All the travellers and tourists – both Chinese and foreign – I meet in Chinese villages end up talking about the same thing. How we are here just in time; how progress in the next few years is going to change and destroy these unspoiled places forever.
It’s easy to talk like that when you are slumming it for one night in a poor family’s house, sharing the very little they have but which they give so freely; perched on the tiniest stools in the world round their smoky fire (no chimney) and eating their sausage which hangs from the rafters only to be eaten on special occasions like a visit from you.
Peter Goullart lived in Lijiang, Yunnan, in the 1940s. In his book Forgotten Kingdom (a title rendered utterly ironic by subsequent history – Lijiang is now one of China’s top tourist destinations and is the yardstick against which the travellers I mentioned measure all other Chinese villages beginning to attract tourists) he describes nearby villages that are unimaginably poor. The people have no furniture at all; and practically no clothes. In one village the children sleep together in huge nests in the trees because, he was told, ‘ “We are very poor and have no bedding. At night it is very cold so the children sleep there for warmth.’ Indeed there they were – huddled in the dry leaves with only a rag between them to cover themselves.’
Progress in China has rescued these people from such unthinkable poverty. I think the poorest villages I’ve been to were in Nujiang, where there were children with no shoes walking along the stony old horse caravan route to Wuli, carrying baskets on their backs (slung from their foreheads) full of packages of noodles and bottles of rice wine. The coming Nujiang dam project might drown that village, but it might also mean that child’s parents will be able to afford to buy him some shoes.
“It’s not as nice as it looks from further away,” said Mr Luo, the retired school teacher from Wuli. From further away across the river, Wuli hovers like a dream of perpetual sunshine and emerald green grass beneath those high mountains and a sky so darkly blue you can’t believe it has so much light in it.
Close up, Wuli looks enchanting too. Faded pastel prayer flags snap in the wind, the wooden water wheels in the river turn slowly. There are thin rootling black pigs; the simple, dark wooden houses are adorned with bunches of drying gold maize and striped woven cloth hung from washing lines.
Outside Mr Luo’s house, two very pretty, very grubby snotty-nosed children stop their game to stare at us and finally smile. Later, over glasses of tea around his smoking fire, Mr Luo tells us they are his grand-daughters, abandoned by their alcoholic father because they are unwanted girls. Now both of their parents have left, and it is up to Mr Luo to somehow look after them. His wife died two weeks before we arrived.
It is a rare look, not from further away but from up close, of what life in unspoiled rural China can be like.
In the lovely Dong villages of south-east Guizhou, Mr Yang tells me he asked a woman what she does when her husband beats her. In the cities, she would have recourse to the courts, she could get a divorce. Here in the village, “I cry,” she replies.