A Dream of Grey Mansions16 min read

Back to the land – Nick Holdstock

In 1979, 80 per cent of China’s population lived in the countryside; by 2010 this proportion had almost halved. Of all the convulsions that have shaken Chinese society in the last hundred years, the shift towards becoming a primarily urban society has arguably been the most revolutionary. Though the countryside witnessed huge upheavals during the Maoist era, first with collectivisation, then with the terrible famine that followed, neither of these led to the removal of almost an entire generation from rural communities. But the great rush towards the factory towns in south China has removed the majority of people of working age from the countryside. In many villages, the only people left are grandparents and their grandchildren.

I wanted to see how the continuing exodus to the cities had affected rural life in Hunan, so in 2014 I accompanied a friend of mine on a trip to his village. But when I asked Weiping if he was looking forward to going home, he immediately shook his head. The problem wasn’t the three-hour bus ride to the village where he’d grown up, or the cost of getting there. He didn’t earn a lot of money as a senior middle-school teacher, and apart from wanting the most up-to-date iPhone, he didn’t have expensive tastes. It also wasn’t because he didn’t get on with his family; he said he often missed them. What made going home difficult was the gifts – the money he had to hand out to his relatives.

The gift-giving began before we even got to Weiping’s village. On the way we had to stop and see his grandmother. We got off the bus at a junction on the brow of a small hill, then followed a narrow path that descended in slow curves towards a group of houses clustered around a pond. It had just been raining; as we walked, the flooded fields reflected the sky’s shift from grey to blue. Several lines of ducklings watched us. Distantly, dogs barked.

When we arrived, Weiping’s grandmother was pumping water into a wooden bucket. She wore a light-pink sweatshirt and grey trousers and had a wrinkled, shiny face. When she saw her grandson, her mouth split into a smile that exposed two silver front teeth. Although Weiping hadn’t told her I was coming, she didn’t seem fazed. There was also a surprise for Weiping: his aunt came out of the house, wiping her hands on a towel, followed by two boys and a girl. Weiping seemed happy to see the children, but there was something muted about the way he greeted his aunt. She lived in a nearby house with the children, though one of the boys, Xueyou, was her sister’s son. His mother was working in Guangzhou; according to Weiping, she called her son once a month.

“What made going home difficult was the gifts – the money he had to hand out to his relatives”  

Xueyou was 16, but looked much younger. He was wearing a pink T-shirt on which ‘Style Fashion’ was printed in big letters, above which was printed in smaller type ‘Cklvin CK alien’. Perhaps to make sure the T-shirt was really ‘style fashion’, the designers had added one of the Angry Birds from the popular mobile game of the same name.

Weiping’s grandmother asked if I was hungry. “There’s duck,” she said and pointed into the bucket, in which the plucked bird didn’t look angry, just dead. While she prepared lunch, Weiping showed me round the house. The kitchen was the largest room, most of which was taken up by an L-shaped iron stove. In the next room there was only a wooden table, some stools, and an altar to their ancestors. His grandmother slept in an adjacent room in a four-poster canopy bed made of dark, heavy wood that was decorated with brightly coloured paintings of tigers and flowers. It had been part of her dowry almost 60 years ago.

Before we ate, Weiping gave his grandmother 300 yuan (around $45). She hadn’t asked him for money but may have expected it, because she only said a simple thank you. As she went to put away the money, Weiping said, “They live simply, but they need help because there are no jobs here. And she has always been very kind to me.”

For lunch there was duck, cabbage and small eels the children had caught in the rice fields the previous night. When offered these, I politely declined. “I’m afraid of them,” I half-joked.

“Me too,” said Xueyou. “I just like catching them.” He went and got a tree branch that had nails hammered into one end. “This is what I use,” he said, and mimed the act of impalement.

“It’s good for frogs as well,” he added. “The big ones taste best.”

“But the government has banned us from eating them,” said Weiping’s grandmother as she stood and went to the stove. She brought back a pan of rice, scooped some into our bowls, then looked at it distrustfully. “I’m sorry, it isn’t very good,” she said. “It’s been cooked too long.”

After eating a few mouthfuls she pushed away her bowl, then reached under the table and brought up a bottle of rice wine. She poured some into a tin mug, then drank it in two swallows.

“I have this every day,” she said. “It’s very good for my health.”

Weiping’s aunt hadn’t said much, until this point, but once we’d stopped eating she started asking him questions. She wanted to know about his work, how his girlfriend was, if they had set a date to get married. He answered politely but without saying much. The atmosphere began to seem strained, so to lighten the mood (and because I also had drunk a fair amount of wine), I suggested we all take photos together. Xueyou and the other kids ran outside, but Weiping’s aunt asked us to wait. “There’s too much here,” she said and put her hand on her stomach. She went to put on a girdle.

“The gift-giving began before we even got to Weiping’s village”  

While we waited, Xueyou and the other children kicked a football around. Weiping pointed at him and said, “His mother had several abortions before he was born, all of which were girls. He’s clever, but his scores are average except in maths. The conditions in the school are bad, and there is no one to help at home. It is a pity.”

His aunt came out patting her now reduced stomach. I took photos of her, the children, Weiping and his grandmother in almost every possible combination, then it was time to go, or at least I thought it was. Weiping’s aunt said something to him I didn’t hear; he nodded without looking at her. She went inside and he followed, then came out a few minutes later.

“We can go now,” he said.

“What was that about?”

He twisted his mouth to the side. “She wanted money too.”

“Did you give her any?”

“Yes, but not a lot. She is my aunt so I must give her something, but she does not need it. I will need a lot of money soon for my wedding and an apartment, but she does not think about this. And when I get home more people will ask.”

We climbed back to the road, then flagged down a minibus packed with schoolchildren. The children were from Weiping’s village but went to school in other districts. Many rural authorities struggle to fund education, and have found it more cost-effective to close schools. A recent report by the Chinese NGO Growing Home said that over the past decade 37,000 schools in rural areas have closed. The withdrawal of public services and the migration of people of working age to the cities have caused many rural communities to dwindle. In 2000 there were 3.6 million villages in China; by 2012 there were only 2.7 million.

The road rose, offering a view of gently terraced fields, some of them flooded, some orange with churned earth. Here and there a stick figure raised a hoe or slowly bent to plant. We crossed an old bridge with revolutionary slogans on its sides, then stopped in a small market town. The main street was lined with fruit stalls and food carts with cracked glass panes, offering cold noodles, fried tofu smeared with chilli, and various parts of pigs. The bricks of the buildings were the same colour as the earth in the fields; rows of wooden houses lined a street that sloped to the river.

From the town it was a half-hour walk to the village, past a reservoir and down the side of a fast stream, though there were electricity pylons to counteract this timeless rural scene. In the village, the houses were scattered in small clusters on the higher ground surrounding the fields. Most were two-storey red-brick buildings with grey roof slates and a flat concrete area in front. There were also newer houses, three storeys high, covered in pale tiles. A few were only concrete shells without doors or windows; Weiping said their families were waiting for the money to complete them.

It has been estimated that on average migrants send about a third of their income home to their families, which results in about 10% more money per person in rural households. This has been especially important as the income gap between the city and the countryside continues to widen – the average rural resident’s income is about three times less than that of an urban dweller. Remittances from migrant workers have certainly helped alleviate poverty in most parts of China. However, in some of the poorest regions migration often isn’t a viable option. Many don’t have the necessary skills or education to find non-agricultural work, and in places where farming conditions are difficult, people often need to stay to work the land. There also may not be enough money to cover the expenses of looking for a job, such as transportation, accommodation and food.

Migration to the cities isn’t a panacea for all the ills of the countryside. There also need to be enough people left to work in agriculture, and also enough non-urban land for them to cultivate. Without this, China won’t be able to meet its targets for food self-sufficiency and will become more dependent on food imports.

“Migration to the cities isn’t a panacea for all the ills of the countryside”  

One reason incomes are so low in the countryside is that agriculture in China has shifted away from small-scale family farms to agribusiness. Most farmers can’t compete with large-scale factory farms, and in some cases (such as soybeans and maize) are also unable to match those of imported commodities. Imported soybeans now account for three-quarters of the soybeans made into cooking oil and animal feed in China. Another area in which Chinese rural households have suffered is pork production. When I visited people’s homes in the Hunan countryside in the early 2000s it was common to see households keeping a small number of pigs. Raising swine was an easy way for farmers to generate income – one of my students who needed extra money once sighed and said, “Now my mother will have to get ten more pigs.” But despite rising demand for meat in China, fewer farmers are now bothering to raise pigs, because they can’t compete with factory farms. In 1985, 90 per cent of pigs in China were being raised on small farms; by 2007 this was down to 20 per cent.

Weiping’s father wasn’t home when we arrived, so we sat outside and watched people working in the fields. Near to a small herd of black goats a man wearing a surgical face mask was carefully spraying the crops. “Watch out,” shouted an elderly woman from an upper window of the house next door, and the man in the face mask raised his hand in acknowledgement.

“The goat owners don’t like the farmers using pesticides,” said Weiping. “They say it makes the goats get sick. But everyone uses them.”

Weiping’s elderly neighbour came outside to say hello to him, and then started asking me questions about America. Eventually I told her I was from England.

“But you look American,” she answered, then started speaking to Weiping in a Hunanese dialect I couldn’t follow. He made non-committal noises for a few moments, then said in English, “Let’s go inside.”

He shut the door. “She’s so bossy. She says I should buy a chicken from her because you are a guest. She says if I don’t you won’t feel welcome.”

It was an old house, but the walls had been recently painted and the floor was smoothly tiled. There were two bedrooms, one with a canopy bed, another with a double bed, and a third room that had a table, stools and a well-kept altar to the family’s ancestors. Long strips of red paper with prayers painted on them in big black characters framed a shrine bristling with incense. It was a simple but comfortable house; all it lacked was plumbing. The house had a supply of bottled water – the river water wasn’t drinkable – but if we wanted to cook or go to the toilet, we had to visit Weiping’s grandfather. He lived nearby in a three-room wooden house that was one of the oldest buildings in the village. The main room had a rough stone floor and the air inside was smoky. Sacks and bags hung from hooks in the ceiling. The hearth was black with soot.

His grandfather was frying lumps of pork fat with vegetables when we entered. He looked healthy for ninety, except for black patches of skin on his face and a large dark-brown patch behind his ear. He’d grown up in the house, as had his father and grandfather before him.

He asked where I was from, and nodded at the answer. I asked if he’d seen a foreigner before.

“Only on TV. I have a map of the world, but I can’t read, so I don’t know where England is.”

We ate quietly in the gloom with the door half-open to let the smoke escape. I asked Weiping’s grandfather what he thought of conditions in the village.

“So many young people have left to find work. There are now only 40 people left here out of 200. It’s only the old taking care of the young. But times are good now. In the 1950s I just had rice and wild vegetables to eat, and during the three bitter years [of the Great Famine], it was even worse.”

After we had finished eating, Weiping gave his grandfather three crisp red 100-yuan notes. I used the toilet – two planks positioned over a hole – then we climbed the hill behind the house and went looking for Weiping’s father. He had fields in three different places; we tried the watermelon patch first. He wasn’t there, so we went to the next field, balancing on the narrow paths between irrigation ditches. We didn’t find him there either, so we walked another five minutes and found him ploughing a field with a bull. He stopped and came over. Weiping introduced us and I went to shake his hand, but he held it back.

“It’s dirty,” he said, and smiled. Although this was true, his hand was also shaking badly. Later Weiping told me that the doctors didn’t know the cause of the tremors.

Weiping asked his father if he needed help.

“Can you cut some grass for the bull?” he said. “You know the place.”

“After we had finished eating, Weiping gave his grandfather three crisp red 100-yuan notes”  

We went back to the watermelon field, and spent a long time trying to find the sickle. Eventually we found it tucked under a patch of clover-like leaves; they were thickly dusted with a white insecticide powder that made them look diseased. Weiping started cutting the grass while I collected lengths of straw to tie it into bushels. He cut quickly and skilfully; I’d only just managed to badly tie one bushel – it came undone as soon as I picked up the bundle – by the time he’d finished.

“It’s OK,” he said, and knelt by the pile of grass. In less than a minute he tied the rest of the grass into three bundles. It was just a small demonstration of competence, but it signified how easily he could switch from being a teacher living in a modern apartment in a city to being the child who’d grown up helping on the farm.

It was dusk by the time we got back to the house. We put the grass into the bull’s stable, then sat outside and ate sunflower seeds. As the villagers left the fields, another goat-related confrontation took place. One old woman accused another of letting her goats eat other people’s crops. She shouted this accusation, because she was partially deaf, but it made the other woman shout back.

“It’s just what goats do,” she yelled.

“No, it’s not. I had goats and a water buffalo and they never ate anyone’s vegetables.”

“Why are you angry? It’s not your crops that have been eaten!”

The accuser had no answer for this, other than a drawn-out noise of contempt.

“They have this argument a lot,” said Weiping. “It is like a hobby.”

We went inside and watched ping-pong, then snooker on the huge old TV. Just as we were about to go to bed, there was a loud banging on the door. Weiping’s grandfather had come to tell him that his uncle had been put in jail for gambling.

“He’ll get five days in jail and a fine,” he said, with what sounded like approval.

In the night I woke and needed the toilet. I took a torch and went out past his grandfather’s house. Hearing me, he yelled, “I can’t sleep!”

“Me too,” I replied. On the way back to the house I stopped and turned off the torch. There was just the calling of frogs, the stars in their multitudes. ∎

This is an excerpt from Chasing the Chinese Dream: Stories from Modern China, by Nick Holdstock (I.B. Tauris, January). All photos courtesy of the author.