Tradition and Transformation | What’s Up China

One village’s relentless march to modernization

Local customs and traditions still play an important role in village life

By Nick Lanigan

China’s efforts to eradicate poverty have been heroic and well-documented. The country has lifted more than 800 million people out of poverty since the 1970s, and served as a major contributor to the global achievement of the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. On a recent visit to the village of Peizhai, in central China’s Henan Province, I witnessed the achievements made by one particular community on the road to modernization – and the ways in which, despite the rapid pace of change, they are keeping their village traditions alive.

As the high-speed train slices through the Henan countryside and deposits us safely in the city of Xinxiang, I receive a jarring reminder of just how massive the stakes are when it comes to regional development in China. With a population of around 6 million, this city that I’d never heard of is home to more people than many European capitals – and if it were a country, Henan Province as a whole would be the twelfth most populous nation in the world. Still digesting these figures, we transfer to a bus and continue our journey to Peizhai, where my introduction to life in rural China begins in earnest.

The disused apparatus of an old-fashioned well stands forlornly in the center of Peizhai village, a symbol of harder times. Nowadays, the villagers have much more convenient access to water; but just 10 years ago, the daily struggles faced by people here were some of the most fundamental imaginable. A victim of its geography, nestled in the shadow of the Taihang Mountains, Peizhai faced regular and acute water shortages which had crippled its development. Aerial pictures prove just how big a difference the village’s modern reservoirs and irrigation systems have made to the landscape: where previously only barren earth was visible, now the ground has been transformed into verdant acres of crops. “Water is hugely important for the village,” explains Pei Chunliang, the Party secretary of Peizhai Community and a local, self-made philanthropist, who has personally invested a huge amount of money in the area. “A reliable water source has allowed us to progress.”

He’s not wrong. The water storage systems have given local people the upper hand in their battle with the elements for the first time in history, and the resulting changes have rendered Peizhai almost unrecognizable. The village’s original buildings have largely been demolished to make way for its new structures, so to get some context on what life here used to be like, we visit another nearby community that has not seen the same pace of development: the village of Dawangzhuang. There, an unmade road winds between the ramshackle houses, some of which stand empty and derelict. A few dogs rummage through roadside trash. The people still subsist almost entirely on farming. With this as its starting point, Peizhai’s achievements seem all the more impressive.

A spacious village square now welcomes visitors to Peizhai with artwork designed by local schoolchildren. Basketball courts, ping-pong tables and wellmaintained exercise equipment stand available for all to use, and neat rows of modern, terraced houses are now home to families that previously lived in dilapidated huts. As the country develops, these are the kinds of scenes that can be found in towns the length and breadth of China – so why is it that Peizhai still retains such a unique, “village” character? The answer lies with its people: looking beneath the surface, it becomes clear that a village’s traditions cannot be abandoned as easily as its buildings. Here, elderly residents still gather each morning for their daily exercise, before returning home to take care of their grandchildren whose parents have left to work. Later, they enjoy the afternoon sunshine in their front yards, which are planted with rows of vegetables or hung with the week’s laundry. Their homes are clean and welcoming, but scattered with the paraphernalia of rural life. Despite the upheaval of moving into modern surroundings, their mentalities and daily lives have remained remarkably unchanged. It might be fleeting – children who have never known hardships like those of their parents and grandparents are already starting school here – but for now, the curious pull between past and present, between tradition and development, is all too apparent.

Local chefs busy making fentiao to celebrate the fentiao festival

Particularly when it comes to food, old habits die hard. Everyone knows that food plays a crucial role in Chinese culture, and in that respect, Peizhai is no exception. We are invited to a lunch with other visitors to the village, and take our seats in a clean, brightly-lit hall at one end of the village square. Despite the decidedly modern surroundings, the cooking is done outside in a large vat, with a well-stoked fire roaring underneath. The food is delicious – a kind of vegetable stew served on a bed of rice – but the contrast of old and new is unmissable, especially when someone has to run the dishes in and out of the building from pot to table! I’m told that, no matter how good your kitchen is, nothing can beat the traditional cooking method. It’s a refrain that’s repeated throughout the village; more than once, we meet residents cooking steamed buns over an old-fashioned outdoor stove, right outside their perfectly functional kitchens. “Food is important,” says Pei Chunliang, “because it leaves an impression on you. If you leave a place full, you’ll have good memories of that place.”

The crowning example of the value still placed on traditional cooking comes with a celebration of fentiao, or ‘sweet potato noodles’. Throughout Peizhai’s historical struggles with drought and poor soil conditions, the sweet potato was a reliable crop, seeing local farmers through many difficult times. Now that the village is enjoying relative prosperity, a festival has been organized in celebration of this faithful vegetable, and it is quite the event. The cooking area is open to spectators, and as Features traditional music is performed in the background, I witness the transformation of sweet potatoes into fentiao before my very eyes. First, the sweet potatoes are cut into small pieces and mashed with flour, forming a doughy mixture. Once the dough is of the right consistency, it is squeezed through a kind of sieve into long, thin strips, which land in a tub of hot water, the temperature of which is maintained by a fire underneath it. The chefs’ bright white outfits, which wouldn’t look out of place in an upmarket restaurant, clash with the smoke and flames as the chefs work quickly and expertly. After a short time, the thin strips are scooped out of the water and hung over a rack to dry in the sun. Nothing is wasted – even the roots of the sweet potatoes are exported to Japan, where they are apparently a delicacy, according to 62-year-old Wang Zhongmei, who runs a fentiao business with his son. Born and bred in Peizhai, Mr. Wang was one of Pei Chunliang’s teachers in middle school – and he’s confident that despite the huge changes he’s seen to the village in his lifetime, the appreciation of the sweet potato and its fentiao will endure. Speaking to some of the workmen employed to set up the event, it seems that sentiment is shared. “This festival gives us a new opportunity to show off our local specialty to outside visitors,” one of them tells me. “It gives local people a new outlet to display their produce and will bring them new success.”

Of course, the people of Peizhai have worked hard to get to this point, and it is certainly no longer the case that they all grow sweet potatoes. The village has come up with a number of innovative industries that employ local people and generate a significant income. An old proverb says, “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” In Peizhai’s case, a more accurate saying might be, “Teach a man how to breed pet goldfish, and you create a highly successful business.” At one end of the village, a long, low building houses row after row of large tanks, in which goldfish of varying sizes are bred until they can be sold as pets in cities as far afield as Beijing. For a village that until recently suffered from devastating droughts, the decision to breed fish seems to me to be as symbolic as it is lucrative.

Agriculture is a relatively common employer here; the establishment of Peizhai’s modern industries has been underpinned by the skills honed by generations of local farmers. A vast area has been set aside for 28 large greenhouses, housing fruits and vegetables far more exotic than the humble sweet potato. Each greenhouse is angled to catch as much sunlight as possible, with a high wall of compacted clay on one side to help capture the warmth; translucent, plastic sheeting serves as a roof. The overall effect is impressive – the temperature is noticeably warmer than outside. The greenhouses may represent progress, but the village mentality of the family business is still strong. Mr. Liang, a farmer in his 50s, and one of his daughters work together to maintain two tomato greenhouses; business is booming, and the pair can make 50,000-60,000 yuan (US$7,200- US$8,700) a year. Nearby, Ms. Ru’s young daughter plays outside while her mother tends to an exotic crop of dragon fruits, sprouting bizarrely from thin, spindly stems that look like parts of a cactus.

Villagers shopping at a children’s clothes store on the Peizhai Commerce Street

Heading into the village center, we reach Commerce Street, the pride of Peizhai. It is a hub for local businesses and represents a realization of the hopes and dreams of many local people; a snapshot of traditional Chinese village life is infused with the trappings of modernity. An electrical store displays gleaming televisions, washing machines and air conditioning units, while outside, an elderly man sells fruit from the back of a wooden cart. A group of children enthusiastically follow their instructor through their steps at a Latin dance school, energetically waving a Chinese flag in each hand. Even here, we are not beyond the reach of the long arm of Chinese e-commerce, and a store acts as a delivery hub for purchases made online. A convenience store operated by the Postal Savings Bank of China has well-stocked shelves of non-perishable food items and household goods, and there is a preferential voucher system for bank account holders to encourage saving – but the shopkeeper, who is six months pregnant, wears a thick coat behind the counter to combat the fact that her store has no heating. This village is still a work in progress, but its people are proud of it, and very rightly so.

Peizhai’s realization of the Chinese Dream has been made possible thanks to the generosity of Secretary Pei Chunliang and the support of the Communist Party of China (CPC), and the gratitude felt by the people of the village is overwhelmingly apparent. But the narrative of Peizhai’s development is also a complex tapestry of individual stories. Successes and failures, triumphs and defeats on the smallest and most personal scale have all contributed to making the village what it is now, and will continue to do so as the people of Peizhai forge their own path into the future.

In the exhibition hall, my eye is drawn to a large group photo taken at a celebratory party in 2015. “We are one family”, reads the caption. And despite all the changes that come with modernization, this enduring village spirit gives Peizhai its very own, and very special, identity.

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