Travels Through Rural China

By Olga Jazzarelli, April 20, 2014

Completely rebuilt in the 1970s, the Anlan or Couples Suspension Bridge over the River Min in Sichuan is known as one of the Five Ancient Bridges of China.

Completely rebuilt in the 1970s, the Anlan or Couples Suspension Bridge over the River Min in Sichuan is known as one of the Five Ancient Bridges of China.

Returning to China after several years absence, Olga Jazzarelli describes the dramatic changes in China's social, cultural and physical landscapes as she tours the Shanxi and Sichuan provinces.

Completely rebuilt in the 1970s, the Anlan or Couples Suspension Bridge over the River Min in Sichuan is known as one of the Five Ancient Bridges of China. [/caption] As I travelled around China I thought long and hard about what adjective could most faithfully describe what I was seeing and experiencing. Not incomprehensible, nor impenetrable, nor inscrutable (obviously for me): not inaccessible nor “un-explorable”, as the Chinese themselves would have it: maybe unpredictable or unfathomable or simply obscure, mysterious, opaque or enigmatic ….. impossible to condense into a single word the myriad sensations and impressions I experienced during my return encounter with the Middle Kingdom, many years after working and travelling here: my travels were a full immersion in “Chineseness”.

“Chineseness” is a word I would never have dared use if I hadn’t found it in the preface to the Italian translation of Kang Zhengguo’s book “Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China”. But the word came to my mind automatically and to me expresses everything I saw in China: embracing its geography and architecture, its thinking, philosophy, morals, customs and habits, its attitudes and beliefs about the mysteries of life and the after-life, its gods and demons, Good and Evil. This journey plunged me into “Chineseness” to a degree I had not foreseen – and it turned out to be a Chineseness that differed radically from my expectations.

I had envisaged touring a country that probably no longer exists, or if it does, it has changed a lot at least as far as its façade is concerned. In all likelihood there still is a “rural” China, and even though you no longer see peasants dragging their traditional rustic ploughs, you would probably find they have just been hidden behind their decorated wooden front doors. The state of preservation and the richness or otherwise of the decoration of these doors is highly indicative of the wealth of the families residing behind them.

In the past, the “home” belonged to just one family, and the front door carried its name. Now other families have joined them, but the rural village still takes its name from that of the original family. There are various words which indicate the overlapping concepts of home and family: Kou, Jia, Hù, Cheng and Zhai. Rural society is an aggregation of families: lineages which are not interdependent: they are concerned about their own town and they try to maintain a certain independence from central government control. The front door will often give an inkling of the poverty within – they have the same function as the walls in the cities covered by hoardings or painted advertising slogans concealing the hutongs which are still in much the same condition as they were 30 years ago, maybe with the occasional improvement in water distribution or lavatories.

Street in Pingyao, Shanxi province.

Street in Pingyao, Shanxi province.

What immediately struck me during my travels were the roads. Roads are one of the new China’s great achievements. At the beginning of the 90s, the only road worthy of the name was the Peking-Tianjin – at the time accessible to foreign residents as well as locals. All the other roads, such as they were, required travel permits for Chinese and foreigners alike, and there were obligatory refueling stops along the way. Now the government prides itself on the fact that its road network has connected all the municipalities, even though it has yet to reach the villages. The motorways are excellent, with signposting in English and Chinese. There are emergency stopping lanes, motorway service areas, which are either operational or set up ready for the future, as well as filling stations and multiple exits. Speed limits are clearly signposted and generally closely monitored, and traffic jams are relatively rare.

Some roads go through undeveloped zones, but still have turn-offs, underpasses, overpasses and junctions prepared for future necessity. Roadsides are often terraced, ready for the planting of trees and flowers, or for the cultivation of tea or fruit trees. Chinese foresight in road planning was already noticeable in Chongqing in 2006 when traffic volume certainly didn’t warrant the 12-lane highways they had built. Road toll fees vary according to the cost of the road-works involved: lower prices for level areas that don’t require complex construction work and higher prices for roads needing a major investment for tunnel-building etc. Tolls range from ½ yuan to 1/3 yuan per kilometre and are paid to whoever is responsible for the building of the road: either a public institution or a private entrepreneur. Drivers on busy roads have a device on their car (ETC Electric Traffic Control) which automatically charges the cost of the toll to their traffic card, while on other roads you pay in cash. Petrol costs around 1 euro a litre, but competition among the various oil companies means you can find offers as low as 60 eurocents a litre.

Another thing that immediately hits you is the Chinese passion for big foreign cars (those who can afford them, naturally!) which are now made in China, mainly in the area around Shanghai. However Chinese homegrown cars, despite being produced by a reputable company (CAMC), and sold locally and internationally at cheaper prices, are snubbed by the Chinese, who say they are not reliable. They say that the price difference is not relevant and that the quality is mediocre – but the problem probably lies in their meager value as a status symbol!

The Giant Buddha of Leshan (713 AD) in the Mount Emei area of Sichuan province. 71 metres high, the statue took 90 years to complete.

The Giant Buddha of Leshan (713 AD) in the Mount Emei area of Sichuan province. 71 metres high, the statue took 90 years to complete.

My itinerary involved touring two provinces of great cultural and natural interest, avoiding places where the climate was too hot and humid: Shanxi province in central/northern China situated in the middle of the Yellow River valley with cities like Taiyuan, Datong, Pingyao; and Sichuan (Four Rivers) province with its capital at Chengdu. Sichuan is rich in sites of interest such as Leshan, Mount Emei, Dujiangyan and Jinsha which are home to the ancient civilizations of the River Yangtze, “Blue River” or Chang Jiang as the Chinese call it, the longest river in Asia and the third-longest in the world.

Not much is known about the origins of these early civilizations, but they could be a combination of local and foreign cultures. The bronzes found at Yinxu, which show similarities to Etruscan bronzes from the end of VI century and early V century BC, seem to many historians the result of a combination of various cultures from western, eastern and southern Asia. Like the carved masks and heads of Asian shamans, those of Etruscan soothsayers also feature many “long noses” as the Chinese call Westerners. Could there possibly be some ancient connection between such distant parts of the world? The Chinese rule out the idea but it is a fascinating one (….similar facial features can also be found among the Aztec, pre-Colombian Meso-American peoples who dominated large parts of central Mexico from XIV to XVI centuries).

It makes little sense to record here the details of all the places I visited (that the reader, and even I, wouldn’t remember anyway). They all resemble each other to the point of being hardly distinguishable – being extremely repetitive both structurally and in their decoration. A propos of which, I feel I must say a word about the lamentable Chinese “conservation methods”– their practices being far removed from the Western, and particularly the Italian, school of restoration. The Chinese way includes complete reconstruction of buildings destroyed by events or the passing of time and the repainting of statues or frescoes which had lost their original colour, maybe adding a fake patina of antiquity at the finish.

All these historic sites have become amusement parks, Disneyland-style, invaded en masse by Chinese tourists who have discovered the joys of travelling. Now that permits are no longer required for going from one place to another, they travel in droves; entire families on the move with parents, sons and daughters, grandparents, children and old folk, and disabled in wheelchairs. They enjoy themselves enormously, buying all kinds of souvenirs, and indulging in sweet treats and drinks (one reason why Chinese children are getting ever more obese!)

The Hanging Temple in the province of Datong. Built 1400 years ago, it unites Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.

The Hanging Temple in the province of Datong. Built 1400 years ago, it unites Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.

What was noticeable about these family groups was the presence of numerous couples with more than one child: one carried on the parent’s shoulders, maybe one in a pram and the woman showing evident signs of pregnancy. One gets the idea that the One-Child policy imperative is no longer so categorical, or at least it is not seen to be by many people. In rural areas many couples have more than one child, especially if the firstborn is not a boy.

Huge amounts of money have been spent on building these attractions and evidently the necessary funds flow more readily when the works have the patronage of a powerful figure – whether political or economical – and consequently the area has more chance of development and progress. Both in Shanxi and Sichuan, it was easy to recognize who held the levers of power, at either local or provincial level. These “opportunities” have created abundant wealth which is concentrated in the hands of the few, dramatically amplifying the divide between rich and poor.

Meanwhile central government talks endlessly about the fight against corruption. On 8 September 2013, just a few months after the Party Congress, in an article entitled: “Let power be exercised in the clear light of day”, the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, reiterated the Government’s agenda: restoring citizens’ faith in government institutions and putting more power in the hands of the people. That article was published just a week before the disgrace, trial and subsequent removal of Bo Xilai, one of the Chinese Communist Party’s highest ranking officials. But it is common knowledge that at a local level, there may be, for instance, pressure to employ this or that person for a certain job and for a certain period of time – it is implicitly recognized by both parties that his or her only function is to ensure there are no bureaucratic hiccups when approval is required for a particular document or project.

Propitiatory offerings at the Museum of Banks in Pingyao, the birthplace of Chinese banking, now a World Heritage site.

Propitiatory offerings at the Museum of Banks in Pingyao, the birthplace of Chinese banking, now a World Heritage site.

During my travels, I got the chance to speak to local people about the welfare situation in China, particularly in terms of housing, education and health services. Education is guaranteed and free for nine years (up to lower middle school). Everyone has free access to a family doctor, but many people prefer to go directly to the hospital, where the service quality ranges from adequate to excellent. In public hospitals the patient has to cover a proportion of the costs – from 15% up to a maximum of 35%. There are also private hospitals which advertise their “specializations” – skin diseases, gastritis, deafness etc.

People no longer have a guaranteed right to a home. The Government contributes to a housing fund which is set up when one starts work. The amount may be enough to finance a home renovation, but would never cover the cost of buying a house – at least not in Peking. As a result, entire residential areas have sprung up in rural areas or small towns, with apartments of all sizes and catering to all budgets, which the Chinese buy in order to possess a home where the extended family can live or simply get together. Government assistance in all three categories covers country as well as city dwellers. Starvation has almost completely disappeared and in any case there is a form of social solidarity, with mobilization of the whole community.

Sichuan is a good example of the principle of mutual solidarity in action. The region was hit by a massive earthquake in 2008 which killed almost 70,000 people. Today there is no trace of the destruction wreaked by the quake and the new constructions are safer and better quality. Praxis has it that when there is a natural disaster, the central government orders the wealthiest municipalities to take on the responsibility for, and the financing of, the reconstruction. Under the Aid Plan passed in 2008, 19 provinces and municipalities in China were involved in helping 18 counties in Sichuan on the basis of 1 province/1 county, for three years. The Plan was carried out within the set time and by 2012 all restoration and reconstruction had been completed. 200,000 farmers who had lost their land were re-housed in the cities (although they had some difficulties adapting). The spontaneous “twinning” of regions, provinces and local councils continues to operate to the mutual advantage and satisfaction of all concerned. The large exit road from Emei is called Peking Road in recognition of the aid received from that city.

The Great Dam of Dujiangyan was built in 256 BC to control the flow of water in the River Min, a tributary of the Yangtze. It is still in use to irrigate over 5,300 sq kms of farmland. The image shows part of the huge engineering project, the weir. The original has been replaced by a modern concrete structure.

The Great Dam of Dujiangyan was built in 256 BC to control the flow of water in the River Min, a tributary of the Yangtze. It is still in use to irrigate over 5,300 sq kms of farmland. The image shows part of the huge engineering project, the weir. The original has been replaced by a modern concrete structure.

A young Chinese student gives us an account of the day’s activities. Sixteen-year-old Zhang Wen Yi speaks very good English, despite never having had mother-tongue teachers and despite the fact that she learns all her lessons by rote in a class of 56 pupils. The secret lies in the Chinese system of testing. From the very beginning of their school career, even at pre-school level, students are subjected to a series of tests which select only the most gifted (and the most heavily pressured) for enrolment in the best kindergartens and infant schools and so on right up to high school and university. This drives everyone into desperate competition, which can only be maintained by constant studying and effort. Wen Yi told us it was impossible ever to relax, otherwise: “Your classmates poke fun at you, your teachers scorn you and your parents beat you!” Basically, these students study from 6.00 in the morning till 10.30 at night. Family pressure on students is enormous and in some cases unbearable. On 7 August the papers reported the suicide of an 11-year-old boy who had thrown himself from an upper story window.

With regards to Chinese script, the transition to pinyin (official phonetic system for transcribing the Mandarin pronunciations of Chinese characters into the Latin alphabet) and its adaptation for computer use, has meant that by a simple tap on the keyboard you can choose the appropriate monosyllable. As a consequence, the ability to write or draw a Chinese ideogram is progressively diminishing and there are fears that this could lead to the total loss of such skills. Recent tests show that many Chinese, including educated ones, are unsure of the number and order of brushstrokes in writing ideograms. To counteract this trend, schools and universities have begun to put on courses in ideogram writing – almost like drawing practice for the “students” – who also reap the benefit of rediscovering their heritage. The loss of literacy and writing ability through computer use appears to be a world-wide trend, (as evidenced by the Italian linguist Tullio De Mauro) – a phenomenon found more among young people who have substituted the pen with the keyboard.

Television: there are innumerable local, regional and provincial TV stations, each one broadcasting news which interests their own audience. Programmes are repeated and there are continual ad breaks. On national TV, the ads are the same as those we see in the west, promoting big industrial or commercial names like Omo, Nestlè, Pantène, and Pampers as well as drug companies and car manufacturers. You can watch programmes from National Geographic or performances of the Peking Opera 24 hours a day. Soap operas abound, the most popular being historic sagas which are followed avidly by people of all ages and walks of life – other series revolve around the family and emotional goings-on of a married couple or a set group of characters. The spirit of competitiveness is fostered in numerous programmes where contestants are rewarded for distinguishing themselves in any way at all: the best hairstyle, the best musical performance, the best show in Chinese performed by foreign students – even the best father…. In June that particular award was won by a Swiss man – father to Alice!

Local women from the ancient city of Huanglongxi making flower garlands to sell as headgear to protect the wearer from the sun.

Local women from the ancient city of Huanglongxi making flower garlands to sell as headgear to protect the wearer from the sun.

The pleasure I got out of this return trip to China undoubtedly coloured my perceptions and put a positive spin on the account recorded here: I think I probably saw everything through rose-tinted glasses, and having re-read my notes, I think it is only fair to give dissenting voices a chance to be heard – those known to the western world through the international mass media.

To this end I read “Confessions: An Innocent Life in Communist China” by Kang Zhengguo (mentioned earlier) and “Monologues of a Doomsday’s Survivor” by Liu Xiaobo (Nobel for Peace 2010). Kang Zhengguo relates his personal experiences of daily life in communist China: the accusations of being counter-revolutionary, his exclusion from the university, his imprisonment, first in a re-education camp and then in a work camp, the harshness of his life and his attempts to escape. After becoming an American citizen he decided not to return to China. Liu Xiaobo however shows no hostility towards the China he criticizes and disapproves of; in fact his whole demeanour is one of hope and confidence. The growing disillusionment among Chinese youth, along with rising anger at the arrogance of bureaucrats has meant that more and more people have begun to fight for their rights. Liu sees this progressive spreading of grassroots movements as a sign of hope for democracy in China. In 2009 he was condemned to eleven years of prison for “inciting subversion of state power”.

I also read or reread a number of books including “China in Ten Words” by Yu Hua, one of China’s most important contemporary writers. In it he reveals the hard truths that are hidden behind the triumphant statistics of China’s rapid – and unequal – development. The historic novels of Mo Yan (winner of the 2012 Nobel for literature) like “Big Breasts and Wide Hips” are grassroots historiographies recounted by individuals – history made by stories of the common people. Mo Yan is viewed favourably by Peking, however his latest novel, “The Frog”, condemns the atrocities provoked by the One Child policy. The international best seller “Wild Swans”, a family autobiography by Chang Jung, also gives a moving account of suffering during the Cultural Revolution. The author emigrated to England in 1978. This reading reminded me of the things I had forgotten about China, or that I had unconsciously been unwilling to recognize or remember.

Gods and Demons in the museum in Pingyao.

Gods and Demons in the museum in Pingyao.

I have always been interested in Revolutions – and I am generally in favour of them: including the Libyan revolution (1969) which inspired me to read Gheddafi’s “Green Book” immediately, the “coloured” revolutions (I was among the crowds during the Revolution of the Roses in Tbilsi, Georgia in 2003) and, naturally, the Arab Spring uprisings, although they have not been crowned with success. Nevertheless small steps are being taken on the road towards democracy. In Tunisia the new Constitution sanctions Islam as the state religion, but Islamic law – sharia – has been excluded from forming the basis of Tunisian law. Not only that, but for the first time in the Arab world, citizens’ rights and duties have been recognized as identical for men and women, without any discrimination.

In China, as if to confirm Liu Xiaobo’s hopes, the government has recently announced a revision of the birth control policy (even though only experimentally and only under certain conditions) and the abolition of work camps as a system of re-education. Pope Francis was classified in China as one of the top ten key figures of 2013. Could this be a sign of rapprochement between China and the Vatican? It must be remembered that in China nothing happens by chance. On 13 January 2014 the city of Peking along with other major Chinese cities imposed a limit on the number of cars allowed to circulate and be registered, taking into account the level of air pollution and population growth. This could serve as an example to other big Asian nations like India and to Africa’s most advanced economy, Nigeria.

At this point it is fair to ask: Is there a Chinese road towards democracy?

I would like to believe there is.

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Olga Jazzarelli worked for many years for the Italian Foreign Affairs Ministry, teaching Italian in Malta (1982-4) and China (1989-92) as well as co-ordinating cultural and vocational programmes. She also worked in Ethiopia (1996-7) as the co-ordinator of University programmes. Since 1994, she has been a member of Seniores Italia Partner per lo Sviluppo Onlus and since 2006 has been the co-ordinator of the Tavolo Tre “Intercultural training and education for Development” as part of the Rome city council’s Citizens’ Committee for Co-operation.
She has travelled widely throughout the world, more often than not the hard way.

All photos © the author.

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