I just returned from a quick trip to Shandong province.(Shandong is the third most populous province in China, the birthplace of Confucius, and a major agricultural center. Click here for a little history.) I was visiting my friend Eric's home village, Da Shang Cun, which rests on the outskirts of the city of Binzhou. Visiting a rural area reminded me yet again of the stark contrasts that exist in Chinese life. Rural China is modernizing at a breakneck pace but its people manage to maintain longstanding traditions.
The village is comprised of farming families that have worked the same land for generations. The village is small in land mass but culturally strong. Everyone shares the same last name, "Shang", and an additional generational name to distinguish between fathers and sons. For instance each person is named Shang "generation name" "given name". The village residents collectively own the surrounding farm land unlike other parts of China where the federal government is the sole landowner. In a brilliant move to modernize, the village decided to sell part of their crop land to two factories that wanted to open in the area. With the money they are building a large complex of town homes. Each family can have one, or two, town homes depending on the amount of land they were willing to give up. To say this is a smart investment is a huge understatement. In reality this is the equivalent of trading in your 1985 Buick for a 2011 Lexus Hybrid.
The house that Eric grew up in was built by his father out of compressed mud. The three room structure is primitive even by Chinese standards. This hand made building still stands more than 30 years later beside their second concrete built home. The second home is a major improvement but still has little heat except for the coal-burning cook stove that is pictured above. Their is minimal electricity, no running water, and an open pit outhouse. They do however have a TV and a laptop that gets used regularly. We visited their new town home that is under construction. (See below. The bottom image is of Eric's mother burning an offering to bless the new house.) The concrete structure has four bedrooms, a living room, kitchen, sun room, courtyard, and most importantly heat/running water. The contrast between the old and new living space is one example of the dramatic increase in rural families' standards of living.
We spent one day driving around the neighboring city of Binzhou. The width of the streets surprised me. For a relatively small city six lane streets where the norm. It dawned on me that China is building its infrastructure for the country it will become in 20 years, not the country it is today. I have great admiration for the long range planning that this takes. In contrast, the United States seems to still be functioning on the infrastructure plan that Eisenhower put into effect with the Federal-Aide Highway Act of 1956.(Click here for a little history on the U.S. interstate system) China's economic power is equally matched by its ability to forecast long term domestic reorganization and growth. Western nations could be looking at China's economic/domestic policy, not as a competitor but as a resource. China is certainly not a utopia, i.e.human rights violations, restrictions on free speech, etcetera, but it also isn't the haphazard third world country of Mao's time.
We spent much of the trip sitting in the living room chewing sunflower seeds and having tea. The whole family congregates in this room, which also doubles as the master bedroom. Eric interpreted for both sides as we discussed life in China and the west. They were very keen to ask why I was not married at 30, what crops are grown in Virginia, and if I liked basketball. It felt good to be included in the intimate moments of the spring festival celebration. We shared home cooked meals, card games, and lots of laughs at the five year old Shang Hao Tong (pictured above). I was honored to share in the New Years day practice of offering food at the family cemetery and I learned how to making Jiaozi (steamed dumplings). I will save those experiences for a post in the near future.