For “Time Clock Piece,” performance artist Tehching Hsieh punched a time clock in his New York studio every hour on the hour from April 11, 1980, to April 11, 1981. For a year, he became perhaps the world’s most punctual person.
Also in 1981, a new job halfway around the world gave one time-oriented employee a similarly demanding task: A tree guardian was appointed to check on a particular pine every two hours, day and night, all year long.
The evergreen charge is the more than 800-year-old Guest-Greeting Pine, which grows at nearly 1,700 meters above sea level on the Jade Screen Peak of Yellow Mountain. The tree got its name because of two large branches roughly halfway up its trunk that make it appear to be greeting someone with open arms.
Since the 1950s, the Guest-Greeting Pine has become a symbol of hospitality. In the Great Hall of the People, the government building in Beijing used for political events, a metal likeness of the tree welcomes visitors from China and abroad.
Today, the duty of watching over the Guest-Greeting Pine lies in the hands of Hu Xiaochun, the 19th guardian. Hu was born in 1980 and, after a stint in the army, became a ranger on Yellow Mountain in 2006. He was selected as the next tree guardian in 2011 but first had to learn from his predecessor for a year before he officially took up the post. It’s not an easy assignment. “I was a soldier for six years. If I receive a mission, I have to do it well,” Hu tells Sixth Tone.
During his bi-hourly inspections, Hu checks a litany of items: whether the tree’s support rods are secure, its lightning protection system is in order, there are any traces of animal damage, and more. If there is any indication that the tree is unwell, Hu is to immediately report the issue so arborists can be dispatched to offer a diagnosis.
There is also the constant threat of tourists and animals scaling the fence around the tree. At night, squirrels and monkeys come out to forage for food. In the daytime, visitors hunt for the perfect selfie. More than 60,000 people climbed Yellow Mountain during the recent three-day Qingming Festival holiday. Last year, the total number of visitors reached upward of 3.3 million. With so much traffic, Hu says, a guardian must remain vigilant. Luckily, an anti-intrusion system warns him whenever someone sets foot or paw in the tree’s space.
The job is most difficult during extreme weather, when Hu must remain on watch virtually around the clock. In August 2012, when Typhoon Haikui hit eastern China, his child, then not even a month old, came down with pneumonia. But Hu couldn’t leave his guardian post. “I couldn’t do anything when I got the call from home, because it was a super typhoon,” Hu says.
One perk of the job, Hu says, is that he can stay close to his family — or at least, much closer than if he were a migrant worker in some faraway big city. Hu’s family lives in the town of Tanjiaqiao, 30 kilometers from Yellow Mountain. He returns home once a month. “Every time I go home, my daughter likes to say, ‘The monkey is back,’” says Hu. Most Chinese families spend the Spring Festival holiday together each year, but since Hu became a guardian in 2011, he has been by the Guest-Greeting Pine’s side for all seven holidays.
For Hu, the illustrious tree symbolizes China’s sense of etiquette. He has grown close to his partner in pine. “If you only see the job as taking care of a tree, then it’s meaningless,” Hu says. “If you treat the pine as a family member, then it’s very different.”