Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Last Farmer

The Lius who we stayed with when we hiked up the Great Wall live a simple life.

Liu senior goes to bed around 8pm and wakes up at 4:30am and starts hiking up part of the same route we went to tend to his fields. It's a series of terraced plots only a few metres in width. He grows corn and at the moment, the corn has already been harvested, but he has cleared the plots of the dried up stalks and will probably move them down to be composted. He also raises several plump chickens and roosters, feeding them corn meal twice a day.

He has lived in this farmhouse all his life, his family having lived here for around six generations, back to the Qing Dynasty. Apart from possessing a mobile phone, installing electricity at home, a freezer and a few modern toys for his grandson, everything else seems old and worn.

As there is no running water, there is a giant vat where they use water to wash their hands, faces and to cook with. I'm not sure where the water comes from, but it was safe enough to drink. Liu senior would use the small plastic red ladle and put some water in the enamel basin and use a bar of soap to wash his hands crusted with dirt, then splash his face and run his wet fingers through his hair. He would then dry himself off with a hand towel hanging on the rack holding the basin.

He has probably never had a proper bath or shower before.

Over dinner we talked about the differences between country and city life. While Liu's wife claimed she preferred more excitement, Beijing was too much for her, with so many people and cars. She said she only came into the capital whenever she needed to do errands there, which sounded rare. Liu senior hasn't been in Beijing in over 10 years.

Liu senior is 60 years old, but tilling the fields has made him look older, but his body is as fit as a 25 year old. His only vice is smoking, which he does quite often, and beers with guests. He can't handle baijiu, or Chinese spirits.

The Lius obviously live a very frugal life and they are representative of the rest of the village here, and perhaps many other rural areas in China, where some are much better off, others worse.

It is this sector of people that the Chinese government is depending on to spend their hard-earned money to increase domestic consumption.

However much the Lius have scrimped and saved, they are not going to be splashing out on refrigerators, microwaves or tractors anytime soon. They have other things to save for, including the dreaded possibility of medical costs, not only for them but also for their family should anyone get sick.

Liu senior likes to think that it's safe to raise a child on a farm, but the reality is that his grandson, although only three years old, will be academically behind his urban peers. In China, parents with children his age in the city are already stressed out in getting accepted into the right kindergarten that will help them onto the path of a good university.

There's no such pressure here on the farm, where there isn't even alarm over the child's dirty hands and clothes.

The Lius live a life completely different from people in the city, and yet they are only a few hours' drive apart from each other.

The differences are so stark after 30 years of reform and opening up, and they will probably become even more pronounced in the future.

Liu senior probably knows he will be the last generation to live on this farm, as his son now has a hostel and restaurant.

Regardless, Liu senior must be pleased with how his family has developed and hopefully they will continue to have some kind of link to the land they have depended on for generations.

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