One of the most overlooked treasures of the ancient world is the Chinese solar calendar. Its division of the year into 24 solar terms has been a vital part of the culture that has helped China maintain a consistent civilization for millennia.
The impact of the calendar on human development is up there with the Chinese written language, and yet most of the world remains unaware of its existence. Photographer Chen Fan hopes to change that.
The 24 solar terms
There are thousands of Chinese characters, and each one is a little pictograph arranged almost like the elements of a painting, often with poetic meaning built into the strokes.
That arrangement gets new layers of meaning over the years in the spoken and written language of Chinese geniuses whose occupations have spanned from gardeners to generals. The language then takes on an even higher consciousness as it comes to harmonize people through the shared acts of speaking and listening, writing and reading, as well as the quiet internal contemplation so prevalent in Chinese philosophy.
The Chinese solar calendar encourages a higher state of consciousness by connecting the simple act of knowing what day it is to the rhythms and poetry of nature. Its 24 terms are like mini-months, each with its own history of poems, songs, and festivals that have developed over the centuries.
These 15-day periods have rich names imbued with meanings not fully captured in their translation. For instance, imagine how much more meaning “First Fresh Snow” has than “the second week of November,” or “Awakening of Insects” than “early March.” The names themselves prompt reflection on the season and give people the chance to note the details of the natural cycles of weather, plants, and animals, and to appreciate the significance of those patterns.
Chen Fan’s Solar Terms on Earth
The latest artist to gain recognition for his homage to the solar terms is photographer Chen Fan. Chen has a degree in philosophy, and he says it was the solar terms that first inspired him to write down his deeper thoughts and pursue his studies.
Chen continued his love of philosophy and history as his photography career took off. Now, after multiple best-selling books, his latest endeavor has been a return to the muse that initially inspired him so many years ago. Solar Terms on Earth, his beautiful new table book, brings the ancient wisdom of the Chinese calendar to life with images of contemporary life in the countryside.
Chen calls himself a human-geography photographer, referring to the wide-ranging discipline that explores how human beings and the landscapes they inhabit impact one another. It’s a study of how societies develop.
Human geography starts by dissecting a society and placing each element under the microscope. A human geographer will then be able to examine the economic geography, cultural geography, political geography, and so on. The solar terms that guide specific cultures in different regions create the perfect approach for Chen to capture the beautiful scenes in China’s vast land.
Flipping Through the photos in Solar Terms on Earth is like a dialogue with the 5,000-year-old spirit of Chinese culture. Each photo is an homage to a solar term, each with a unique characteristic.
In addition to the photos, Chen includes ancient poems, such as this one from Bai Juy:
The white sun slants down,
Shadows stretch longer now,
As the clouds drift low
Hugging the ground
Twenty-four seems to be a comfortable number for the human being. There are 24 hours in a day, and the human eye feels most natural watching 24 frames per second on film.
The hours of a day can be broken down easily, and people can recall the characteristics of each hour. Five a.m. is the crack of dawn, midnight is a little spooky, and so forth. But what do you know off the top of your head about the 30th week of the year?
Indeed, 52 is a lot of weeks, and 52 muses would be a little too much chatter in an artist’s ear. The 24 solar terms allow for an extra layer of richness that the Western calendar lacks in its measure of solar time. It’s that rich layer of meaning that Chen is so eager to share in Solar Terms on Earth.
The photos are colourful and ever-changing, due to the cycle of the seasons. It’s the harmony between man and nature. Chen captures the cherry trees on the shores of West Lake in Hangzhou; the fishermen’s nighttime singing in Guilin, Guangxi; and a camel team in Dunhuang, Gansu Province.
Chen travelled the world for 15 years before publishing this album of work. So much travel outside of his Chinese homeland made his heart ache, he says. “The most beautiful scenery is still the mountains and rivers in China.” But he says Solar Terms on Earth wasn’t created intentionally. He says the theme emerged organically while collating work over a period of years.
By far, Chen’s most memorable shooting experience was Tibet.
Standing on the rooftop of the world, Chen was alone at a lake. It was early morning, and he wanted to shoot the sunrise, but thick, low clouds covered the field and blocked the sun, creating a new visual impact.
“At that time,” said Chen, “there was only one tourist walking by the lake. In this particular morning’s sunlight, this man seemed to be walking in a picture composed of heaven and earth. At that moment, I felt that humans are trivial and not even worth mentioning in the presence of nature. A strong feeling of awe arose in my heart.”
As a human geography photographer, Chen keeps a limber mind when it comes to expectations. He might set out with a mind to take photos of campfire smoke, but if it rains for six days in a row, he returns home with some exquisite rain shots. If the smoke was supposed to get photographed, it would show itself some other time.
Chen notes that this is especially important when waiting for the light and shooting for long stretches of time. “Otherwise, taking photos becomes torture, and I can’t continue.”
After returning from a photo shoot, the process of organizing photos and writing down moods requires a high degree of concentration. Chen often hides behind his studio latchkey for days at a time.
With the same studiousness that earned him his philosophy degree, he enjoys the solitude. He says it enables him to calm down and ponder. He never feels lonely or bored.
The Tao Te Ching is an important text that has impacted the cultural and spiritual landscapes in China. In it, Lao Zi describes China as a small country with a few residents. Thousands of years later, people in China are piled on top of one another. The competition is fierce, the land polluted. The people suffer from so much stress that harmony seems like a fairy tale.
But if a person is able to slip away into nature, the chains of modern reality can be cast off. Chen says, “Everyone can enjoy a life that is adapted to nature—as well as the needs of the ‘self.’ That journey can even make an adult feel like they’re living in a fairy tale. I believe that’s why so many people like my work. That feeling has potent healing powers.”
Each time he sets out with a camera, Chen does some homework on the front end. He studies the natural features and cultural sites in the area. In modern cities, he rarely takes photographs, because he is seeking something different from people’s ordinary lives.
“Modern phones and apps can achieve good results—but those are just records of convenience. A true photographer has a mind to seek something out consciously. The photos should reflect emotions.”
This year, Chen plans to publish a companion album to Solar Terms on Earth. It’s woven with another thread of ancient Chinese timekeeping—this time breaking down the day rather than the year. The new book, Twelve Double-Hours of China, will be available soon.