1996 / 10月
Text and photos by Feng Jie /tr. by Jonathan Barnard
"Ta-ta, ta, ta-ta. . . ." With the mood set by Tchaikovsky's beautiful melodies, ballet dancers show a special "sculptured beauty"-turning into a flock of white swans playing at the edge of a lake. This immortal love story, which tells of swans' noble beauty, the unwavering love of a prince, and the eventual defeat of an evil wizard, has moved one generation after another. This Swan Lake is well known both in the West and in China.
The Swan Lake of the East is found at Rongcheng in China's Shandong Province. There, the four seasons are distinct, but in winter the lake's clear waters don't freeze and the temperature is just right for swans. And so every year from November to the following April, more than 10,000 white swans descend upon this place, making it the largest wintering spot for swans in the Orient, or for that matter anywhere in the world.
Beholding Swan Lake
With the first cold spell, I went to the shores of Swan Lake in an aesthetic frame of mind, to view beautiful scenes of swans. Standing on the shore of the lake, which is actually an inlet of the sea, and casting my eyes across the water, I could see thousands of swans doing hundreds of different things, their noisy cries pulsating in vigorous waves. The swans were scattered in flocks and bunches across the azure surface of the lake. The dazzling snow white of their feathers was pleasing to behold. In the foreground a large flock of swans was poking around on the lake bottom near shore, which had been exposed by the receding tide. They were looking for fresh water, and their white bodies stood out in bright contrast to the dun-colored marsh. Out on the lake, a multitude of swans, grouped in clear lines, were frolicking. Up above, amid the grey, misty emptiness, the birds were the only discernable flecks of color. Amid this triple-layered scene of swans at the lake, there were also thousands of sea gulls swooping and diving overhead, wild geese flying in orderly formation, mandarin ducks swimming in pairs, wild ducks quacking, and even rare red-crowned cranes prancing elegantly on the beach.
Approaching the swans
In the night I retired to the Mashan Guest House on the lake's southern shore. Standing at the window, with stars flickering above, I could make out an occasional call of a bird from the lake. At 5:00 the next morning, under the cover of darkness, I quietly made my way to the lake shore and tried to approach the swans.
With the eastern horizon just starting to redden, the birds were making increasingly numerous calls of various lengths. On the beach of several hundred meters I could make out the vague figures of awakening swans: some were washing their faces and preening their feathers; others, taking short steps, were extending their necks and puffing out their chests. As the morning sun rose, the lake surface turned blood red, while the swans' calls, ever higher pitched and grouped together, echoed out across the lake. Here and there you could hear the beat of their wings as they took to flight. When I was about 100 meters from them, a particularly sensitive swan took off and gave a warning call. Group after group took to the sky, and there before me was the beautiful sight of swans silhouetted against the morning clouds.
I tried again and again to approach the swans; I got near and then nearer-200 meters, 100 meters, and then as close as 40 meters. That was probably as close as I could hope to get. One elderly bird watcher, with more than 10 years of experience observing swans, said that 40 meters was the ideal distance.
"You can't get any closer?"
"You can, but it takes time." The old man's explanation gave me insight into the meaning of distance. Originally people hunted swans and geese for sustenance so that they themselves could live. A Chinese folk song runs, "Old goose, old goose, throw it in the pot with noodles; old swan, old swan throw it in the pot and make some soup." It may have been barbaric behavior, but people had no choice. By the late 1970s there were only 76 swans at Swan Lake. After reforms on the mainland, people began to grow conscious of the importance of protecting wildlife, and turned from being swans' arch enemies to being their guardians. The 40-meter distance is a legacy of the era when men would hunt swans.
"This distance is a measure of the level of human civilization," said an observer from a mainland China national bird center.
The fathers of swans
At Swan Lake I had the good fortune to meet two extraordinary persons: The first was the bird watcher mentioned above, Li Mingchuan, and the other was Wang Baohua, the party secretary for Cheng-shanwei Township and the director of the Swan Lake Economic and Technical Research and Development Committee. For their special contributions, they are affectionately known as the "fathers of swans."
The 58-year-old Li Mingchuan was originally a junior high-school geography teacher. During his decades of teaching, he spent his leisure time doing work to protect the swans. At school, he inspired students to create a "Swan Protection Group" and explained the meaning of environmental protection work to make them more conscious of the need to protect wildlife.
In society Li uses every opportunity to publicize national wildlife protection policies, and to educate people to protect swans and the ecology. He has close ties to the China Geographic Society, the China Wildlife Protection Association and national bird centers.
Li Mingchuan has also been steadfast in performing his long-term observations, and whenever he has time, he goes to lakes to record data for his research on swan wintering areas. These have filled notebook upon notebook. Far and wide he is known as a swan expert. Whenever people from the area find injured swans, they take them to Li, who treats them and lets them go. A German woman who is an acquaintance of his describes him with great passion as "the father of swans."
If Li is the chief advocate for protecting swans, then Wang Baohua has played the leading role in raising people's knowledge about Swan Lake and in developing the Swan Lake District.
In 1991, Wang Baohua, then 35, had just taken the post of party secretary for Chengshanwei Township. He recognized the value of this completely undeveloped stretch of land around Swan Lake, and first proposed the idea of a Swan Lake District. The idea was approved by the Shandong provincial government in 1993, when it was designated a provincial-level economic development zone.
In order to develop the resources of Swan Lake and thus strengthen the township's economy, Wang on the one hand used the news media to get people talking about the lake-thus making it famous-and on the other hand announced a series of measures aimed at protecting the lake and beautifying the environment. RMB 9.6 million was allotted to establish basic facilities, thus making the lake a tourist destination. Up to the present, more than 16 companies, Chinese and foreign, are in the area, and some ten firms have invested in building facilities in the development district, such as vacation villages, sanitariums, a circular trade center and hotels.
An encounter with beauty
Coming to Swan Lake is like arriving in a fairy-tale land. As night falls, the birds' calls echoing across the sky delight their human listeners. Early in the morning, the swan princesses pull you from your dreams with their soft calls. Bathed in the yellow light of the sun, a new day begins.
Lingering in the wetlands and looking at the swans in the distance, I had an idea. The next day, Party Secretary Wang arranged for me to board a boat. From the bay beyond the lake, we sailed around a sand bar a hundred meters wide to enter "the kingdom of the swans." The rumble of the motor disturbed the quiet, and the boat's wake rippled the lake's formerly placid surface. Mr. Qu, the boat's skipper, said that it was the first time in more than a decade that he had a chance to enter Swan Lake.
The lake's water was very clear, providing good views of the seaweed and algae growing on its bottom. From time to time we could see sea cucumbers. Old Qu pulled one out of the water that was easily a half meter in length. "This sea cucumber was cultivated by the Mashan Sea Cucumber Cultivation Team," he said laughing. "They harvest a million RMB of them a year."
Apart from being drawn to the suitable temperatures and the pristine, unpolluted waters of the lake, the swans also come here for the algae at the bottom of the lake. Providing the swans with ample nutrition, the algae are one reason this inlet became Swan Lake. On that day countless swans were on the lake in their orderly lines, stretching their necks under the surface in the shallow waters to gulp down the algae. Floating on the surface of the water, each plump swan formed a round white spot.
As the small boat approached the swans slowly from behind, the swans glided slowly away. As the boat picked up speed, so did the swans-maintaining a distance of about 60 meters between us and them. Then, suddenly cranking up the engine, we came to within nearly 30 meters, and the startled swans jumped out of the water, kicking up spray and darting out of our way. Beating their wings with great force to rise out of the water, they brought up a lot of spray, and their flapping and thumping could be heard near and far across the lake, weaving a tapestry of sound across the misty surface of the water. Some of the swans were beating the water with their wings, others taking flight, others flying in formation through the sky, others hovering, others flying solo. On the surface of the lake in the distance they descended one after another. For one instant the silver swans flying and dancing had covered the sun; it was quite magnificent.
Turning around to go back, we discovered a lone swan in the middle of the lake, turning itself around and around and raising up spray several meters high while trying to lift off. Looking through binoculars I discovered that the swan seemed to be pinned down by something. She was making long and desperate calls. To approach the bird, Old Mr. Qu turned the bow of the ship and quickly made for her. "Thump, thump" her big wings flapped vigorously, as she kept spinning around at the same spot. Seeing us coming, the swan made a seemingly helpless gesture of sticking out her neck to lie out flat on the surface of the water. Grabbing the bird, I discovered that the webbing of her foot had been pierced by a hook caught in a rope used by the local aquaculturists. The swan's blood was turning the water around her red. I quickly tried to pull out the fish hook with my hands, but the hook was too deeply caught in the flesh, and I ended up cutting my own index finger instead. All the while, the injured bird was splashing and struggling to fly away, drenching us with lake water. Finally we had no choice but to pull out a knife and cut the rope. Mr. Qu turned up the motor and we sped back with the bird to the harbor in the bay.
Ashore, the Chengshan Fishing Company quickly dispatched a vehicle to bring us to Li Mingchuan's place. He took out the fish hook, applied medicine and wrapped the wound. So that I could more conveniently observe her recovery, I took the injured swan back to the hotel with me.
The swan had a proud air and viewed everything with cool detachment. She hardly caused any fuss, but often made a clicking sound to convey her authority. I named her the "Ice Princess." Every day, I'd give the Ice Princess a couple of baths, and when the water from the shower head sprayed across her body, she would spread her wings, bring in her head, turn her beak and shake off the water, all with the most leisurely of attitudes. Then I'd let the Ice Princess float in the tub.
The women on the hotel staff would bring vegetables, sea food and even dumplings for the Ice Princess to eat. But with an "I'm the fairest in the land" self-assurance and disdain for the lot of us, she didn't touch her food.
The Ice Princess viewed all things of the human world as strange, and was particularly attracted to the big mirror in the bathroom. Every time we went into the bathroom, the bird ignored me and gazed only at her reflection. Perhaps she missed companionship!
The Ice Princess weighed about 15 kilos and was more than a meter tall. Her neck was 50 centimeters long, about twice as long as common domesticated geese. Swan and goose down is the dearest and most famous kind of bird feathers, known as an excellent insulator. It keeps swans warm to temperatures as low as -10 degrees Celsius. Every day swans consume about 1 kilo of food and water. Their meat is extraordinarily tasty, a fact that has given rise to a Chinese expression about lecherous oglers of beautiful women: "The toad wants to eat the swan's flesh."
Three days later, when the Ice Princess' wound had healed, we decided to release her.
In the early morning light of a cold winter's day, I entered the marshes of the lake district with the two "fathers of swans." Not far away a flock of swans were swaying, searching for fresh water. When the Ice Princess saw them, she began to make greeting calls while still in Li Mingchuan's arms. About 70 meters from the flock, we put her down: "Fly!" But the Ice Princess didn't budge. "Fly! Go on, fly!" The Ice Princess seemed to have gotten a sense of what was going on, and she started to run forward. Then she turned around and charged back at us, taking to flight only a few meters away while issuing a greeting call: "gei gei." Her flight made an elegant line through the sky as she headed for the others. When she joined the flock, it became hard for us to tell which one she was. Then, against the brightening clouds in the distance, the flock flew
off toward the light and we could almost hear strains of Tchaikovsky's beautiful music.
Swans take to flight.
Li Mingchuan, champion of swans, often teaches children the importance of protecting them.
The "Swan Women," defenders of swans.
Behold this happy, waddling family!