In a Chinese “Model Village”

Street with all new houses

It is the spring of 1985, and you have joined three teachers from Xiamen University, Fujian Province, on a trip to nearby Lin Village and its about thousand people or two hundred families. This is a “model village,” is one that the authorities recognize as exemplary, so not at all typical. This particular village was being recognized because of its rapid economic growth. Officially it was put under the “responsibility system” in May, 1985 after the villagers had a head start at private enterprise.

Your first impression is of houses made of rock and sundried brick and red tile roofs, of pig pens made by leaning slabs of cut rock against each other, of chickens running loose and dirt roads. By the side of the road there are outhouses, sewer trenches, and round wells where the night soil is aged for a couple of weeks before it is put on the fields. You’re told to watch your feet. With dry humor, your guide adds that the job of cleaning the sewer and the night soil pots is given to the last man caught engaging in adulterous behavior.

Houses and field

In the village you can call on anyone at any time, so your group goes to the mayor’s house. He brings out tea, cookies and a package of dried fruit. Like everyone else you meet, he is open, unassuming and genuinely friendly. He talks a great deal about the village, particularly about the changes from the old economic system to the present one. Then he takes you around to some of the houses and the brick factory.

Tiles drying at factory

When you’ve thought of a Chinese peasant, it’s not of a controlling stockholder in a prosperous enterprise. But here is a 90,000-yuan brick factory with money put up by nine people, six from the village. Traditionally, the villagers considered a verbal agreement good enough for dealing with each other. But when they started doing business with outsiders, they learned how to draw up contracts and fill out incorporation papers. Lately they’ve been thinking of learning English in order to do their own foreign trade.

Car kiln and brick storage

Many of the workers at the brick factory come from outside the village and are paid top wages. The factory makes a breeze block—sundried brick of coal dust, plaster, and clay—for use in the second-story walls, which bear less weight than walls on the first floor. The factory also makes red brick, which is fired in a tall car kiln, where the bricks are kept moving throughout the firing. There are other non-farming enterprises as well.

The richest man in the village is one of the two men who have bought a big truck and are giving a driver top pay to haul cement into Xiamen. The truck owners are making lots of money while doing nothing. The mayor jokes that the villagers are learning capitalist ways.

In 1978 the village took in 40,000 yuan—when the exchange rate was about three yuan per U.S. dollar. By 1984 it brought in over two million. Now in 1986 the villagers are busy spending money, building houses and trying to outdo the neighbors. Every household has a television set and a tape recorder/radio. Two households have color televisions. There are many motorcycles.

Drum-style charcoal stove with wok
In one house you watch a television program from Taiwan and find it strange to see commercials. On the mainland watching Taiwanese television is illegal but common. The villagers are laughing at the deputy mayor for insisting that people pay a 200-yuan fine. There’s a rumor that he was spotted going into someone’s house and then coming out very quickly, as if he had accidently caught the wrong person.
Food preparation

You know there was a time when a great many Chinese had only plain rice to eat were happy to have it. Now the neighbors with the television proudly offer you some of their dinner, a pork dish with green pepper and tomatoes and some sweet potato soup made in the electric rice cooker. There was no plain rice.

Your meals are prepared by one of the village women. The dishes at a typical meal include sliced omelet and greens, fish, vegetables with meat and mushrooms with meat. Or instead of fish there might be roast duck. All excellent.

A grandmother and grandchild

On your tour you learn that in order to build a house a villager has to get permission from the “work unit,” as the employing unit is still called, which passes the application to the village unit and then higher up the government bureaucracy. This particular “brigade,” or village, is not stingy regarding space. People feel more space make for better living conditions. Everyone in the family has at least 26 square meters of space, often more than 30 square meters. By contrast, in the city of Xiamen, a family of four often lives in one room. Your own roomy accommodations at a villager’s house include the usual hard beds, mosquito nets and outside toilet.

Village children
Rooftop around the courtyard

The typical two-story house has a first story built of granite cut by hand into building blocks and a second floor of breeze block from the local factory. It was built like a rectangular doughnut with an open courtyard in the center and passageways leading from the courtyard to the outside. The first floor has work place, storage rooms, maybe a living room, and a kitchen with a stone or brick fireplace-like stove—with depressed wells on the stove-top to put pots in. The second floor has a balcony all around the courtyard with bedrooms arranged around it. There might be a second living room as well.  Since the rooms don’t form a closed rectangle, you often have a view spreading out over the roofs of the other houses.

Ceramic fish water spout

The decoration is simple, but often very nice. Courtyard tile and the tile in other areas is a plain red terra cotta. In the rooms it may be white tile decorated with a flower pattern, but without a glossy glaze. There are interesting little details, such as ceramic gutter pipes shaped like fish. Often traditional Chinese pictures or calendars hang on the walls.  The refrigerator, if there is one, is in the living room. It’s a status symbol used to cool beer for the man of the house. It may only be plugged in during very hot weather.

Hard bed with quilt and mosquito net

You realize that you’re seeing the results of the low status of women. Extra money goes for motorbikes or building a house with lots of space, rather than modernizing the kitchen or putting in running water. Women fetch water from the village well and store it large water jars. Food is not refrigerated, but kept in the cupboard or on the table under a bamboo food cover to keep off the flies. In the south people haven’t learned that cold delays food spoilage. In the north they know that from keeping food outside in winter.

Only one woman in the village will answer questions, the one in charge of women’s affairs and family planning. She is lively, dynamic and gestures a lot—which some Chinese seem to see as undignified. She talks to you from behind the counter of her small shop as you sit on a bench made from a narrow strip of stone. Her shop is one of three stalls which sell things like pop—including Pepsi, which is imported from Hong Kong, and therefore more prestigious than locally-made Coca Cola—cookies, tea, dried fruit, cigarettes, and alcohol.

The women’s affairs leader says that here the legal age for marriage is twenty-two for boys and twenty for girls. Marriage is illegal for younger people, and any resulting pregnancy means a forced abortion with a 300-yuan fine. The pressure to marry is very strong. The oldest unmarried woman in the village is twenty-four. There’s one family of four unmarried sons, reportedly because women haven’t found them attractive.  You’ve learned from other sources that sixty or seventy percent of marriages are between people inside the village. A village boy going outside the village for a bride might be forced to pay a very high bride price.

Cleaning around the village well

Since pre-martial sex is illegal, birth control is available only to married couples, with the common methods the IUD after the first child and tubal ligation after the second, although the pill and the condom are also available. Usually women use no birth control directly after marriage, so most have children. The women’s leader tells you of the recent case of an intelligent factory worker sent out for further education. When she decided to go on the pill rather than have children, she was the talk of the village and all the surrounding villages.

You learn that in the countryside people are allowed two children, with a three-year interval between the first and the second child. Otherwise they’re fined 10 yuan [$3.33 at the time]  for every month the child is early. Some people are deciding to have the second child early anyway because they’re afraid the government will take away that right. In other places, if people have more than the allotted number of children, they pay a fine and collect no benefits for them. Here the brigade forces people to abort the third child. The women’s leader says that recently there was a sad case. A married couple had been told that their son would die before he reached the age of sixteen. Without telling anyone about it, they planned another baby. But the village authorities thought if the son lived to be sixteen he had a good chance of growing up and being able to look after his parents in their old age. They wouldn’t permit the couple to have another child, so in her eighth month the woman was forced to undergo an abortion.

Girls gathering firewood

The women’s affairs officer says she’s trying to encourage women to develop side-line businesses. Farming doesn’t pay them very much. Later you hear from one or the villagers than he’s trying to persuade his wife to give up farming. At his job he’d made more money in a month than she had in a year.

The next day when you’re climbing around on the hills, you meet some girls hauling heavy baskets of brush for fuel. This is the way girls learn to work while the boys were out playing.
Boys on their dads’ motorbykes

In village households there’s a strict division of labor, with the women doing almost all the farming and the housework. They work sixteen to eighteen hours a day. When the men work, they work hard, but if they’re prevented from working by rain or something else they sit around all day, talking and drinking, without offering to help their wives cook or haul water from the village well. Husbands don’t help much with child care, either.  Fathers of new babies were often very attentive, but not after the children reach five or six. Most of the women stay inside the village all the time, while the husband might go into town a couple of times a week to shop for clothing for the children and other things the family needs.

Flooded rice field

You wander around the village and through fields, treading carefully on narrow ridges built up from the level of the land. The little plots are about the size of a large, one-family garden back home. The red clay is carefully cultivated with neat rows and no weeds, but unlike American gardeners, they don’t have the money to bring in topsoil. You watch rice being planted. One of the women invites you to step into the flooded field. On impulse you do and feel your feet and legs sink into the smelly gunk—a very unpleasant sensation.  Everyone laughs.

The division of village land is a problem. There’s supposed to be 0.7-mu per family member with a ten- or fifteen-year contract [a mu is 1/15 of a hectare or 1/6 of an acre]. But over ten or fifteen years, people are born, get married, move to their husbands’ families or die. So villagers feel that although the period is too long, if  the land were contracted for only two or three years people might not try to improve the soil but just get out of it what they could. This you see is one example of the clash between the group system and the individual system, both of which are part of the new order.

Toddler at right smoking a cigarette

Everywhere you go, the men in your group are offered cigarettes.  It seems impossible for a man to be social without smoking and drinking alcohol—at least without smoking. Five or seven-year-old boys steal their father’s cigarettes. The village has an elite clique for young men wanting to become socially and politically active. The best and the brightest are not joining the Communist Party, not even the son of the party secretary.

So that’s your stay in a Chinese village. The next afternoon you pack your bag and walk down the dusty road to the next village to wait for a bus into town.