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Chinese history

China border regions brought to life in stunning photographs

China at its Limits, by writer/photographer Matthias Messmer and researcher Hsin-Mei Chuang, contains over 400 pages packed with striking images taken over five years and 50,000 kilometres of travelling China’s remote border regions

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 May, 2018, 1:31pm
UPDATED : Monday, 28 May, 2018, 5:35pm

China’s land border stretches for about 22,000 kilometres – the longest in the world – and despite the sheer size of the country, its authorities successfully project the image of a unified, monolithic state.

But as suggested by the old Chinese proverb “the mountains are high and the emperor is far away”, residents of far-flung parts of the country do not always march to the same beat as those living in the capital. And as China ascends to superpower status, these remote border regions are acquiring new significance as lands of opportunity.

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These border areas are the focus of the handsome new hardback China at its Limits, by writer/photographer Matthias Messmer and cultural researcher Hsin-Mei Chuang.

Over more than 400 pages of images, the book takes readers to some of the most remote, exotic areas on the edge of China, such as derelict gambling houses on the Myanmese border and the abandoned trading town of Maimaicheng in modern-day Mongolia.

Over the centuries, China’s rulers have regularly shut the nation off from the outside world – most recently in the era of Mao Zedong. But since the borders started to be reopened in the 1980s, launching China on its path to prosperity, the border areas have played an increasingly important role in the country’s success, the authors write.

China at its Limits, as the title indicates, is about China’s limits. If it has any, its neighbours are surely important ones, geographically, but also figuratively,” Chuang writes in the book’s introduction.

“Geographically, we explore regions on China’s borders. They are more than just marginal areas thinly settled by minorities, for they have also become new promised lands, rich in resources and opportunities. In these areas, we can literally experience how China’s ambitions, ideology and territorial claims are facing limits.”

China at its Limits took Messmer and Chuang five years and 50,000 kilometres of travelling to complete. It involved often arduous journeys to the areas bordering Myanmar, Russia, Vietnam, Kazakhstan, Mongolia and the rest of the 14 countries with which China shares a border.

While a series of illuminating essays cover the histories of these border areas as well as their relevance to modern China, China at its Limits is truly brought to life by Messmer’s stunning photography.

Usually unstaged, and full of cool, muted tones, Messmer’s images perfectly capture the unhurried, traditional ways of life that still exist on the nation’s peripheries, but also the ways a rising China is encroaching more and more every day.

The authors write that the book was written “mainly to help readers better understand the complexities and contradictions that China is struggling with in its ascent to superpower status … We show how circumstances and events in less familiar parts of the country often have a deeper meaning and impact than their seemingly minor status suggests.”