Mr. He is almost 70 years old. He is from Zhubu Village, Ninghai, and his skill to catch snakes is inherited from past generations. Besides planting, he often goes into mountains to catch snakes at night. Zhubu village is located in the remote mountain area, and many villagers have the skill to catch snakes because it is a great part time job for them. However, selling the snakes is not easy. Mr. He has had the snake for half a month for now, but he is still unable to make a good amount of money. His nephew lives with him and his wife. When the nephew was 7 years old, his mother got cancer, while his father got cerebral hemorrhage. The responsibility of caring for him comes to this old couple.
Dong Guochang was born in 1934 in Fenghua. At the age of sixty, he builded a huge grave for himself in addition to two pavilions for future generations to rest when they visit him. The township head discouraged him from taking so much land for his grave that even the mother of Chiang Kai-shek did not own such a huge one. Dong, with rulers in his hand, went three times to compare two graves. Finally, he agreed to dissemble the two pavilions. Now, he becomes a famous painter in the village.
In Feitianwugong Village lives Yu at the age of 89. On July 30th in 1934 in lunar calendar, his father went to work in the cornfield with him before it was too dark. When they just arrived at the cornfield, a gang came up to them. Yu’s father was shot, and Yu was abducted. The gang requested 300 yuan from Yu’s mother. In order to save her son, she sold everything she could and even borrowed money from others. After half a year, Yu was released. Maybe because of such experience, he does not like to talk.
He is Li, 81 years old. At the age of seven, his parents died, and his uncle sent him to an orphanage in Fenghua. The orphanage, which actually was a school, was sponsored by Chiang Kai-shek* for raising orphans in Fenghua, Xiangshan, and Xinchang. At the age of 14, the orphanage was shut down when the Kuomintang lost control in mainland China. Li was sent to a peasant family, but he suffered from discrimination. For example, when eating salted vegetables, Li was only allowed to eat leaves. However, others were eating stems even with lard in order for more flavor. He rebelled a year later, and under the mediation, the peasant family allowed him to leave and even gave him a house according to the local tradition. He was the only intellectual in the village who had gained an education in the orphanage. For most of his life, he worked as the accountant of the village until his retirement. (Baifenbi Village, Fenghua)
*Chiang Kai-shek: Leader of the Kuomintang
He is Mao, 80 years old. For decades, people from Ninghai, Xiangshan, Fenghua, and Xinchang who were snake bite victims tramped over hill and dale to find this snake doctor. Mao was not from a family of snake doctors; surprisingly, his grandfather was the leader of the beggar’s gang. His father begged for his entire life, while he also begged for 15 years with his father. At the age of 18, he went to City God Temple of Shanghai, learning how to treat patients bitten by snakes. Before, there could be as many as 50 patients. In order to collect herb-medicine for them, he had to look for herbs all over the mountain. In recent decades, patient number decreased as the local ecosystem deteriorated. Both the local Department of Health and his son, who hid his phone, prevented him from practicing, so he did not have any choice but to quit his career. (Feitianwugong Village, Xinchang)
The couple is 87-year-old Lu and his 81-year-old wife. In 1948, he went to Shanghai to learn his trade, apprenticing in a coal dust ball stove company. 10 years later, an incident happened in China that changed countless people’s fates. In May 1961, the government initiated the Down to the Countryside Movement, in which Mao sent privileged urban youth to poor mountainous areas to work as farmers. Lu volunteered to serve in Ninghai. Farming in Ninghai was not an easy task. He did not even know anything about agriculture. Due to the numerous mountains in Sangzhou, he had to carry manure buckets uphill on his shoulder. When he was too tired to labor, the rural production team did not care and deducted his work points ruthlessly, leading to food shortages in his family. At the hardest times, his wife chose to eat husk so that her husband and children would not starve. (Sangzhou, Ninghai)
The Down to the Countryside Movement was initiated to even out the gap in the urban and rural area as well as reducing the amount of young people fighting for limited job opportunities in the urban areas. Lu’s vicissitudes were resulted from the Down to the Countryside Movement alone; should he not have come to the coutryside, he could have gotten a decent job in the city, and his family would less likely have experienced these hardship. Lu was not the perfect person for farming because he had never tried to before. Although it was designated to bring benefits to the newly founded nation by maximizing the amount of people with jobs, it also brought hardships to people like the Lu family. The movement forced people to the places doing jobs that were so unsuitable to them that they could barely survive.
This 94-year-old man named Hu used to be a tenant farmer, an occupation passed down within his family. Their low social status made them oppressed for the most of the time. At one night in 1949, three People’s Liberation Army soldiers came to visit his house. He was so scared that he tried to escape. The soldiers stopped him, telling him amiably that Ningbo was liberated and that they would like to invite poor peasants like him to join the local Peasant Association in Banpu Village. Soon, attending its first meeting, Hu began to work as an honorable grass-roots cadre. The house that he lived in belonged to a landlord previously, and it was given to him and another peasant after confiscation by the government. Hu later became the secretary of Banpu Village. Now, with his wife, he spends the rest of his life in Banpu enjoying a serene lifestyle and an abundant pension. (Banpu Village, Ci City)
Again, the story of Hu shows the theme of how people’s life would be dramatically affected by history. While some people moved downward along with the liberation, Hu moved up. History consists of tons of people’s life moving either upward and downward; Hu is just a small portion of it. He is the lucky one among them. It is fascinating comparing the stories of different individuals living in the same time period.
Near the Airport Road, a young couple is seen cultivating lotus roots. Passing by, you can always find them bending over. Even in the cold December weather, they wear thick water-proof clothing working in the field on their own. Chilly winter is the best weather for high-quality lotus roots, but picking them can be very complicated. Lotus roots grow at random directions in sludge, and every root has to be picked completely with one’s bare hands. The farmers have to be meticulous in order to prevent them from breaking. Bending for the whole day, the couple finds it hard to straighten themselves back again. Working for the whole year on the 10 mu* of lotus root field, the couple makes 100,000 yuan annually, which seems to be a lot for farmers, but only they themselves know the hard labor behind that money. (Fanshidu Village, Yinzhou)
* 1 mu ≈ 0.1647 acre
The story of picking lotus roots reminds me of Outliers: The Story of Success, my summer reading. One of the chapters in the book talks about why Chinese people are good at math. The answer lies in hard work. Chinese people worked diligently from generations to generations planting and weaving despite the seasons in past. These spirits are shown in the current generations. The couple picking lotus roots regardless of the weather to make a living. They inherited diligence from past generations, and I am sure that it will be passed to the future generations as well.
Gezhu Village used to be part of Shengzhou. Considering Fenghua complex as part of Chiang Kai-shek*, the Kuomintang government classified Gezhu as part of Fenghua. The mottled gate still has a plaque nailed on it from the Republican Period, which seems to bring people’s memories back to those times. Before leaving for Taiwan in 1949, Chiang went to Former Residence of Wang Caiyu* to bid goodbye to his uncles. Several octogenarians who still live here witnessed this sentimental moment in history as teenagers. One of them pointed at the courtyard, where the folks were drying bamboo shoots in the sun, saying that Chiang took a photo with his uncles right there. He, a thirteen-year-old boy, could only watch the event as a bystander. In his eighties now, the scene is still fresh in his mind. Even though this house looks grandiose, prosperity of the family had gone by the generation of Chiang Kai-shek’s mother. Almost all the family members were peasants. (Gezhu Village, Fenghua)
- Chiang Kai-shek: Leader of the Kuomintang
- Wang Caiyu: Chiang Kai-shek’s mother
To me, the stories of Chiang Kai-shek only exist in history textbooks. Textbooks spend a number of pages talking about Chiang Kai-shek politically, but they seldom mention him as a living person. I could not imagine that Chiang Kai-shek lived so close to my hometown a century ago, and so many things happened to him in this place. Only these old people could tell the historical figures in real life today.
Last year, during the National Day holiday, I went to visit veterans in remote mountains in Xianju with a community service organization. Some of the veterans live in houses half way up the hill without any roads, while others live in the humble nursing home. Although living a poor life, the veterans were simple and honest. Such a short visit moved them to tears.