Barry’s Gleanings: “Beautiful houses can’t hide hollowed-out villages” by Ding Jun

Barry in Shanghai with Dean Mao

Barry reads extensively and often shares articles he finds fascinating in our search to figure out China.  So our new idea for this blog is to pass along articles we think you too might find interesting and perhaps help change stereotypes about ever-changing China.  This first article is from the April 9, 2012, Global Times. 

  “Beautiful houses can’t hide hollowed-out villages”

The countryside has become increasingly empty thanks to urbanization and the huge flow of migration.

I went back to my hometown of Dafa village in central China’s Hubei Province recently and made a surprising discovery.  The houses there were decorated beautifully, but many of them were locked and deserted.  Some courtyards were even full of weeds.

The only busy period is Spring Festival.  Many migrants come home for a short period of reunion.  But once the festival ends, quietness comes back as all the migrants fly off again.

In the old days, the houses were almost all one storey and built with mud bricks.  And usually, several family members shared a house.  But now it’s totally different.  The houses usually have two to three floors and the rooms are large.

Without tap water, they drill wells in their courtyard and draw water into tanks to introduce running water to their newly-built house.

On the house roof, they have set up solar heating systems.  In the houses, the bathrooms have flush toilets.  Household appliances like refrigerator, washing machine and even air conditioner are commonly installed.  The windows are aluminum framed double glass, the exterior wall is covered with white ceramic tiles, and the burglar-proof gates cost from 4,000 yuan ($634) to 10,000 yuan. [6.3 yuan = $1U.S.]

If such houses were in Beijing, they would be luxury villas and cost several million of yuan.  But here, building a three-storey building takes about 200,000 yuan.

About 20 years ago, the farmers expanded or built houses for their sons to marry and build a new family.  But now the farmers have one or two children who are either studying, live or work in urban areas and rarely come back.  And there’s nobody looking to rent.

People between 15 and 45 years old are rare in the villages.  They’ve either migrated to coastal cities or nearby townships or are engaged in non-agricultural work outside the countryside like building, catering, sales and driving.

The only people left are children, the elderly and middle-aged women.  The last two have become the major force in agriculture, known as the “3860 troop,” which refers to women and old people above 60.

Farmers still grow rice and cotton.  But the previous double harvest of rice has been merged into one harvest, midseason rice.  In [the] busy season, the hosts have to hire people to finish the farm work, [at] about 80-100 yuan per day.  Most of the hired are seniors.  The young would rather work in an indoor plant even [if] they can only earn 70 yuan per day in the coastal cities. In their opinion, those jobs are better than sweating in the sunshine.

When the rice is ready for harvest, farmers need to pay for harvest combine drivers.  Scenes of starting farm work at sunrise and returning home at sunset have become a thing of the past.

Some farmers simply contracted their farmland to large-scale grain producers.  The output is good.  Agricultural department workers will also make regular field inspections on whether the land is properly farmed.

Farmers, especially young people, prefer to buy apartments in local towns, even though they have newly built houses in [the] countryside.

As for girls at 16 or 17 years old, if they aren’t doing well in their studies, they drop out of school before graduation.  The clothing plants reserve them as laborers by giving their parents advanced payments.  Then they meet their Mr. Right in cities and marry guys from far away.  After that, they almost never come home.

It is always the middle-aged women who stick to their positions.  Some die from illness, some become widows as their husbands haven’t shown up for years after they went out to look for work.  The newly built houses are empty most of the time.  They’re a consolation for those who stay behind.  In the countryside, what you still see is that the old weather-beaten wrinkled people are sitting in the sun, while their grandchildren are playing or doing homework.

Nevertheless, such scenes will not last either.  In five to 10 years, when the old people pass away, their grandchildren will grow up and go to coastal areas, and what’s left in the deserted countryside may only be loneliness and emptiness. (15)

by Ding Jun

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About reneeriley

Our blog was begun as a way to share our experiences in China. From August 2010 to July 2011, my husband, Barry Kristel, and I were at our University of Hawaii Maui College sister school, Zhejiang Agriculture and Forestry University in Lin'an, China, a city considered rural because it has only 500,000 people! We had a wonderful time. Then in February 2012, we returned to teach this time at our other sister school, Shanghai Normal University, in a city of over 21 million people. We've made many discoveries. Did you know that now Chinese girls, at least the ones who go to university, for the most part feel they are luckier than the Chinese boys? Did you know that Shanghai saved over 20,000 European Jews during WWII? Do you know how Chinese university students would deal with problems that come up in Dear Abby letters? What's it like to be on the Great Wall of China? Do you know how many Chinese girls had their feet bound and why? And we have recipes from many of the places we've visited. Among others, you can find instructions on how to fry cicadas from one of my ZAFU students and how to make chocolate-Kahlua waffles from my brother Mike in Gainesville. You can also look back to our earliest entry to see what we experienced in Oaxaca, Mexico, in 2006 during the mainly peaceful six months of protest until the Mexican government sent in the troops. Between our stays in China, Barry and I have been on the Mainland U.S. visiting family, friends and Servas hosts as we traveled home to Maui. We share those experiences too. Welcome to our blog! Aloha and Zài Jiàn, Renée and Barry

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