MINGYUE, China — I once saw a photo of a man with blue hands. They belonged to an artisan textile dyer, an ethnic Miao who goes by the name Han Shan, or Cold Mountain.
Intrigued, I requested a meeting. Han Shan said to meet him at an ancient Buddhist monastery in western Sichuan Province, on the edge of the Tibetan Plateau.
“To put it simply, to us dyeing means life,” he said in the courtyard of the monastery, as we sipped tea under a full moon. I asked him to explain.
Speaking in the third person, he told his story.
He described a boy who grew up in a village in the mountains of Guizhou Province and the textile dyeing tradition of the Miao people. While other ethnic groups in southern China also use natural dyes, the Miao dye is known for its vibrant blue color, which comes from what Han Shan called the “blue herb,” or baphicacanthus cusia.
At 18, when it was time to further his education, Han Shan, like many young Chinese, moved to a big city, Chengdu, in Sichuan, with hopes of a better future. But after a year, he had become disillusioned with China’s urban dream.
One day, he decided to walk away from the city. Literally. He set off on foot, with no specific destination, let alone purpose. It would become a journey of more than 2,000 miles and 15 years.
“I wanted to explore an unknown world,’’ he said. “To put it simply, I started walking because I was bored.”
In the years that he walked across Tibet, Xinjiang, Gansu, Ningxia and Yunnan, nearly 445 million people moved from China’s countryside to the city. Average incomes jumped to nearly $8,000, from less than $1,000 a year. For most people, life had rapidly transformed for the better.
But not for Han Shan. He remained in China’s past.
When asked how he spent his time over those 15 years, he decided it would be best to demonstrate.
The next day, we set off through tea fields, bamboo forests and mountain paths. Along the way, he picked wildflowers, explaining their properties. “This flower can be used as a red dye,” he said, throwing one into a basket on his back.
In Han Shan’s view, China’s modernization has come at a price: Society has lost its connection with nature. “We are developing so fast, we have forgotten where we came from,” he said. “Materialism is one of the core things that keep people away from nature.”
For him, this carries dangers: “In Taoism we say: After the moon waxes, it wanes. Prosperity is the prelude to decline. Everything collapses when it reaches such extremes.”
His answer to China’s materialistic society has been to retreat to this village, Mingyue, on the outskirts of Chengdu, where he cultivates a simple life. Ironically, perhaps, he survives by selling the clothing he dyes to the same people he considers too materialistic.
The dyeing tradition was passed to him from his mother and to her, from many generations of Miao before. Now Han Shan has carried the tradition from Guizhou to Mingyue, where artists and free spirits like himself are creating a new space for themselves. Now, even some local villagers have taken up the dyeing trade.
Urbanites armed with selfie poles and shiny new cars seeking a weekend getaway drop by to buy the naturally made clothes. Their purchases are putting food in Han Shan’s stomach, a roof over his head and a smartphone in his pocket.
The natural dyes may have represented life to the Miao people, a connection to the natural world, but now those same dyes are Han Shan’s actual lifeline — his livelihood. Even those willing to walk thousands of miles cannot entirely avoid materialism’s reach.