TOTING a compass, a large dagger, and a few bulbs of raw garlic to munch on, Shen Che is not your ordinary Chinese freelance photographer. The native Shanghainese has spent an adventuresome decade tracking down little-known ethnic groups in China's wilderness in an often daring, one-man race to document their fast-disappearing cultures. Riding for weeks on horseback, crossing raging rivers on swinging bamboo footbridges, and skirting earthquakes and landslides, Mr. Shen travels for months each year in the rugged frontier regions where most of China's 91.2 million citizens of various ethnic minorities live.
There, he photographs rare rites and dances, collects artifacts such as primitive hunting tools and musical instruments, and makes tape recordings of ethnic ballads and love songs that he fears will soon be forgotten.
``China's minorities are quickly being assimilated by Han culture,'' says Shen, himself a member of the Han, or ethnic Chinese population, which makes up 92 percent of the country's total.
``I can't hope to protect them. I can only hope to record their way of life before it disappears,'' he says, showing a visitor a small museum of relics that occupies half his modest Beijing courtyard home.
Shen's far-flung expeditions, which he boasts ``haven't used one penny of government money,'' are a striking testimony to how individual conviction and a little gusto can overcome the state controls that pervade much of life in China.
Back in September 1980, fed up with bureaucratic nit-picking at the Shanghai college where he worked making educational films, Shen did something unheard of: He quit his state-assigned job.
Ignoring angry protests from his employers, Shen scraped together about $50, hopped on a sturdy, one-speed bicycle, and peddled off on a photographing odyssey, creating an overnight sensation in Shanghai.
``Everyone in Shanghai thought we were crazy,'' says Shen, who set off with a carpenter he had met at a party a few days earlier.
``We were very confident, though we weren't sure in what,'' he adds with a grin.
Surviving on handouts and pay from odd jobs, the two men cycled thousands of miles across China's coastal provinces of Fujian and Guangdong, around Hainan Island, and through poverty-striken highlands of Guizhou and Guangxi. In April 1981, he reached the southwestern province of Yunnan, home to a score of diverse ethnic groups.
Shen says his entrancement with ethnic life and customs began one day in Yunnan's southern town of Xishuangbana when he was suddenly swept up into the riotous annual ``water-splashing festival'' of the Dai minority.
``I immediately felt that there was almost no gap between me and the minorities. I was in a new world,'' says Shen, who was drenched with buckets of water as he tried to photograph the celebration.
``I knew this would be the focus of my photography.''
Yunnan's tropical footpaths, exotic cultures, and poor but free-spirited inhabitants were like an elixir for a man seeking escape from the pettiness and claustrophobia of life in Shanghai.
So, when his companion caught a train back to the city, Shen stayed on, finding camaraderie among the remote, scattered minority communities that he now considers home.
``I go as a good friend, not as an arrogant Han Chinese. I must do whatever they do, eat whatever they eat,'' says Shen, who has learned to savor dishes ranging from Yunnan's pungent chicken stews to the yak butter tea of neighboring Tibetans.
Once, after a 44-day journey on horseback to the Drung River Valley deep in the mountains of northwestern Yunnan, Drung tribesmen startled Shen by demanding that he hand over a shotgun he was carrying as protection against wild animals.
``I had completely misunderstood them,'' says Shen, who was accompanied during his entire visit by two young guides armed with bows and poison-tipped arrows.
``Before I left, they returned my gun and told me that if I had lost a single hair from my head, their honor would have been ruined.''
Unable to speak minority tongues fluently, Shen relies on sign language and interpretation by younger members of the ethnic groups who have learned some Mandarin, or standard Chinese. Traders on horse caravans help direct him over unmapped terrain.
By living with minority families, earning his keep by feeding livestock and shouldering other chores, Shen sometimes wins acceptance as one of the clan.
During a visit to Yunnan's Nu River Valley, for example, he was dragged into a pit and covered with sand in a mock burial by a band of young Lisu women. In Lisu tradition the ceremony conveys affection, with the most enamored woman crying hardest over the buried man.
Despite the personal risks and financial insecurity, Shen is determined to continue his mission to document minority life.
``If I had returned to Shanghai, people would have arranged a job for me. But in reality, my career would have ended,'' says the energetic Shen.
Jobs in the state-controlled media are stifling and dominated by a depiction of minorities that is superficial, condescending, and ``for show,'' he says.
``At an official newspaper all the topics would be decided by the system, not me. I would be fighting with the leaders all day.''
Instead, Shen has set up his own freelance photography operation, appointing himself the ``bureau chief.'' To get around China's bureaucracy, he deftly uses his own ``letters of introduction,'' identity cards, and the essential red-inked stamp. For financial support, he relies on teaching photography, publishing, holding exhibits, and private sponsors.
Today, Shen's illustrated books on Yunnan's minorities have been translated into Japanese, Spanish, French, and English. He has staged photography exhibits in China, Hong Kong, and South Korea. And his latest project, an eight-volume photographic essay on minorities, is to be published in China in 1992.
Shen hopes that by sharing information with foreign scholars he can contribute to preserving knowledge about the complex and diverse ethnic traditions before they fade completely. Unfortunately, he says, ``There is no way to solve the contradiction between economic modernization and minority cultures in China.''