A Letter from China
February 6, 2001
Eleventh in a Series by Ernest Pinson
O.K., so here I stand, right smack dab in the middle of Eastern China, in the middle of An Hui, in the middle of a commune farm village, which, as far as I can tell, is in the middle of nowhere -- literally. I'll tell you why.
To get here we took a bus about 12 miles so we could catch another bus to ride about 5 hours from Nanjing (my city of 6 million) to Huo Qiu (a small city of about 200,000); then took a taxi for 20 minutes around hills, lakes, farms, and forest to Xin Dian (a small village of a mere 10,000 people). It's the kind of place described in Goldsmith's "Deserted Village" where the village school master knows everybody and your neighbor across the street knows more about your family than you do.
I was as cold as a frozen noodle, so cold, in fact, that the people there rolled me up in a double blanket and laid me in bed with my foot at my friend's head and his feet at my head. Yep! Slept like that all night long and stayed warm, too. We slept in bed like two hot tomatoes (well, maybe just "warm" tomatoes). All this came about by an offer from my college-friend-Chinese-English-teacher to visit his parents in An Hui Province of mid-east China in February 2000.
We ate dinner in the front room of a 6-room building that had a bedroom behind it, and above it, and beside it, and diagonal to it. To get to the kitchen you walked across a small concrete courtyard, which also contained a chicken pen, a container in the corner for night bathroom visits and stacks of wood.
We had beef and fish to eat and the bones were either put on the table or dropped on the floor after eating. This was okay, of course, because the table was cleaned and the floor swept right after each meal. The men smoked cigarettes both during and after the meal (sorry, girls, only the guys smoke in China -- it's a kind of macho thing.) Before bedtime I needed to use the restroom, so four guys marched me to a covered but open latrine used by the community. It had open concrete ditches, no lids, no doors, no lights (it was night). It reminded me of my grandfather's tobacco farm when I went to what was called "the out-house."
The next day I got up to birds singing while I bathed my cold feet in a pail of hot water. A hot hearty breakfast waited (Chinese eat 3 hot meals a day and often include some of the same food in all 3 meals, like rice, fish, pork, duck, 3-4 greens, bean curd, soup, mushrooms, dumplings -- seldom do they have bread, raw vegetables, salads, or milk with a meal).
Then we had a walk around the village. In the center of town was a rather large, wide street, and in the middle of that was a market where all sorts of things were sold. It seemed to me that everyone was buying and selling to everyone else -- a kind of free-for-all swapshop. Almost every house seemed to have something to sell in front for several street blocks. My friend's father had begun to sell "bean curd," a kind of paste made from milk and white beans that people in China really like. I don_t recall seeing it in the U.S.A., but they cook it in many ways.
Lunch was with 8 fellows who had been playing cards that morning (this was during their Spring Festival in early February). My friend's younger sister had prepared lunch, and dinner was prepared by his older sister in the back of their room upstairs above the kitchen. Chinese enjoy eating with friends and relatives much more than we practice. A long walk around the village showed a small school, pigs in the back yards, chickens in the street, and a mixture of tractors, bicycles, motorcycles and small trucks on the street (rarely is a car seen). Everyone seemed to know my friends and come out to greet them. The Chinese farmers build houses close together in clusters rather than spread them around the farmland as we do. When I asked why, the matter-of-fact answer was that it saves land and space; if the house is built on the farm, it consumes too much land that could be used for growing food.
Their homes are made of brick, reinforced concrete or concrete blocks. Of course building together in a village cluster permits little space for farm animals, hence the chickens, pigs, and sheep in the town, almost no dogs or cats are seen. During the Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao told the Red Guard they should get rid of the dogs because they ate too much food and they could eat all the dogs they killed. (Chinese grow what they call "vegetable dogs" to eat even today -- they feed them only vegetables to keep their flesh tender.)
The next day we made the same 30 minute taxi ride (beginning at 5 a.m.) before catching the same bus for the 5 hour trip, finally ending with the 30 minute ride home in a "Mazada" -- no, that's not a car; it's a motorcycle with a cab attached to the back. It will carry about 3 people in very close quarters for short distances at about 40 cents per mile.
One must keep in mind that Chinese have been farming this way for a long time and it has certain advantages. This way they become very group conscious and such a communal system teaches dependence upon each other since they are all farmers with the same interests. My friend's parents housed two more families, and I saw many friendships bonded there. They had even reserved a room for my friend in case he wanted to return home.
But this farm system in some ways is losing out to the modern world. It is unable to feed the largest populated nation in the world adequately. The Chinese government realizes this and has called for modernization. Just recently in The China Daily (Jan. 16, 2001) an article appeared on the front page titled "Agricultural Technology Set to Take the Field" where Vice-Premier Li said, "Agriculture science and technology should serve as a basis for expanding the farm produce market, and major progress should be made in research to narrow the gap between China and other countries that already have advanced technology."
He called for advances in the farmer's income and in scientific help to improve their land and machinery. So, at least according to Li, changes are in the works.
Anyway, that's the Chinese farm----next week the Chinese city. Stay tuned to the Harbinger.
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