so they turn a blind eye to the weasel's night-time marauding.
Old beliefs, coupled with a rising awareness of conservation,
are helping the yellow weasel survive in the middle of Beijing,
despite killing the odd pigeon.
In the south of China,
the relationship with nature appears more brutal.
Cantonese cuisine is famous for its diversity,
summed up in the saying,
"We will eat anything on four legs, except a table."
And though the government has banned the consumption of wildlife in China
and most of the meat here comes from captive-bred animals,
a significant amount is taken illegally from the wild.
This restaurant in Hong Kong specialises in serpents.
Most are harmless rat snakes, but with the odd cobra on the menu
one false move could spell trouble.
Chau Ka Ling has lost count of the number of times she's been bitten,
so she always carries a Chinese herbal remedy,
just in case.
We might turn our noses up at such a strange choice of food,
but eating snakes is more than just a matter of taste.
The Cantonese believe it can help to clean the blood,
increase vitality and beautify the skin.
In such a crowded land,
a tradition of eating everything with very little waste
could be seen as commendable thrift.
The problem is that there are so many people eating wild food in south China
that the illegal supply chain stretches well beyond its borders,
contributing to the disappearance of wildlife not only within China,
but from other countries too.
A visit to a traditional Chinese medicine shop
reveals another aspect of the use of animals and plants.
Dr So has been practising for over 20 years.
The most important part of his diagnosis is the pulse,
examined in several places.
Dr So also observes the colour of the tongue and eyes,
and asks questions about the patient's taste, smell
and even dreams.
Once satisfied with his diagnosis, he'll write a prescription,
using a script unique to doctors.
Chinese traditional medicine uses an incredible array of animals,
vegetables and minerals to treat the individual rather than the illness,
aiming to restore the harmony of opposing but complementary forces,
known in China as yin and yang.
The concept is rooted in the ancient belief
that the universe is harmonious
and that people are intimately connected to,
and affected by, their environment.
Despite the seemingly bizarre nature of the ingredients,
Chinese traditional medicine has been successfully treating people
for thousands of years.
But although the use of endangered wildlife ingredients in medicine
is now banned in China,
some wild animals and plants are still used illegally.
Once again, nature bears the cost.
But Chinese tradition has borrowed from nature in other ways
which are not in the least exploitative.
In ancient Chinese philosophy,
man was considered part of the natural world
and able to benefit from its wisdom.
Thousands of years ago, Buddhist monks on sacred Shaolin mountain
incorporated their observations of wild creatures
into a system of exercises
to help the flow of energy and build strength.
This animal-inspired art-form became kung fu.
Today, ancient Shaolin Mountain, the place where kung fu began,
remains its prime training centre.
Shi Yanting is a master.
Students from all over the country come here
to learn the ancient knowledge derived from the natural world.
The emphasis today is perhaps more on the physical
rather than the philosophical elements that underlie kung fu,
but it's a significant re-awakening.
This seven-year-old is perfecting
the devastating punch of the praying mantis.
When combined and perfected, these animal forms,
such as mantis, monkey, and crane, become an unstoppable force.
Ancient Chinese philosophy took nature itself
as the inspiration for its most fabulous creature.
Fertile rivers may have shaped this civilisation,
but the Chinese believed that the rivers themselves
were formed and controlled by a dragon.
Unlike the destructive dragon of the West,
the Chinese dragon was benevolent,
provided it was treated with respect.
The ancient Chinese called themselves
"descendents of the dragon",
and knew they needed to live harmoniously in the dragon's realm.
This respect for the dragon has relevance today
for a remarkable creature
which lives around the paddy fields of China's other great river, the Yangtze.
This fearsome-looking beast is a Chinese alligator,
known as the "muddy dragon".
Despite its association with the mythical Chinese dragon,
the reptile has long been regarded by country people
as a fish-eating pest,
and has been persecuted almost to the point of extinction.
There are only around 150 Chinese alligators left in the wild,
and it's mainly down to the care and protection
offered by dedicated people
like retired farmer Chang Jin Rong that any survive at all.
Today, most Chinese alligators live in captivity.
At this breeding centre near Xuancheng,
Chinese alligators gather for their extraordinary courtship.
The males bellow to attract a mate.
As it travels through the water,
the sound is both heard and felt by the female.
The bellowing is her cue to investigate.
In the alien world of the Chinese alligator,
these two will be able to learn much about each other
using the scent glands under their jaws.
Satisfied with her choice, the two swim off together before mating.
The muddy dragon owes its continued survival
to a government initiative a quarter of a century ago,
which created the captive breeding centre at Xuancheng.
Having dug a little deeper,
it does seem that ancient beliefs about nature
still have resonance in modern China.
Far upstream, along one of the Yangtze's mountain tributaries,
another ambitious conservation project
is attempting to save China's most famous creature.
China's first captive breeding centre for the giant panda
opened in 1983.
This is Wolong reserve,
a far cry from the bamboo forests where wild pandas live.
Every spring, male and female pandas are ferried around the site
in the hope that introductions will lead to romance.
Scientists have been trying to encourage the pandas
to breed naturally,
but it's difficult to get the conditions right,
since few people have ever seen how panda courtship happens in the wild.
Meanwhile, artificial insemination has proved highly successful.
At just five weeks old, this baby needs 24-hour care.
It's simply too precious to be entrusted to its natural mother,
who may have little experience of parenthood.
After initial teething problems,
Wolong's artificial insemination programme
has been remarkably successful.
In 2006, the reserve reared 16 cubs
and there are now more captive-bred pandas at Wolong
than can be safely released back into the shrinking wild habitat.
In nature, giant pandas learn survival skills from their mother,
but have little contact with other pandas.
These youngsters may have exceptional social skills,
but they wouldn't have a clue how to survive in the wild.
For the majority, their future lies in zoos.
While the ultimate value
of captive breeding projects like this is debatable,
there are places in China
where animals are being successfully protected in their wild habitat.
Right at the top of the Qinling mountains
lives a rare and mysterious creature that has inspired legends
as away far as ancient Greece.
The size of a buffalo, and with a temper to match,
this is the original owner of the Golden Fleece, the golden takin.
Golden takin make their way to the top of the mountains
for the breeding season.
It's an opportunity for the males to prove their mettle.
They are formidable and aggressive creatures.
Now victorious, this male will have access to the females.
Despite living high on the mountains,
golden takin were once hunted to near extinction for their meat.
In a return to the laws of ancient China,
there's now a government ban on poaching
and the takin is officially protected.
Attitudes towards nature in China
are clearly complex and rooted in tradition,
and in the Qinling mountains
there is one story that shows
just how valuable these traditions can be.
Every morning, a flock of crested ibis leave their roost
close to the village of Yangxian in search of food.
Traditionally, the birds' departure
marked the start of the farmers' day.
Crested ibises need wetlands for feeding,
and rice paddies are the perfect place
to hunt for eels, frogs, and snails.
The birds and farmers had probably co-existed here
for thousands of years,
until the 20th century, when in many parts of China
rice was replaced by more profitable wheat production.
Crested ibis numbers rapidly declined.
At one point they were even believed to be extinct.
Then, in 1981,
the last seven crested ibises on earth were found here.
The Chinese government stepped in,
protecting the rice paddies so the birds could continue to feed
and safeguarding neighbouring trees to enable them to breed.
Rescued from the brink of extinction,
there are now 500 crested ibis living around Yangxian town.
In modern China, room is being made for nature once again.
But the appreciation of nature in China
isn't confined to impressive animals or colourful birds.
Mountain landscapes have held a fascination
for Chinese artists and poets throughout history.
Mountains also had religious significance
as places that linked earth with the heavens.
One of the most sacred of all is here at Mount Emei,
the site of a 2,000-year-old Buddhist temple.
China today has the world's largest Buddhist population.
These old sacred sites are highly cherished.
Nearly two million people visit Mount Emei each year.
But the Buddhist temples are not the only attraction.
Mount Emei is home to Tibetan macaques, the biggest of their kind.
Their thick coats enable them to thrive in harsh mountain conditions
at altitudes up to 3,000 metres.
Ancient Chinese people believed that
good deeds towards the human-looking macaques
were an investment for eternity.
But for these city-dwelling tourists,
whose everyday lives are far removed from wildlife,
this encounter is an uneasy mix of reverence and fear.
For the macaques, too, it's an awkward relationship.
The monkeys normally forage for fruit,
but the tourists are a much easier source of food.
Constant contact with people is changing the behaviour of the troop.
Once wary of humans, the macaques are growing bolder.
How are tourists supposed to know
that this eyebrow-raising display means trouble?
Some of the more assertive monkeys have to be policed accordingly.
While the impact on wildlife from mass tourism
is not entirely beneficial,
the fact that increasing numbers of people
are enjoying nature at first hand
suggests some hope for the future.
Despite all the changes in China during the last 50 years,
many sacred places like Emei have been protected.
Heading west, China's heartland becomes increasingly rugged.
Beyond the Qinling Mountains lies the even higher Ming Shan,
where towering peaks conceal one of China's most remarkable landscapes,
known to the Chinese as "fairyland paradise".
Jiuzhaigou was virtually unknown until the 1970s.
Today, it's one of China's most famous tourist areas,
and is recognised internationally as a World Heritage Site.
The limestone mountains are the source of crystal-clear springs
which have formed over 100 lakes
filled with lime-rich water of unbelievable colour.
Underwater is a perfectly preserved ghostly forest,
shrouded in algae.
This strange world is home to a species of fish
unique to these lakes.
Who would have guessed that, with close to a billion inhabitants,
China's heartland could still harbour a landscape
of such pristine beauty?
It's spring in the Qinling mountains.
As the farmers tend their new crops,
the secret life of China's most famous animal
is finally coming to light.
In one of the panda's last strongholds,
a drama is about to unfold,
one which has rarely been witnessed.
A young female has ventured into the valley,
sparking a flurry of interest among the resident males.
A panda's life is mostly solitary, until the spring breeding season.
When the brief opportunity to mate arises,
the males must be ready to take their chance.
But timing is everything.
This male's approach is somewhat lacking in subtlety,
and anyway, the female isn't ready for him yet,
her peak receptive time lasts just two days.
So he guards her, biding his time with a good supply of bamboo.
Unfortunately, his hostage must eat too,
but she doesn't exactly feel like descending.
Another male has been attracted to the scene.
He's a veteran of many breeding seasons.
He's wary of his rival, because at this time of year
males are transformed from peace-loving bamboo eaters
into potential killers.
Despite the danger, he makes a challenge.
The defending male rises to meet him.
GROWLING AND ROARING
The challenger is chased by the defending male.
In the thick bamboo,
the battle rages as the males fight for dominance.
The female wisely stays clear of trouble.
The challenger backs down.
The size and strength of the defending male is just too much.
The loser retreats,
and the exhausted but triumphant victor returns to the female.
GROWLING AND ROARING
This time she's ready for him.
Instead of running, she waits.
This is the first time this extraordinary courtship behaviour
has ever been filmed in the wild.
If mating is successful,
the female will produce a single cub and rear it on her own.
Today, with improving attitudes towards wildlife conservation,
there is hope that China's 1,600 remaining wild pandas
have some chance of survival.
In 2003, conservation became an integral part of the curriculum
for China's 200 million school students.
For the children of the Qinling mountains,
knowing what a special neighbour they have
may help to protect it for the future.
In the midst of headlong change,
conducted at a pace unprecedented in human history,
can China hold on to its ancient desire for harmony with nature?
Can it reconcile the aspirations of its people
with the long-term need to protect its environment?
Here at the Temple of Heaven, in the very heart of Beijing,
there are signs of a new attitude towards nature.
Every year, as thousands of birds migrate southwards
to escape the winter, one secretive species
seeks shelter in the temple grounds.
Safeguarded by the temple's tradition,
as many as ten owls can be seen in the same tree.
The owls' arrival is celebrated
by members of the recently formed Beijing Bird Club.
Migration can be a dangerous undertaking,
and every year many owls
suffer the hazards of power lines, traffic and industry.
Some of the more fortunate end up here,
at Beijing's Raptor Rescue Centre.
Established in 2001, it's the first of its kind.
Here, owls are given medical attention
by Sun Quanhui and his team.
The birds are even exercised to help their rehabilitation.
Once deemed fit and healthy,
the owls are taken to the hills at the edge of Beijing.
Every spring, staff from Beijing's Raptor Rescue Centre
release dozens of owls.
Today there are over 1,500 designated nature reserves in China,
covering large tracts of some of the country's finest landscapes.
As China looks to the future with a renewed sense of direction,
ancient traditions are still very much a part of its culture.
It's Chinese New Year.
All over the country, the people prepare to appease
their oldest and most venerated creature, the dragon.
As night falls, everyone from the neighbourhood brings a lantern.
And, one by one, the lights are added to the dragon's tail.
As the procession grows longer, the atmosphere builds
with the spectacle of one of China's oldest and greatest inventions.
The dragon dance is performed all over China.
The ceremony itself is thousands of years old,
but it's still the highlight of the Chinese New Year.
As the dragon winds it way through the village,
it has grown hundreds of metres long.
Everyone is part of it.
After a century of unprecedented change in China,
during which environmental protection has not been a priority,
there are now signs of a new direction.
In October 2006, the Communist Party
specifically identified "promoting harmony between man and nature"
as an important step in their goal of building "a harmonious society",
and called on the Chinese people to accelerate
"the construction of an environmentally friendly society".
As China's economy continues to grow,
its re-engagement with the ancient ideal of harmony with nature
provides a glimmer of hope for the future of wild China.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
E-mail [email protected]
China's heartland is the centre of a 5,000-year-old civilization and is home to the giant panda, the golden snub-nosed monkey and the golden takin. China faces environmental problems, but the relationship the Chinese have with their environment is deep and extraordinary. What does this means for the future of China?