‘Qing jin’, she says. ‘Come in’.
Her wind-browned face opens up with a smile and crinkles in the corners of her eyes as she shows me the kitchen. A large wok-shaped bowl sits in a low brick platform. Beneath it the fire of corn stalks is about to be lit to cook the midday meal. Nearby is a simple cutting board propped upon an up-ended barrel; a knife and some fresh green onions lie upon it.
‘Water?’ I wonder. She points outside to the pump, which brings water up from the well. Immediately, she hands me a bowl of water to taste. My eyes light up! Ah, the freshest and sweetest water I have sipped in a long time, especially since I have been living in Beijing for a few months.
But now I am not in Beijing. I am in the mountains of Hebei province, visiting some small villages. A visit such as this is not really possible for a foreigner travelling on his or her own. In fact, it is difficult even for Chinese people from other parts of this vast country. Dialect is the key, for when locals hear someone speaking their own tongue, they automatically trust them and invite them into their simple homes. Fortunately, I have a local man, along with a couple of his friends, to show me around. Only in this way can we be invited into people’s homes, sit around and talk, share some food and a smoke or two.
Keeping It Simple
Simplicity – this is the key to village life hereabouts, some of them having as few as half a dozen families. As our car pulls up in the narrow laneway of the first village, the local boy (our driver) blasts his horn a few times to let people know we have arrived. Out of the house comes his sister, with the wonderful smiling face and wise, inquisitive eyes. A couple of her children are there too, as well as her mother. After many ‘nihaos’ and shaking of hands, I am invited inside. I duck and pass beneath the lintel of the double wooden gate, with its two fierce demon posters to keep the evil spirits away. All around me are vegetable gardens with new spring crops poking through the soil – the ubiquitous onion family of these parts, joined by some chillies and bitter cucumbers. I pause beside a large barrow, with its handbrake to keep a heavy load from rolling away down a slope (and in the mountains, level ground is scarce). Before I know it, I am persuaded to push the barrow across the yard, posing in ridiculous positions for the inevitable photos. The barrow rolls to a stop beside a wooden lid on the ground and our local boy lifts the lid and beckons me down, down into the depths of an underground storage facility for vegetables during the winter (where they do not freeze).
As soon as I have squeezed out of the narrow hole in the ground – while pondering the diminutive size of the human beings for whom the hole was constructed – I am led inside, into the kitchen with its cooking stove and peanut-shaped heater. Here are some well-worn stools, for around the heater people sit during the bitter winters, warming themselves, smoking, talking. I walk through to the living area, which doubles up as the first bedroom. Again, simplicity strikes me: a worn lounge, a large bed, a single dressing table resting against the wall, in which all of the family’s clothes are kept. Scanning the plastered walls covered with old print as wall paper, my eyes light up.
‘Xi Jiping!’ I say.
All laugh and nod at the colourful poster of President Xi Jiping and his wife.
But the second and more dedicated bedroom is the highlight, into which we walk from the living space. Here the bed is a large wooden structure with a colourful cover and blankest neatly folded in the corner. Hard beds are simply the norm – good for one’s back I am told repeatedly. To eat, one sits on the bed cross-legged (which I do with delight), with a very low table lifted into place for the bowls of food.
Looking up, I cry out again: ‘Chairman Mao!’
On the wall is a large poster of Chairman Mao sitting in his wicker chair, cigarette in hand and the mountains of Hunan in the background. What better way to sleep than with the chairman watching over you?
By now others have turned up, hearing quickly of the laowai visiting the village. More ‘nihaos’ and requests for the photographs follow, while the master of the house crouches down to prepare a snack for me. I join her, enjoying the company. She hands me some fresh shallots, freshly picked from the garden. I pass a few around, and munch gleefully on the remainder. Some berries follow, which I have never eaten before. And then she sits in the sun and lights a cigarette. My quizzical look evinces the explanation that women in the countryside smoke more, for they do not have the inhibitions of city girls.
As we talk, I am reminded of a comment from Marshall Sahlins: ‘There are after all two roads to satisfaction, to reducing the gap between means and ends: producing much or desiring little’. Clearly, these people desire little. Even their clothes are few and worn for days, if not weeks at a time. The sheer simplicity of their lives is immensely appealing, an impression that is reinforced by a few other homes. One has only two rooms, a kitchen and a bedroom-living room. Up on the hill of a village with only five families, the home is close to the goat herd, with which I mingle as they thrust their mouths into my hands for the corn I hold. Inside the home, I admire the view from the front door, while their younger son comes up beside me and pisses out of the door onto the slope below. In yet another small village, another woman with an immensely pleasant face invites us into her home.
No matter that we – including a foreigner – have emerged from the trees on foot as she is working in a field with her twin daughters. She welcomes us in and calls her daughters to say hello in English – which they do, proudly. Here a mule or two are still used for traction, and a heavy stone hand-mill stands in the midst of the village for hulling grain. Here too the water is fresh from a well, but we must drink it all and not waste it, for otherwise the local dragon will be angry as such wastage.
As we leave she returns to the field with her daughters, engaging in the age-old practices of manual agriculture. An almost fossilised man leading a mule passes us by.
I ask: how is the absence of private property managed? I am told that every ten years or so, the land to be cultivated is reallocated among the villagers depending on family needs and abilities. Now this is an ancient practice, one that goes back millennia: the social determination of production, in which communal concerns are paramount. Private property in land is simply useless in such an environment, apart from the fact that it negates speculation in land.
In each village, our presence draws out others, who gather not so much to gape at the foreigner, but to welcome us all. Unlike the provincial cities and towns, a foreigner seems no big deal. One of those who says hello is the local teacher in charge of the school. Neatly dressed in white shirt and pants, he invites me to come and look at his school.
A short walk along the dirt road reveals a pair of high gates, behind which are two white-washed buildings with a playground in between. With a massive bunch of keys, the teacher opens one colourful and well-ordered room after another. He shows me walls and blackboards full of the careful examples of how to write Chinese characters, textbooks with stories of the Long March, and – with much pride – the new computer room. But my delight is the teacher’s office, festooned with images of Gorki and Lu Xun … and Engels. Beneath the bearded Engels he stands for a moment, and I manage to capture the moment.
An even greater delight is the final moment of my visit. In my honour, he pulls the Chinese flag, all red with its stars in the corner. I hold the flag as he raises it aloft on the flagpole, where it unfurls its announcement to the rest of the village.
Socialist the village may be, but it is also traditional. As I pass outside the school gates, I notice a small structure to our right.
‘Is that a shrine’, I ask while walking towards it.
‘Yes,’ says my translator. ‘Here we pray to the local gods’.
‘For what?’ I say.
‘Oh, for rain’, she says. ‘And for good crops’.
The red flag of the People’s Republic flutters close by.
My access to the villages, to the school, inside people’s homes, and even into the intimacy of conversation in the simplicity of life is predicated on the fact that we have a local boy with us. He may live in the big smoke (a term that takes on whole new meaning in Beijing), but his home is still here. One of the extended family homes is his, and his sisters and brothers are all about. The homes – bar one – that we visit are of his family. A sister here, a brother there, while sons and daughters and parents and grandparent are always present, let alone uncles, aunts, cousins ….
I would still be welcome if this were not the case, but the intimate closeness would not be felt. No embarrassment that a foreigner may have to use a toilet that is little more than a hole in the ground (with a shed), or that he may have to sit on a lounge that has seen far better days. Instead, they simply assume: this is our life, take us as we are, since we take you as you are.
Knowing the strength of kinship structures in theory is all very well, in all it benefits and drawbacks. But experiencing it in the way I do is another matter entirely. It strikes me one evening as we sit around a dinner table, eating local food of goat and fresh vegetables, mostly of the onion family. You wrap the various items in a large lettuce leaf, make a roll of sorts, and daub it liberally with a pungent sauce. And you drink a local and fiery brew. As the spirited toasts begin, I offer a few Australian expressions, repeating them so my hosts learn the specific feel of the drawn-out vowels and their intonations.
‘What is the word for one’s closest friend?’ I am asked.
‘Maaaaaate’, I say, with a drop and then slow rise in inflection as the vowel passes through its various modulations. ‘Actually, it’s a “good maaaaaate,” or “good on’ya maaate”’.
We practice and practice again until they have mastered the peculiarities of Australian dialects.
‘What about Chinese?’ I ask.
‘Bi xuuuuuuuuuude!’ Says our local boy, with a high a sustained ‘uuuu’.
In my turn I practice until I come close.
‘But what does it mean?’ I ask.
‘It’s what you say to your gemener’, he says. ‘Your closest brother. From now on, you are my gemener’.