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After a hard morning planting fresh shoots in the dunes on the edge of the Gobi Desert, 78-year-old farmer Wang Tianchang retrieves a three-stringed lute from his shed, sits down beneath the fiery midday sun, and starts to play.

“If you want to fight the desert, there’s no need to be afraid,” sings Wang, a veteran of China’s decadeslong state campaign to “open up the wilderness,” as he strums the instrument, known as the sanxian.

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