is hard for many people to imagine the size and scope of China,
especially with the big seaboard cities taking up all the limelight
and only the occasionaly Xinjiang flare-up, Three Gorges study or
Yunnan pictorial bringing the rest of the country into the world’s
It is also difficult to imagine a country with 1.3
billion inhabitants. For Americans, think like this:
Imagine America with 8x the people. There are thousands
of villages sheltering millions of people all going through modernization
in different ways with different results.
Spring Festival I took a small tour of a few Western Sichuan villages—just
a few hours from the capital city and the difference was both unfathomably
huge and curiously invisible.
Festival is a time for eat and drink. And firecrackers. Sichuan
is famous for its food, but never have I eaten such a wide range
of ambrosia in my life: Red, sticky-sweet rice covered in melt-in-your-mouth
smoked pork, bamboo shoots in a chicken broth with home-made horseradish
and spinach, spicy mouth-numbing (ma la) fish, ma la chicken, ma
la everything ... soft tofu of various varieties, spicy sausage
We ate and ate and ate and the food never stopped.
When we finally finished, cups of tea and biscuits followed until
we snored at the table. These peasants once ate mud, rocks, worms
and vegetables I didn’t know existed. These same peasants fought
for one kilo of rice. These same peasants had meat, maybe, once
same peasants revere Deng for giving them the chance to stuff a
foreigner until he popped on the most important Chinese holiday.
Zhao runs the local We-Sell-It-All shop and the kids come running
up with 5 cents to buy candy and firecrackers. Lao Zhao lives in
Gao Miao (High Temple) Village. This village lies in the middle
of the mountains and consists of two streets and a beautiful old
town built around an ancient Taoist temple. (Atop one of the surrounding
mountains perches the temple that gave the village its name). He
can still sell the little ones pretty much anything they want while
discussing the Columbia Tragedy and its (negligible, in his opinion)
effects on the Chinese Space Program. He has a refrigerator and
TV and everything is fine, just as the countless reports from the
Chinese media assert.
I sat with Old Zhao and his buddies, one of them the
self-proclaimed "Party Secretary." As everyone laughed
at this, The Secretary proceeded to inform us all that Gao Miao
was naught but a collection of quaint wooden houses connected by
bridge and surrounding a temple until Old Deng changed everything
and brought in a coal factory across the river. After that, buses
started arriving and "newcomers" opened up shops to support
the workers, whose families rolled in and settled in along the road
to "civilization"—which has since become a "highway."
cement blocks with garage door restaurants surrounded the town square
and the old folks found themselves congregating by the bridge to
the High Temple. Lao Zhao set up shop and it's been that way ever
After he spoke about the wonderous healing properties
of the local fish, I mentioned the landslides of refuse and plastic
and fast-food noodle cartons pouring from every house into the river
and asked if they contributed to the medicinal qualities of the
Everyone sat stunned. My friend glared at me and I
must admit I turned red. The Secretary drew a deep breath and said:
is the price of development."
the Missionaries Must Have Seen
two hours north of Gao Miao sits Hong Ya. Hong Ya was once three
streets along a river and a bridge connecting them to the road north,
to Meishan and eventually the capital.
one of these streets sleep the dormitories of 18th century
Catholic missionaries. Their Church, further up river, has been
recently renovated. These stone buildings with square windows facing
the streets, catwalks twelve feet up and oval doorways sit beside
short, wooden thatched-roofed affairs with carved windows, sliding
doors, bamboo stools, a central courtyard and flying-eaves painted
red and chipped gold.
fit beautifully together. So beautiful, in fact, is the mixture
of European and Chinese architecture that fat-cats from Chengdu
are cruising the few hours southwest in their SUVs and buying up
the buildings en masse. The old town, separated from Deng-initiated
modern China by the bridge, is quiet and sunny during the day. Quiet
and dim-lit by night.
Lao Yu is a local who swears he can carry any load
for forty miles after drinking 2 liters of Chinese moonshine (baijiu)
and still be up for more. He is also the propieter of a nong jia
le (villager ho-down spot) which his extended family took over for
We ate good and drank better with Lao Yu and his brothers,
sisters, wife, sons, grandsons etc. while he waxed on with his moustache
between two fingers. It seems Hong Ya is famous for a type of fern
that the dinosaurs fed on, million of years ago, as well as for
the best tofu in the land and some of the best tea money can’t buy.
The river is clean (except for the signature garbage-landslides)
and the people are the friendliest bunch of peasants a foreigner
could ever hope to meet.
But will it stay this way?
scoffs Yu. "The government doesn’t listen to the likes of us—soon
they’ll see that tourism makes money
here, and then the old town will be surrounded by new buildings."
"We have no choice," his brother continues.
"If we don’t comply and tear down the old huts, they’ll fine
These statements always come with a "we love
Deng and his Opening Up policy" qualification, as they should.
Yu would have had no chance to operate his very own tofu-tea-baijiu-pork
shack by the river under the old system. And his sons and younger
brothers couldn’t have left Hong Ya to search for better jobs.
peasants are still poor and isolated enough to disregard environment
for the love of money, but more and
more the debate concerning over-development and lack of control
over what gets developed and how crops up
in conversations from village tea houses to big city tea houses.
a related side-note:
The highways linking these villages to Chengdu and
the rest of China carry with them a heavy price. According to Ivan
Armstrong, Chief Engineering Advisor for Wilbur Smith Associates,
the death toll on the highways is astronomical. Chinese haven’t
had much experience with highways (roughly 20 years) and anyone
who has driven in China knows chaos reigns supreme. In Sichuan,
where the dogs bark at the sun (because the fog is so thick, the
sun is a stranger to them), one wrong move means death on the highways.
It became so bad that the Public Security Bureau assumed control
of the statistics over the Dept. of Transportation. The bright spot
is that litigation is helping build responsibility.
In another related sidenote:
The highway from Chengdu to Meishan is three feet
thin on both sides. The concrete meant for the highway slipped into
the pockets of the man in charge, and he has since been executed
for his crimes.
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