A Day in the Life of Rural China14 min read

Tea pickers and country medicine in farflung Yunnan – Matthew Chitwood

Bangdong village, Yunnan – Wo-wo! Wo-wo-wo-wo-wo! The cock-a-doodle-doos of Chinese roosters echo across the mountainsides as Li Guojun rises in the dark. He limps up a hillside to his flock and tosses out handfuls of corn. The delicate light in the eastern sky warms to a rich orange until it spills over the horizon and rolls down the blue mountains toward the Mekong River. The roosters intensify their crowing. Although there are few constants in this remote village in southwest China, this morning chorus is a daily certainty. So too is Li Guojun’s morning routine. He hacks down a banana palm with his machete and shoulders it back home. It will be dinner for his cattle.

Li Guojun is a cowherd. Every day for the last 15 years, he has led a dozen or so cattle down into the valley to drink from the cool streams that flow into the Mekong. And every evening he brings them home to eat banana palm in his stable. Today will be no exception.

I’ve asked to spend the day with him, wanting to get a better sense of villagers’ workday routines. Over the course of a day, I would learn about the complex equations villagers face for survival, the risks they undertake to provide for their families, and the fine line between success and failure that many in the West typically don’t experience. 

This morning, like every other, Li Guojun finishes his rice noodles and sips hot tea, cupping his steaming glass with leathery hands. He has a long face and high cheekbones that pull his dark skin tight against his high forehead and pointy chin. A few spots on his face are still swollen from yesterday’s bee stings, a small price to pay for a fresh harvest of honey.

After his tea, Li Guojun reaches for his water pipe, a three-foot section of bamboo with a wide opening at the top and a small stem at the base. With his mouth covering the top, Guojun places his lit cigarette into the stem and inhales deeply. The pipe gurgles cheerily as smoke filters through water in the base of the bamboo and fills his lungs. “I smoke every morning before leaving,” he says, “and it’s the last thing I do before bed.” His soft brown eyes light up, giving a playful sense of dependence, like an American saying “I need my Starbucks.”

Prices fell and Guojun’s loose-leaf tea netted a fifth of what he had paid for the unprocessed leaves”

As Guojun smokes, a neighbor comes by and sets a stack of red bills on the table. Her daughter is turning one tomorrow and a cow is to be the centerpiece of the celebration. I smile, imagining the child sinking her gums into a sirloin. As they discuss logistics, Guojun thumbs through the 100 yuan bills, 50 in all, each with a portrait of Mao Zedong. In his day, the Chairman would have condemned such capitalist-roaders, but today he can only stare complacently.

A call interrupts the conversation. A friend’s mother, well over 80, is having back pain and can’t get out of bed. Guojun quickly grabs his bag of needles and serums and is on his way to the nearby village. He started learning about injections when he was 12 years old. His dad was affected by poor health, so Guojun began helping him with his medication. That was also when he quit school to work in the fields so the family could eat.

Guojun’s visit is standard, an anesthetic injection and massage, then he returns home to tend to his cattle. There are seven adults, two month-old calves and a goat with identity issues. Guojun lowers the stable bars and unties the goat, which beelines for some fresh vegetables on the patio. It is quickly reprimanded with a scathing holler and a forceful thwack of Guojun’s bamboo switch. The goat timorously follows the others on the straight and narrow path down to the village.

The cattle know the way. Nevertheless, Guojun’s whistles, scoldings and spankings persist. Thwack, thwack! They turn left at Master Kang’s convenience shop and wind around the shuttered schoolhouse. Psssst, psssst, thwack! They pass the public bathroom, a simple cinder-block structure with slots in the concrete floor that slope toward a fertile field of fava beans. Hey-o, hey-o, thwack! They cross a derelict basketball court. Psssst, hey-o, thwack! Without warning, Guojun hands me his bamboo switch and disappears into a neighbor’s courtyard. With nine cattle, one goat and 13 minutes’ experience, I become Bangdong’s newest cowherd. Psssst, psssst, hey-o, hey-o, thwack! Thwack, thwack, thwack! I find the work satisfying.

The schoolhouse where Guojun studied through fifth grade is abandoned now that the village constructed a new building

For Guojun, cowherding is less a passion and more a pragmatic calculation. At 5,000 yuan, or $800, per cow and selling three per year – considering most are two or three years old before they can be sold – he can clear 15,000 yuan each year. Factor in money from his crops and Guojun makes more than most rural residents in the province. Also, beef prices are steady and, at the end of the day, meat can fill your belly. Guojun has been hungry enough in his life; he has no appetite for risk.

He tried that once, 10 years ago, just as tea prices were starting to rise. He bought many pounds of fresh tea leaves from other villagers to process himself. But then prices fell and his loose-leaf tea netted a fifth of what he had paid for the unprocessed leaves. He lost several years’ wages.

Psssst, psssst, hey-o! Guojun catches up from his visit with the neighbor. As we saunter slowly down toward the Mekong, he runs his hands over the cattle and picks off bulging ticks the size of my pinky nail. He bursts one in his fingers and grins, showing me his blood-red fingertips. We stop at a turn in the road and the cattle spread out along the terraced hillside, grazing on corn stalks from last year’s crop.

Guojun pulls out a bamboo water pipe from some hidden place in the brush and squats on his heels for a smoke. Cowbells echo across the lush valley. Up the trail, another small herd weaves in and out of the folds in the mountainside. The cowbells grow louder until finally 10 cattle appear around the corner. Psssst, psssst, thwack! A second cowherd sends his cattle to graze and squats next to Guojun, waiting for his turn with the water pipe. No words are exchanged and none are needed. The man is the neighbor with whom Guojun spoke on the way through the village; he’s also Guojun’s brother-in-law.

Brother Luo married Guojun’s younger sister. Guojun grins as he explains that Luo, who is in his 50s and almost a decade older than Guojun, has to call him “older brother” according to Chinese custom. Guojun relishes the respect.

Guojun takes a break with his bamboo water pipe, ubiquitous throughout rural Yunnan

Brother Luo scrambles down some terraces in search of a medicinal plant rumored to be growing high in a tree. Most people in Bangdong return from any venture to the surrounding countryside with some new wild plant to eat or use as medicine. Guojun’s limp makes it difficult to climb the terraces, so he stays with his pipe as we chat while looking down on the valley.

Guojun’s life seems to be an endless series of pragmatic calculations. When his father got sick, he dropped out of sixth grade to help feed his family – the calculation of an only son of four children. He learned medicinal injections – the calculation of a boy trying to keep his father and livestock healthy. When tea prices rose, he converted all his land to tea production – the calculation of a man trying to escape subsistence farming.

Guojun slowly leads his cattle down the mountain, while Luo runs ahead to fell some poplars across the trail. The cattle graze on the fresh leaves while the brothers continue down to a mountain stream. They fold a banana leaf like a sno-cone cup and drink deeply. Luo washes his feet in the cool spring run-off while Guojun squats on a rock mid-stream and peels an apple with his machete. Soon both are munching on apple slices, pineapple yogurt and individually wrapped chicken feet. Guojun produces a red pocket radio and plays some music from one of the local ethnic tribes, a call and response by two young lovers:

Man: The stars love to chase the moon as the golden pheasant longs to be with the phoenix. / My heart yearns to weave a golden cage but it fears the golden pheasant will fly away.  
Woman: Little Sister is a plum tree by the roadside whom no one cares for or protects, / Oh, that Brother would plant me in his garden so I’m not left by the roadside blown by the wind.

Both melodies are nasal and florid and I have trouble distinguishing between their voices. But to Guojun, the sound is familiar and soothing. While Luo runs off again looking for medicinal plants, Guojun relaxes with his water pipe, then stretches out on the sandy riverbank for his afternoon doze. The stream flows on, winding around boulders and coursing around mountains, finding its way as it always does.

We leave the half-eaten poplars in the trail and retrace our steps toward home. Except for the whistles and scoldings, we walk in silence. I give the two herders a break from my questions. The road is all uphill now, with no breeze in the valley and little shade along the way, so we often stop for water pipe breaks. The sun crawls across the crisp blue sky.

Today is a blue-sky day at its best. I lived in Beijing during the years when pollution was at its worst, when “blue sky days” were upgraded from a common descriptive clause to a rare weather phenomenon. In Bangdong, every day is a blue-sky day and today it stretches beyond the faintest mountain range in the distance. Terraced fields and wild forest surround me. The terraces begin deep in the valley, some spring green with tea trees and others dry brown with last year’s corn stalks. The lush forest covers the mountaintops in every shade of green – banana palms, feathery bamboo, needled pines and leafy poplars. Baihua shu, or “white flower trees,” bloom across the valley below like bursting fireworks in a green reflecting pool. Contentment overwhelms me.

For a moment, I succumb to these superficial observations of an outsider, failing to grasp the complexity of others’ lives, like a tourist at a cruise-ship port basking in the carefree friendliness of the locals, or a missions trip participant inspired by the contentment of people with so very little. I have been both of those people. Life seemed simple simply because I didn’t understand it. But it’s not the life. The white flower trees are a fragrant façade, like roses painted red. The blue-sky day fails to capture the real vulnerability of life in Bangdong, where just the weather can make or break someone’s livelihood.

Health issues are common and access to good care is limited, leaving villagers prone to losing income and savings. No safety net exists in the event of a crisis, so ill health and accidents often affect entire extended families. National health insurance covered 50 percent of Guojun’s recent surgeries, but rural incomes can’t afford urban treatment and his family’s savings were wiped out. Even Brother Luo, who was lively and scrambling around the hillsides today, would be hospitalized in a matter of weeks for a damaged stomach lining from excessive drinking – a nightly occurrence in Bangdong. His treatment in the city of Lincang three hours away would last over 10 days and cost 6,000 yuan out of pocket, more than one of the three cows he expects to sell this year.

As we trudge back up the mountain, Guojun breaks the silence. “My baby sister was tricked, you know. That was the first time we lost our savings.” Twenty years ago, his youngest sister—Sister Three, as he calls her—had a connection who promised her a job in Nanjing. In the ’90s, as economic reform deepened across the country, a flood of young people in the countryside migrated to cities in search of work. Sister Three, 20 at the time, boarded a bus to Nanjing, where she started washing dishes in a small restaurant. But things quickly turned bad.

One day Guojun got a call – Sister Three was frantic and crying. She kept repeating that she had been tricked and was locked in a room at the restaurant. The owners were demanding 40,000 yuan to let her go. Guojun quickly collected his family savings and took the first bus to Nanjing, where he sought out the local police. But they were an extension of the Chinese Mafia and, rather than administering justice, demanded the 40,000 yuan for themselves. Guojun, a peasant from the hinterland, was powerless. He turned over the Li family’s life savings to the police who “rescued” Sister Three.

As I visit with more villagers, I realize stories like Guojun’s that seem exceptional are in fact the norm. One man’s wife was abducted and sold in marriage to a businessman on the east coast; their family had no resources to pursue her. Another man showed me scars along his jugular and left kidney, evidence of a knife attack by a drunken classmate. The wounds were so severe that the ambulance attendants said it wasn’t worth taking him to the hospital; luckily for him, he was lucid enough to convince them otherwise. Grandma Li, my tea-picking teacher, emotionlessly shared with me how her 29-year-old son died. Six years ago, he was driving a new truck home when the brakes gave out, sending him tumbling down the mountainside. She asked if I would give her grandson a new name, a Chinese custom said to bring about a change of fortune.

A cowherd returns home to Bangdong village with his cattle

Tragedy seems part and parcel of the Bangdong experience, and the longer I’m in the countryside, the more I understand why the watchword in China is “stability.” Life operates beyond villagers’ control. They shrug with dismissiveness: “Man plans, but heaven decides.” But Chairman Xi’s tangible improvements to village life – roads, new houses, living stipends – are an antidote to such fatalism. Is it any wonder, then, that in response to the recent abolition of presidential term limits, one villager quipped, “Twenty years would be better than only ten!”

Similarly, is it any wonder that the Communist Party seeks stability first and foremost? Chinese dynasties since before 1000 BCE invoked the Mandate of Heaven, a divine legitimacy granting them the right to rule. Powers beyond a dynasty’s control – earthquakes, drought, famine, revolution – were indicators that the mandate had been lost. Ever a student of history, Xi knows well that revolutions begin in the countryside. And having spent eight years in the countryside during the Cultural Revolution, he also knows the vulnerabilities of life in rural China. Ensuring stability is core to sustaining the Party’s rule.

In response to the recent abolition of presidential term limits, one villager quipped, “Twenty years would be better than only ten!”

The brothers and I finally return to the derelict basketball court, and Brother Luo turns into his home. Guojun continues past the public bathroom, the shuttered schoolhouse and Master Kang’s convenience shop. The cattle lumber up the dirt trail to his house and down into the stable. The baby calves collapse in exhaustion as the goat nibbles at clothes drying on the line. Guojun’s entire family is in motion. His father slices up the banana palm for the cattle. His mother sorts freshly picked white flowers to stir-fry with fava beans for dinner. His wife heats up the wok over an open fire. And the day ends just as routinely as it began. Guojun eats, sips his tea and smokes his water pipe. His cigarette glows in the fading daylight. Like every night, he climbs into bed as dusk falls and sleep comes quickly.

The wo-wo rooster crow will come early tomorrow. ∎

A version of this dispatch first appeared on Matt’s blog for the Institute of Current World Affairs. All photos courtesy of the author.