Thursday, October 7, 2010

Farm to Factory in China by Peter Hessler

Sancha had always been a small village, and in recent years it had become even smaller. In the 1970s the population had been around three hundred; now there were fewer than one hundred fifty people, one family with a child, left. Most of them lived in the lower part of the village, although there was another cluster of homes up in the hills, at the end of a winding dirt road, which was where we found our house. The whole place had been fading for decades.

The local Buddhist temple had been demolished during the Cultural Revolution, along with smaller shrines that were scattered throughout the hills, and nobody had bothered to rebuild them. The school shut down in the early 1990s. None of the villagers owned a car; nobody had a cell phone. There were no restaurants, no shops – not a single place where a person could spend money. Three or four times a week, a peddler's truck puttered up from the valley loaded with rice, noodles, meat and simple household goods. During the autumn other trucks appeared to buy up the villagers harvested crops.

The average resident's income was around two hundred and fifty dollars. Almost all of it came from orchards: walnuts, chestnuts, and apricot seeds that were grown high in the mountains. They sold most of these nuts, but everything else was raised for food. They kept chickens and pigs, and the grew corn, soybeans and vegetables. It was far too dry for rice; even wheat grew poorly in these parts. Occasionally, if a villager was lucky, he trapped a badger or a pheasant in the hills. There were feral pigs, too – wild animals with big tusks and matted hair.

Beijing wasn't too far away, only a couple of hours by car, but back then it was still unusual for city residents to visit the countryside. The auto boom was already growing – in 2001, Beijing issued over three hundred thousand new driver's licenses, a 50 per cent increase over the previous year. But people rarely took road trips for pleasure. Occasionally an adventurous driver found his way to Sancha, and sometimes a group of serious hikers came to climb the unrestored Great Wall. But on most weekends Mimi and I were the only outsiders in the village.

Locals didn't know what to make of us – there was no precedent for young city people spending time in rural conditions. Neighbors often wandered over to get a better look, and like anybody in the Chinese countryside, they didn't bother to knock before entering our house. They inspected our threshing platform, and peered into the windows, and fiddled with our belongings.

One when I was in the village alone and writing at my desk I had the sensation that I was being watched. I turned around and almost yelped – a man was standing in the middle of the room. He was one of the neighbors, a white-haired man in his sixties; his cloth shoes hadn't made a sound when he entered. He was smiling softly, with the blank-eyed expression of somebody watching television – he hardly blinked when I turned around. That was the saving grace of Chinese staring: people never glanced away in embarrassment when you caught them looking, and it was hard not to respect such open curiosity. For a few seconds neither of us spoke.

“Hello,” I finally said

“Hello,” he said

“Have you eaten yet?” I said. That was a traditional Chinese greeting, often left unanswered.

“ Have you eaten yet? He said. “What time is it in your country?”

“It's night there,” I said. “There's a difference of twelve hours.”

He beamed – rural people are often fascinated by the time zones. I stood up and gave him a tour of my place.

Few people in the village traveled much. It was hard to go anywhere; there wasn't a bus service to Sancha, and the mountain roads were too steep for traveling. If locals needed to go to the city, they hiked down to Dongtai, three miles away, where minibuses stopped. From there it was forty-five minutes to Huairou, and another hour to Beijing. But some villagers had never even seen the capital. A couple of local women still had bound feet – members of that unfortunate last generation who had had their feet broken as children.

Once, Mimi and I stopped by to visit with one of the foot-bound women. She was eighty-two years old, and she lay on her kang with her shoes off. She wore nylon socks and her deformed feet were visible. She said that in eight decades she had never been to Beijing. I asked her if she'd like to go and she nodded.

“But I can't,” she said. “You know why? Because I get car sick!”

Recently she had taken some motion sickness pills and made the journey to Huairou, to visit family. That was her first trip to a settlement of any size, and I asked her what she thought. “Not bad,” the woman said, and left it at that. When I asked what Sancha had been like in the old days, she spoke bluntly. “There's nothing interesting about this place,” she said, “Living in these mountains, at the bottom of a deep gorge – what can possibly happen here? The only topic that interested the woman involved her children and their shortcomings. They had left Sancha for the city, and they rarely returned; young people are like that nowadays! They're all so selfish! Nobody cares about old people! These complaints seemed to make the woman happy – sh stretched out on the kang, resting her crumpled feet, her face became peaceful as she decried the thoughtlessness of the young.

People in Sancha sometimes still traveled long distances by foot or donkey, especially if the headed north, over the high passes to the villages of Chashikou, Haizikou or Huanghua Zhen. Wei Ziqi had relatives in Chashikuo and sometimes he set off in the morning and hiked across the pass. If he had a lot to carry, he saddled up the donkey. In the afternoons, when I was finished writing for the day, I went for hikes along these routes. They were rocky trails, winding through orchards, and they passed the ruins of settlements that had been abandoned.

There was still one man living on the route that led to Huanghua Zhen pass. Of all the trails that was the least traveled, and it could be hard to find during the summer months when the brush came up. Until the 1990s, this valley was the home to two small communities, the Land of Mas and the Land of Lis, named after the families that lived there. By the time I moved to Sancha, the land of Lis was completely abandoned – a half dozen buildings stood empty, their paper windows torn and flapping in the breeze. But an elderly man named Ma Yufa remained in the other enclave. Local officials had offered him a room in a retirement home down in the valley, but Ma refused to go.. He still farmed, despite his age. He told officials that whenever he became to old to work, he would simply lie down on his kang and wait for death.

One morning I hiked up the trail and saw Ma Yufa watering his donkey. It was February, and the man was bundled against the cold; he wore padded army pants, a military jacket covered with patches, and old cloth shoes that had been sewed repeatedly. The torn army clothes gave him the look of a deserter – one of those soldiers who'd been hiding in the jungle for decades, unaware that the war had ended. But his face was strikingly handsome, withered like a slab of local walnut, and he had thick black eyebrows. He told me that he was in his seventies, and I asked him which year he'd been born.

Sha shei zhidao?” he said with a snort. “Who knows that?”

He invited me into his home for a cup of tea, and we passed through the ruins of the Land of Ma. He pointed out two sets of stone foundations that had been overgrown with brush. “Those people were named Ma, and the other ones over there were called Zhao,” he said. “They left ten years ago.” We trudged past another ruined home. “The people there were also called Ma. That was my uncle”. Ma Yufa's brother's house was still standing, although the occupant had moved to Huairou. A hand-carved coffin leaned near the entrance. “Whenever he dies, he'll be buried in that,” Ma Yufa said.

Ma Yufa lived in a two-room house with mud walls, and he had no telephone or refrigerator. He told me that every day, at each meal, he ate corn porridge and flour cakes. “You need to eat meat when you're young, but not when you're old,” he said. Across the pass it was nearly four miles of mountain walking to Haizikou, the nearest place with a shop, and the man and his donkey had last made the trip in December, two months earlier. He didn't expect to return until April. There wasn't much he needed: a few times a year he bought corn and flour, and he sold his walnuts in the autumn. Other than those short journeys he ha no contact with anybody. Hi s annual income was less than two hundred dollars. Technically he was a Beijing resident – as with so many Chinese cities, the capital's administrative boundaries stretch deep into the countryside. Until I met Ma Yufa, I never imagined how isolated a human being could be in a city of thirteen million.

We sat on his kang, sipping tea, and he talked about the past. He remembered the Communist victory in 1949, but he said it hadn't changed his life much. “We were so poor it didn't matter,” he said. He hadn't spent a single day in school, and he couldn't read. He had never married. “Nobody would want to marry somebody who lives in a place like this,” he said. He had a radio and a television with a cheap satellite dish, but he must have stopped watching the news. When I asked who was the top official in China, he paused to think.

“Hu Yaobang is the nation's leader,” he finally said. In fact Hu Yaobang had never led China, although in 1981 he rose to become Party Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. He was purged in 1987, and two years later his death inspired the initial student protests on Tiananmen Square. Those events may have shaken the world, but they were meaningless in the Land of Ma.

One thing Ma Yufa seemed completely aware of was time. The room was decorated with three calenders, and two of them had tear-off sheets, marked to the correct page. He didn't throw away the used days; he stacked the little squares of paper neatly in a pan. He had an alarm clock with a second hand that ticked loudly. The longer I sat on the kang, the more the ticking of the clock unsettled me, until I finally thanked him for the tea and excused myself. Outside the hills were silent – I felt relieved to see the bigness of the sky.


Little Long was in his early twenties, and he was the only person in the plant who was not Han Chinese. He was Miao, an ethnicity that's native to parts of southwestern China. He had come from a poor farming village in Guizhou Province. His family's main crops were tea and tobacco, and after finishing eighth grade Little Long had migrated to Guangdong. Initially he had worked for a textile plant,and then he found a job in a bra factory that specialized in exports.

“Each country has its own characteristic,” he told me once. I expected him to embark on a series of sweeping generalizations, the kind of conversation that's common in villages. But Little Long's worldview was far more empirical: he saw foreign lands through a tight network of straps and rings. “The Japanese like to have little flowers on their bras,” he continued. “They like that kind of detail. The Russians don't like that – they don't want flowers and little patterns. They just want bras to be plain and brightly colored. And big!”

Little Long was attentive, and in the bra factories of the south he had learned to specialize. After starting on the assembly line, he moved to the chemistry lab, where he picked up the techniques of dyeing. He studied the trade from the Big Masters; it was skilled work and the pay was good. In Lishui he had been hired for 2,500 yuan per month, more than three hundred dollars. But he wasn't satisfied with his status. On the unpainted plaster wall of his dorm room, he had inscribed the sentence:


In the bra ring factory, resident workers often wrote inspirational phrases on their walls. This particular sentence – a Mao Zedong quote – was Little Long's mantra. Years ago he had read it in a self-help book, and he adopted it as a guiding philosophy. His goal was to save enough money from factory jobs to eventually return home and start a business. Sometimes he talked about raising rabbits to sell to restaurants, and he also had an idea for marketing wholesale goods to small shopkeepers. These plans were vague; it was all in the distant future, and right now his top priority was concentrating on his work and saving money. He avoided taking trips home, and whenever his will began to flag, he thought of his mother back home on the farm.

She was the only family member still in the village – his father and two siblings had migrated to coastal regions. “I think about my mother when I am tired,” he said. “If I am discouraged, I remember that she has to be alone.” Recently he had written a song in her honor, and he had thought about singing it to her over the phone, but he was afraid of making her cry. Instead he inscribed the verses in his diary:

Lots of people say your life is hard,
But you smile and say that as long as you have us, you're never

Little Long kept his diary in a spiral notebook. It contained a copy of a long letter that he had written to his former girlfriend, as well as pages on which he practiced writing the Latin alphabet, in an attempt at self-education. Through-out the notebook he had copied aphorisms and mottos, some of which also appeared on his dormitory wall. In big characters above his bed was the phrase : “Find Success Immediately.” Another wall read: “Face the Future Directly.” And he also inscribed the title of one of his self-help books: “Square and Round.”

Like many young people in factory towns, Little Long was at great consumer of inspirational literature. One of his favorites was Square and Round, a best-seller in China that explains how to function in a modern society. The title comes from a traditional phrase – squareness represents a person's internal integrity, whereas the roundness is the external flexibility necessary to deal with other people. The author adapts this classical notion to the intense competitiveness of today's boomtown society, with unsettling conclusions: much of the book describes how to lie profitably, manipulate co-workers, and generally behave like a post-Communist Machiavelli. There's a section on the best way to request something from a boss (first, ask for something unrealistic, so rejection creates a sense of obligation). Another chapter tells how to cry effectively in front of a superior (don't over do it). There's advice on how to keep friendship in perspective. (“ If you and your best friend get along very well, then you are true friends for now. But if there is one million dollars worth of business to be done, and if you don't kick him aside, then you have mental problems.”)

In addition to Square and Round Little Long often turned to a Chinese copy of The Harvard MBA Comprehensive Volume of How to Conduct Yourself in Society. “I'm not mature enough,” he told me.Somebody as young as me needs help, and this book can provide it. If I have some kind of problem, I don't have anybody I can talk to – I'm lonely that way. But books like this give me ideas about how to handle situations.” He also relied on A Treasured Book for Success in Life, and another one of his favorites was A Collection of Classics. This book features foreign-themed stories, and Little Long was particularly impresses by a chapter about John D. Rockefeller.

According to Collection of Classics, the oil tycoon took his lunch every day at the same local restaurant, where he always left a one dollar tip. After a period of weeks the waiter finally said, “If I were you, I wouldn't be so miserly as to give such a small tip.” Rockefeller shot back, “Because of such thinking,, you're only a waiter.” The Collection of Classics concludes with the moral; “A great many people can't become rich, and a major reason is that they spend money freely.”

Another chapter features Jesus Christ, although this particular parable isn't in the Bible. In the Chinese book, a man who tries to help others only makes thing worse, and finally Jesus tells him to cut it out. That's the Messiah's message – accept the world as it is. “In our real world, we often think about the best way to act, but the reality and our desires are often at odds,” explains the moral. “we must believe that accepting what we have is the best arrangement for us.”

Little Long had a naturally sweet disposition, and from this odd cocktail of books he drew a lesson of equanimity. That was the most important thing he learned from all the great teachers: Confucius and Jesus, Rockefeller and Mao. “I want to be persistent,” he told me. “I don't want things to frustrate me or make me angry.” He wrote his slogans on the dormitory wall, and he made a point of never complaining about overwork – in his opinion, people in factories gripe too much. He wanted to be at peace with himself, and he wanted to get along with others. “In a group you need to be flexible,” he said. “It's about balance, about trying to get along, trying to find the right path.”

Little Long's words could have come straight from a Daoist text, and the same is true for the parable about Jesus: it echoes the classical phrase Wu wei er wu bu wei, “By doing nothing everything will be done.” It reminded me of my experience as a teacher of English literature in Sichuan, where my students often interpreted Western classics in a Chinese way. Even as foreign materials pour into China, and young people seek out new influences, their instincts often remain deeply traditional.

For his part, John D. Rockefeller inspired Little Long to switch cigarette brands. After reading about the difference between a waiter and an oil baron, Little Long decided to be thrifty. So he quite smoking Profitable Crowd cigarettes and began buying a brand called Hibiscus. Hibiscus are terrible; they cost a cent and a half each, and the label immediately identifies the bearer as a peasant. But Little Long was determined to rise above such petty thinking, just like Rockefeller. Every time he smoked a pack, he saved 37.5 cents, and money like that was bound to add up over time. Someday he'd have enough to fulfill Mao Zedong's prophesy on the dormitory wall:




    Slogan painted in gold calligraphy above the entrance to the bra ring factory in Lishui.

  2. The author gets to ride a bus with "the actor who plays Mao" in all the Chinese TV and movie shows, a total nutcase who apparently believes he IS actually the chairman! He found that studying all the WRONG answers on the national driving test was the best way to prepare himself for the way Chinese actually drive, notes the' key-stone cop' aptitudes of police and party 'cadres, and many many other bizarre and tremorous features of life in China today, little 'chickies' staggering around in high heels etc etc. Could be the bosses have bitten off a lot more than they can chew! On the other hand, like America, foreign wars might end up being the only thing that can hold the show together!

  3. Ged:Chk vance miller (brits get rich in china) he's from my neck of the woods, a real trailblazing entrepenuer, very funny man.

    Do I look like a Gangster?

    Miller in China

    Vance and China: perfect match! Ride the dragon!

    Ged:Really respect the man, he's despised by the authouritys in the u.k for his "fuck u" attitude, love the bit where he buys the quarry!!

    You gotta wear the Chinese businessman down with persistence and style. They listen, don't say too much (except 'no'), try not to get excited. You could say Vance breaks all the rules, but maybe he just exaggerates the gestures that are in ...common play anyway. Probably the guy that sold him the quarry thought he'd hit the end of the rainbow/ got out of a tight jam with his family and investors and can thankfully move the business to a place on his resume, even at whatever low price he was compelled to take on account of the competition; at least hopefully he'll have enough dough left over to get to get a better plan. Vance will have to keep the costs down and get the best workers. The 'deal' has to go through many doors; like municipal and party accountants who are fighting their own turf wars. It's not sure whether these third party payments end up being less than a U.S. or U.K. businessman would pay through official (and far more transparent) channels or what? No talk of income tax in the whole book1