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Black Earth*
by Tong Lam

Northwestern China’s Loess Plateau has long been regarded as the birthplace of Chinese civilization, but it is also seen as a source of the country’s deep sorrow. In particular, the yellowish loess of the region, found beside the Yellow River, is often associated with cycles of ecological erosion, floods, and droughts and has come to represent China’s poverty and backwardness. Nowhere is such hardship better depicted than in Yellow Earth (1984), an epic film that was the joint product of two giant figures in Chinese cinema, since Chen Kaige directed it and Zhang Yimou was its cinematographer. Among other things, the internationally acclaimed film, which is set during the 1930s, offers a vivid portrayal of Chinese villagers in a desolate region trying to eke out a living on unpredictable loess land.

Until a decade ago, the area located just south of the Ordos Loop of the Yellow River in Inner Mongolia was no different from other poverty-stricken regions in the Chinese Loess Plateau. Local conditions were so harsh that residents were often unable to sustain themselves and had to rely on government subsidies. But the discovery of one of China’s largest coal deposits in the region, coupled with skyrocketing coal prices, have elevated Ordos from one of the poorest places in the country to one of the wealthiest in less than a decade.  

Today, the prefecture-level city is filled with designer architecture, new SUVs, wide avenues, and construction sites with hoardings that promise an even better future. If China’s agrarian civilization was once built on the “yellow earth,” the future of Ordos is built on a thick layer of black deposits under the loess. It is estimated that Ordos is home to about one-sixth of China’s national coal reserves. The sudden arrival of wealth has subsequently led to the development of an overbuilt city and widespread real estate speculation. Indeed, until the central government tried to tame the out-of-control real estate market nationwide a few years ago, it had seemed that only the sky was the limit for Ordos’s hysterical expansion.

In a certain sense, Ordos is the wild west of 21st century China. And only time will tell how this urban economy rooted in black earth develops from here.

Photo 1: Goats grazing along the Yellow River at the northern edge of Ordos. © Tong Lam

Photo 2: In the Ordos region, there are approximately six meters of coal deposits below the yellowish loess. However, a drop in coal prices has led to the slowing down of coal extraction in these open pit mines in the past few years. © Tong Lam

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    Tong Lam’s photos of Ordos, Inner Mongolia, “the wild west of 21st century China.”
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