Give Me Stability or Give Me Death

China’s aversion to social unrest and a farewell to the village – Matt Chitwood

“Without social stability, we can’t have prosperity.” Gewa Bingma, a young man from Yunnan province, told me this over hotpot the night before China’s 70th National Day celebration, last October 1. He contrasted the hunger his parents experienced under Party leadership with his own generation that has never known hunger – also under Party leadership. “We can’t even clean our plates,” he tells me, the pot half-filled with food. “Now we can anju leye,” he says in pithy Chinese – peacefully live and joyfully work. “Without the Party, we would have no new China.” These are the fruits of peacetime and Party policy since 1978, and the majority of Chinese, tasting them for the first time, are eager for their children to also enjoy them.

When the People’s Republic of China turned 70, President Xi Jinping surveyed troops and intercontinental ballistic missiles along Beijing’s Street of Eternal Peace. Colorful floats narrated China’s development since 1978 – reform and opening, WTO accession, the 2008 Olympics – which has produced a slurry of economic statistics envied by the rest of the world: double digit growth for more than 25 years, a reduction in infant and maternal mortality rates to an eighth their 1980 levels, trillions of dollars in unparalleled infrastructure investment, and 800 million people lifted from poverty. This year, the once-impoverished rural village where I live achieved the formal classification of poverty-free thanks to a national campaign to eliminate abject rural poverty by 2020. Rural residents – still 40 percent of China’s 1.4 billion people – have new roads, new houses and “meat whenever I want it,” one told me.


How Tea Transformed China’s Countryside

An ancient legacy of tea trading is reinvented for the 21st century – Matt Chitwood

Deep in the mountains of southwestern China, where tea was likely first discovered, a trail begins. Over the course of a thousand years, it has been carved step-by-step through some of the world’s most diverse and rugged terrain, traversing the lush tropical forests of what is now Yunnan province – a botanist’s playground – and up into the Himalayas, through treacherous river gorges and snowy mountain passes. The carving was done by mabang, trade caravans comprised of humans, horses, mules and yaks that carried daily necessities such as salt, sugar and medicines as well as luxuries like textiles and cigarettes. But most important, they carried tea. 

Compressed for easier transport, it was a vital source of nutrition for those living in the harsh climate of the Tibetan plateau. For tea-producing regions, it was a critical means of obtaining Tibetan warhorses that would help distant dynasties administer their borderlands. For both regions, it was the centerpiece of social interaction. Tea begat trust and trust begat trade: the virtuous cycle which built the route we know today as the Ancient Tea Horse Road. In fact, it was more a network of trails than a single road. Its branches diverged and converged, even extending down to Southeast Asia and west to Nepal and India. It remained a lifeline across the region well into the mid-20th century until the advent of motor vehicles led to its disuse and disrepair.


A Day in the Life of Rural China

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.


Village Lives

Profiles from China’s changing countryside – Matthew Chitwood

The changes that China’s countryside has witnessed in recent years are unlike anything experienced in any other country during any other time in history. Many cite Shanghai’s iconic Pudong district as a feat of modern development, transformed in just 30 years from empty farmland into futuristic skyline. But to me, the transformation of remote rural China is even more remarkable.

Consider that most rural Chinese grew up in poverty with little or no education. People in their sixties endured unspeakable suffering during times of violent domestic chaos. Most in their fifties never got enough to eat in childhood, and many are illiterate. Those in their forties grew up without electricity, and most in their thirties still remember their village getting its first television set, and completed only junior high school, if that. Now, not only do they all have more than enough to eat, but virtually everyone carries around a mini-computer in his or her pocket.


Learning to Belong

Practicing hospitality in rural China – Matthew Chitwood

BANGDONG, Yunnan – The first phrase I learned in the local dialect here was “you lai!” (又来) “Come again!” My teacher was Sister Two, the three-year-old daughter of the village’s best chef. There is no restaurant in Bangdong, so when the mayor hosts dinners for government officials or businessmen, Sister Two’s mother cooks up a feast while her daughter charms the guests. As they depart, Sister Two’s consummate hospitality rings out behind them: You lai! Come again!

Rural hospitality is a way of life in China. It weaves generosity and reciprocity into the fabric of the community, even from a young age.