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.
Hu is 88 years old this year. Before the establishment of the PRC in 1949, he bought 13.3 mu of field. At that time, some profiteers were informed that the Communist Party was about to gain complete control in China, so they started to sell their lands at cheap prices. Hu is from a peasant family, which relied on 5 mu of field for life and saved some money planting soft rush. Informed that the surrounding lands were being offered at cheap prices, the family bought 13.3 mu of field. Soon, Xixia Village was liberated. Hu had 18.3 mu field, even 0.3 mu more than the local landlord. Fortunately, the large family divided the land up, and according to the average occupancy of land in the family, they were classified as middle peasants* who did not have to turn in their land but were disqualified of getting more. According to him, if he had not bought the land, not only would he have gotten more land from the party, but also he would have gotten a better position at the class identification. (Xixia Village, Yinzhou)
- 1 mu ≈ 0.1647 acre
- Middle peasants: Chinese peasants were divided by the government into rich peasants, middle peasants, and poor peasants. In order to establish a communist society, rich peasants were oppressed. Middle peasants, like Hu, did not have to give any land to the government but could not get more land. Poor peasants were given lands by the government.
The experience of Hu represents countless people’s lives which were flipped by the changes in history. While some people, especially the poor, got a better life because of the establishment of new China, others, like Hu, had to resign to fate because they predicted the flow of history in a wrong way. He is one of the victim whose life was destroyed in that revolution.
Wu used to be a farmer in suburban Yuyao, where he owned a hardware store for ten years. Several years ago, a local shopping mall held a photography competition. He had just bought a used camera, so he took and submitted a random photo without much consideration. Surprising, he got the Golden Award. Finding it largely incredible, Wu closed his hardware store, devoting his life entirely to photography. As an aspiring photographer, Wu has a dream of taking photos of fishermen casting their nets high up on the sky in vast Siming Lake accompanied by a hanging mist. Unfortunately, fishing is not allowed in the Siming Lake. Therefore, he purchased a boat; after practicing for a long time, Wu mastered the skill of casting a net. However, it brought him another trouble: how can he take a photo of this scene?
Wu and I met at the bank of Siming Lake, and we had a great time talking about photography. When he volunteered to perform casting the net for me, I was extremely delighted. He brought his boat with a pick-up truck right away. Solemnly, he handed his camera to me, adroitly put on his rush raincoat, and rowed the boat away from the bank. He stood at the bow, casting the net toward the windy sky over and over again, proudly. I pressed the shutter continuously, and photos of Wu throwing his net were recorded in his camera, finally. (Liangnong, Yuyao)
Wu’s life is very different from the life people from cities imagine. For many, villages represent out-dated peasant life, and being a farmer means that one has to work all day long in the field but only earns little money. However, this is a misconception. From the experience of Wu, we can tell that lives in villages contain far more amazing activities than planting crops. While Wu likes photography, others have various hobbies at their spare time as well. Therefore, the portrayals of their lives have a positive side, in addition to the stereotypical tiring side. The stories of these old people can truly communicate the happiness in their lives with urban people. Our next exhibition will be held in the Culture Plaza of Ningbo starting from this weekend, and I hope that it can once again correct these misconceptions about rural lives!
Alone, this 93-year-old man Zheng lives in the west side-room, the only remaining part of his ancestral home called “The Yifeng Doorway.” Previous generations of the Zheng family owned numerous Yifeng Grain Stores in Cixi and Yuyao, thus considered one of the local business tycoons able to construct a grandiose mansion. Prosperity of the family was ebbing, however. Zheng’s father, working as a cook, lost all family property by addicting to gambling, while his mother ran away from home and had never been heard from again. For his whole life, this unmarried man raised cattle for others to make a living. In 1949, the local Peasant Association was founded, and by being classified as a poor peasant, he was free of cruel oppression* thanks to his father. (Banpu Village, Ci City)
*The communist Chinese government tried to eliminate landlords and rich peasants because they inhibited the progression of an egalitarian society. The CPC collected the land of the rich and redistributed it to the poor in order to establish a communist society. Therefore, poor peasants were protected, while the rich were oppressed.
The experience of Zheng is sad yet thought-provoking. The Zhengs was not the only family who experienced changes in life in the 1950s. The establishment of PRC shaped countless people’s life. Some poor peasants became richer because of the policies of the government, while others, like Zheng, fell off a cliff. The changes in social and political conditions are largely connected to everyone’s life tightly.