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Long Bow 1978

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A Small Town
Long Bow 1978


    This article originally appeared in Geo magazine. June 1980, and is reprinted by permission.


Thirty years ago, the sounds heard in the village of Long Bow were country sounds -- cocks crowing in the darkness before dawn, giant millstones creaking as they were pushed around their rough stone beds by hand, the hoarse bellow of the village chairman announcing a meeting through a megaphone from the tower of the expropriated Catholic church. The loudest sound then, and one that still haunts memory, was the crashing of the massive wooden wheel hubs against the beams of the heavily laden carts as they traveled along the frozen ruts of the roads in winter. From a distance it sounded like some tireless netherworld kettledrummer.

    Today, the dominant sound in Long Bow is no longer a country sound but the shrill wail of steam locomotives in the railroad shops, testing their eerie voices against a background roar of army tanks racing across the proving grounds on the flanks of Great Ridge Hill. There is an accompanying cacophany of truck, bus, and jeep horns on the highway as frustrated drivers try to make their way through a stream of handcarts, donkey carts, tractor-drawn wagons, bicycles, and pedestrians.

    Inside the village, a lesser background roar rolls from the big grinder of the production brigade's cement plant, while from the long shed that was once a meeting hall, the high whine of carborundum on steel shreds the air. There, young women working in shifts around the clock polish saw blades that will be exported to Tanzania.

     The tower of the old church was torn down long ago. The brigade leaders have installed a loudspeaker on the roof of their headquarters, and their booming voices can be heard in the farthest fields. For many years, they relied on loudspeaker "broadcasts" to regulate the collective production that came into full flower in 1958. The loudspeaker blasted forth before dawn to wake people up, at noon to summon them from the fields, and at sundown to signal that the day's work was done. But the music that rang out over the years was not "The East Is Red," that solemn hymn to Mao Zedong that dominated China; it was a lively Shanxi folk tune rendered on a double-reed horn (a cross between an oboe and a trumpet) and several Chinese snakeskin fiddles. Inside the village, the amplified jam session made eardrums ache. Out on the garden land of the First Production Team, half a mile away, it sounded like a wedding dance for elves, leprechauns, wood sprites, and fox spirits.

    In 1979, individual earnings were brought more closely in line with individual effort, so that material reward became the primary incentive to hard work. At the same time electronic exhortation, discipline by loudspeaker, was abandoned. The air over the village was turned back to the cocks that still crow before dawn and the peddlers who still hawk their wares in the alleys. But they can never hope to recapture the attention they once took for granted. There is too much background noise from the many locomotives in the railroad yards.

    As things used to be, one could look down from the summit of Great Ridge Hill and see the whole of Long Bow stretched out on the plain like a map. The polarization of village society was clearly revealed by the contrast between the adobe huts of the poor peasants and hired laborers, roofed with mud and straw, and the high brick dwellings of the landlords and rich peasants, roofed with tile. Gentry families occupied whole courtyards while poor peasants bedded down in whatever ramshackle sections of walled enclosure they could find. That was before the land reform giving land to individual peasants, which took place in
Shanxi in 1945 and reached South China in 1950.

    Today, all that can be seen from the hill is a mass of greenery. A special crew began to plant trees in Long Bow as soon as the cooperative was created by the land-pooling movement in 1954. In the intervening years, more than 250,000 trees have been planted, and they  have transformed the whole character of the settlement. The desolate, sunbaked, semiruined earthworks of the past, open to all the violence of heaven, have become a cool, shaded, gardenlike complex of interlocking courtyards, streets, and alleys that offer protection against the extremes of all seasons.


Beneath the green of the newly planted trees, the predominant color of most Chinese villages in the North is still the glowing tan of natural adobe. Not so Long Bow. When the brigade leaders heard that foreign guests were coming in 1971, they mobilized the whole community to whitewash the walls on both sides of all the main streets, making the predominant color a dazzling white. The ever present crimson slogans stand out on this background as if molded in three dimensions. Whitewashing apparently pleased the inhabitants, because they have kept it up through all the years since.

    In 1971, Long Bow undertook another civic improvement. All the privies built along the streets, in anticipation of a contribution to the family store of fertilizer from anyone passing by, were removed. Now all privies are hidden away in courtyards, and ever since the brigade built its own cement plant, the deep cisterns are covered with concrete slabs that discourage flies, or at least the fly maggots down below. The latter require more fresh air than can circulate under a concrete cover, even one with a slot in it. This improvement has won Long Bow a citation for excellence in public health. But while the concrete slabs have certainly improved sanitation, they have not entirely done away with the background odor of night soil that is characteristic of the whole Chinese countryside -- and is in part responsible for that welcome sense of déjà vu that overwhelms one on returning.

    Of the famous Dazhai Brigade, high on
Tigerhead Mountain, people said:

High mountains, rock-strewn
Step out the door, start
   climbing up or down.

The popular rhyme about Long Bow stressed the opposite natural features:


Flat land, high watertable,
Step out the door, walk five
   li without interruption.

    Yet somehow, Dazhai peasants managed to harvest over 100 bushels of grain per acre, while for many years, Long Bow peasants failed to harvest even 30. Even though Mao said that "irrigation is the lifeblood of agriculture," Long Bow peasants failed to make use of their ample water supplies. Every winter the higher authorities mobilized Long Bow for a big effort to prepare the land for more water, and every spring it became clear that very little had been done. The authorities lost patience with this sluggish community and labeled Long Bow an "old, big, difficult place."

    The real reason for this sluggishness was the character of Long Bow soil. The more the peasants watered the land, the more intractable it became. Water brought up salt instead of washing it down. When the sun dried the water out, the land cracked into small squares, tearing apart the roots of young plants. The people voted with their feet against irrigation, despairing of ever producing bumper crops, and turned their attention to sidelines, contract work in nearby industries, and even speculation.

    A notorious example of local entrepreneurship was Li Hongchang, a bachelor who used to ride freight trains into Hunan province, where he bought dried sweet potatoes that he swapped pound for pound for wheat back in Long Bow; then he sold the wheat for twice what the sweet potatoes had cost him. A four-day trip to Hunan brought in more cash than a month's work in the field.

    Hard work to transform the land was further inhibited by changes in ownership. Long Bow had already lost more than one third of its acreage to the railroad, the city-owned cement plant and the saw-blade works. The brigade was compensated for the loss of land by cash payments equal in value to three years of crops, but the saw-blade plant ruined an irrigation project, imposed from above, on which the peasants had expended tens of thousands of labor-days. That labor was never repaid.

    The Taihang Saw Blade Works moved to Long Bow from coastal
Tianjin in the early 1960s. The educated youth in the village, ninety strong in 1977 but reduced to a handful by 1979 as the authorities stopped sending city dwellers to the countryside, were evenly divided between young men and women. Almost all of them came from Saw Blade, as they called it. They regarded themselves as big-city, Tianjin people, even though most of them had grown up only a few hundred yards from Long Bow. Their contribution to the life of the village was deep and many-faceted. There were science majors, musicians, actors, dancers, artists, and athletes among them. They painted the huge murals that enlivened Long Bow's walls, created the skits that mocked the gang of four during the Army Day celebrations on August 1, and made up at least half of the research group that eventually helped discover how to overcome the alkalinity of Long Bow's soil.

    The educated youth, with their Tianjin ways, are only one of many outside influences that have transformed the social life of Long Bow in the past decade. Between the highway and the railroad tracks, temporary reed-and-adobe shelters house tens of thousands of temporary residents -- the workers who have come to build a new east-west railroad and their dependents. The overflow from their hastily constructed camp floods Long Bow, and almost every family has one or two groups of outsiders living in its courtyard. There are Korean minority people from Jilin province, coal miners from Fuxun and mechanics from Kailan. Many of them have worked on railroad construction in Africa and have brought home radios, tape recorders, and hand calculators that cannot be bought anywhere in China.

    These tenants wear clothes, display hair styles, sing tunes, and use words different from those that Long Bow people are used to. Close contact with them has changed local customs in inconspicuous ways that add up. After a few years of this, Long Bow people find themselves already quite up-to-date compared with peasants who live only a few miles from the railroad, in what the initiated have come to regard as backcountry.

    One result of the new sophistication is that Long Bow leaders find it increasingly hard to hold meetings, because there is always a play being performed or a film being shown nearby. These films may be spy thrillers, historical dramas about events before the 1950s, romances in which boy meets girl on a construction project, or foreign films from Vietnam, Korea, and Yugoslavia. Watching these movies has become a habit that has had a devastating effect on other forms of cultural and political life. Some Long Bow children have even decided to reject the expanded local school. The brigade leader's daughter, entirely on her own, transferred to the school run by the Construction Headquarters for railroad workers' children. Her father beat her until his arms tired, but she refused to transfer back.

    It is now all but impossible to marry a Long Bow girl unless one is willing to move into Long Bow, because the sophisticated young women there will not leave home, certainly not for any village without quarter-hourly bus service to Changzhi City and twice-daily train service to Zhengzhou and Beijing.

    In principle, young people in rural
China have a free choice in marriage, but in practice, this is very difficult to achieve because there are so few opportunities for young people to meet. Since most people in the home community are related, one must ordinarily meet someone outside before courtship can begin. Those who don't go away to school or to work in a factory have no chance to meet eligible partners and must rely on parental matchmaking.

    But Long Bow is unusually heterogeneous, and young people can sometimes meet and marry inside the village. One who did so in spite of going away to school is Li Lingchiao, a stunning young woman with braids down her back that fall all the way to her waist (at least they did until she cut them off in 1978). Her lips are so formed that they are almost always open, making her seem eager, even slightly breathless. She is vice-leader of the women's association and a member of the brigade's Community Party branch. As a communist, she should have waited until she was twenty-five to marry, and her husband should have waited until he was twenty-eight. But she was married at the age of twenty to a young man of the same age who had been her classmate in the middle school run by the commune at Horse Square, one mile to the north.

    She blushed when I asked her about this but explained that her husband's father had been very ill and wanted his son to get married before he died. She didn't want to break the rules, but he was so miserable that she was consumed by pity and agreed to marry the young man. His father, she told me, jumped up from his pallet after that and hasn't been sick a day since.

    "But how did you get a license? You were not really old enough."

    "We didn't go to our commune office in Horse Square. We went east to Congdao commune. They didn't care. When the gang of four were riding high, administration everywhere just broke down."


    If meeting nonrelated young people was the essential condition for free choice in marriage, the educated youth in Long Bow were in an enviable situation. They all lived together in a large two-story building on the site once occupied by the North Temple -- men on the ground floor, women upstairs. Yet there were no signs whatsoever of any attachments between them. I asked a delegation that came to talk to me point-blank: "Living here in this dormitory and working together, don't you ever fall in love?"

    They all blushed. They all denied that any such thought had ever crossed their minds. They all said that they were too young to be thinking about such things as love and marriage, and even though I pressed them very hard, I could not break this solid front.

    Chang was an ex-soldier from
Hunan who was assigned to watch the gate of the old brigade headquarters after it was converted into a guesthouse for foreigners. He began almost every conversation with the phrase "I have discovered," and his discoveries almost always turned out to be worth investigating.

    "I have discovered," he said to me one day, "that there are still a few hates here."

    What he meant by "hates" were hard feelings left over from the Cultural Revolution that began in 1966 and ended sometime between 1970 and 1976, depending on whom you asked. The wounds inflicted by years of bitter factional conflict over who should hold power in the community had been slow to heal.

    In the evening, Chang and I used to go outside the gate of the compound and squat in the street, peasant-style, to watch the passing scene. Chang owned a raucous little portable radio that had cost him 13 yuan ($8). He always turned it to Hunan opera, which was broadcast from somewhere south of the border -- Shanxi's provincial border. As Long Bow people came down the street, some of them would stop to listen and then to talk.

    One night an older man began to curse out the notorious "Little" Li Hongen, who had led the people of the south end of the village when they seized power in 1967. Seizing power meant occupying the brigade office and taking over the official seals. With seals in hand, one could stamp brigade documents, making them official. Above all, one could spend brigade money.

    Little Li was a communist of the older generation who backed the young people of Stormy Petrel and Shanggan Ridge, two mass organizations modeled on the student Red Guards who were agitating for power all over the country that year.

    When the Stormy Petrel (named after the bird in Gorki's poem "Song of the Stormy Petrel") and Shanggan Ridge (named after a battle in the Korean war) cadres took over the brigade office, they overthrew Shi Shuangguei, the party secretary, and his younger brother, Wang Jinhong, the party vice-secretary. But the rebels couldn't hold on to their power. Most people refused to carry out their orders. After about a week, they were forced to turn the seals over to the Takeover Committee, set up by five other hastily assembled village organizations with names like Truth Fighting Team and Expose Schemes Battle Corps. Within a month power was turned back to Wang as the new party secretary.

    To consolidate their power, it was necessary for the five "loyalist" groups to put the "rebels" down and keep them down. They had to make the rebels and their ancestors stink to high heaven, forever. Little Li and the leaders of Stormy Petrel and Shanggan Ridge were denounced as "landlords, rich peasants, counterrevolutionaries and bad elements" who were trying to "reverse the case" on land reform and bring back feudalism. They were arrested, beaten, and driven out of the village. When they ran out of grain, grain coupons and the hospitality of relatives in outlying counties, they returned to Long Bow, only to be arrested, beaten, and driven out again. It was late 1969 before they were able to come home and stay home, and late 1971 before the label "counterrevolutionary" was officially removed from the record. By that time, the charges had penetrated so deeply into the popular consciousness that they could not easily be erased. Years later, an old man on the street could still curse Little Li for trying to "reverse the case" on land reform.

    The first person killed in the Cultural Revolution in
Shanxi died on the threshing floor of Long Bow's Fourth Production Team. He was not a Long Bow Brigade member but a student at the Luan middle school, housed at that time on the grounds of the old Catholic orphanage. He had come with members of his faction to raid the school for the grain and grain tickets needed for subsistence. He was killed by a random bullet fired by a railroad worker when the grain raid escalated into a night battle for control of the railroad yards.

    "When I think about it, it frightens me," said Wang Jinhong, now chairman but no longer party secretary of the Long Bow Brigade. In the struggle here, we could easily have killed someone. Brigade members could have died just as that student did. We were lucky. Things never went that far, but it scares me to think about it."

    "Do you really think that the rebels were 'landlords, rich peasants, counterrevolutionaries, and bad elements?'" I asked.

    "I don't now, but I did then. We convinced ourselves of it. The wind of denunciation was blowing through the whole region. Everybody thought their opposition was counterrevolutionary."

    Wang Jinhong has been in and out of local office so often that his career resembles that of Vice-Premier Deng Xiaoping at the national level. Since 1966, he has been twice overthrown and three times elevated to top posts in the brigade. Physically, Jinhong stands out because of his massive forehead and the fact that he is slightly hunchbacked. He carried loads that were too heavy for him when he was little, and the carrying pole bent his back and thrust his head permanently forward. This makes him look, when he walks, as if he cannot wait to get where he is going and is searching somewhat anxiously for a quicker way to his goal. This impression matches his true character. Jinhong is indeed eager, inquisitive, impatient -- and very smart.

    After he came back to power as party secretary in 1967, he led the village through the last years of the Cultural Revolution. Later, he was held responsible for the factional excesses that had shattered unity and undermined production. But he was caught up in events that no one could control. How could a brigade leader be blamed when the People's Liberation Army general, who was charged with reconciling the factions in the region, instead framed the civilian who was his rival for the top post, calling him a Kuomintang agent?

    Whatever his share of the blame, Wang Jinhong was removed from office in 1971 by a work team sent from Changzhi City to try and straighten out the tangle left behind by the Cultural Revolution. Frustrated and depressed by the sudden "reversal of case" that led to the rehabilitation of his arch-opponent. Little Li, Jinhong, and several associates ran away. But as Little Li had discovered when he was on the run, there was no place that a peasant without a ration book could go. After a few days, Jinhong returned home. For a while, he earned a living building houses for neighborhood families; then he agreed to manage a little repair shop for bicycles, handcarts, donkey carts, and tractor wagons that the brigade had set up beside the road. The shop prospered due to Jinhong's skills, at a time when other brigade production continued to stagnate. The work team took to calling Jinhong and his friends the Black Gang because they refused to bow their heads when they passed through the village. Proud of the label, the Black Gang stuck together, shared such things as the piglets from Jinhong's fertile sow, defied the rest of the community, and effectively undermined the authority of the group then in charge at brigade headquarters.


    The fact of the matter was that Jinhong was technically the most skillful and politically the most farsighted man in Long Bow. He had been recruited as an apprentice electrician in 1958 and had spent four years as a power plant construction worker on projects all over north China -- years that served him as a "university." He had learned enough about electrical wiring, welding, engine repair, and building design to support himself in any of these trades. And he had also learned some political economy. Most of the young people in the brigade looked to Jinhong for leadership, whether he was in office or out. When he was out, they lost interest in politics and tried to learn from him some of the technical skills he had acquired.

    Finally, in 1973, Wang Jinhong was restored to office. He criticized himself, accepted some responsibility for the factionalism of the 1960s, and vowed to unite with others to change things in Long Bow. That was the turning point. Wang Jinhong and the leaders who had temporarily replaced him put their differences aside and concentrated on making some sort of breakthrough in production. That they succeeded is illustrated by the steady rise in grain yields from 28 bushels per acre in 1970, the approximate level for the previous twenty years, to 48 bushels in 1973, then 60 in 1974, and 100 in 1979.

    I was fascinated by this sudden leap in production. Obviously it had awaited a political settlement that could unite the brigade. But once the brigade united, there was still the technical question -- how had the problem of the alkalinity of Long Bow's soil been overcome?

    "Ever since we lost so much land to industry." Jinhong said, "we have been growing more and more market vegetables. To make them grow, we get the night soil, the kitchen waste and the ashes from the workers' homes. We found that when we put a lot of coal ashes on the soil, the salt receded. It got washed down, not sucked up.

    "Then we noticed something strange," he continued. "At the power plant near Yellow Mill, the great chimney threw ashes all over the countryside. People protested, but the plant managers did nothing. In a circle around the plant, the crops all turned gray. But every year, they grew better than the year before. It was the ashes. They did something to the heavy clay. They increased the percolation.

    "So we put the schoolchildren to work at an experiment supervised by Shen Majin's research group. They hauled ashes from the waste pile at the power plant and put them on their experimental plot, over 100 tons to the acre. We covered the land three to four inches deep. It worked. The yields almost doubled. So after that, we put all the production teams to work hauling ashes. Each year, each team converted some of its land.

    "Once the land was converted, we could irrigate. We had to dig more wells, pump more water, divert more water from the reservoir, fix up irrigation channels and level the land. That took a lot of labor. Our best people used to be out earning money at various jobs -- unloading freight at the railroad station, cutting steel bars at the steel mill, hauling rock by handcart for the cement mill. We had to call them all home.

    "For the first time in twenty years, we put agriculture in first place, and it really paid off."

    "Your sidelines seem to be flourishing, too," I said.

    "Well, we concentrated on sidelines that could use partial labor power -- like the teenage girls. They are polishing the saw blades and making the saw handles for the saw-blade works. We needed wood for the saw handles, so we bought a sawmill. Of course, that takes skilled people. We needed phosphate fertilizer, but we found we could only buy the raw rock. So we set up a grinding mill. Then we converted it into a cement plant. With some of that output, we can supply the raw material for lining our irrigation canals. All these projects are very profitable, much more so than the wages we used to earn outside. Twelve percent of our labor power working at sidelines now produces seventy percent of our income.

    Wang Jinhong, the brigade chairman, can enjoy play as well as work, tradition as well as change. For example, he joined the Long Bow village stilt dancers when the people went to
Changzih City to celebrate the conclusion of a national party congress. For the occasion, Jinhong was made up as a young bride riding home on a donkey to visit her mother. A papier-mâché donkey's neck and head protruded from his stomach, while matching rear and tail extended from his backside, and he leaped in response to a whip wielded by a colleague made up as a donkey driver. Another mock maiden dangled a butterfly from a string on the end of a fish pole while her symbolic suitor tried vainly to catch it. Still other stilt walkers portrayed Liberation Army soldiers, maidens of the minority nationalities, peasants, workers, and the political target of the times -- the gang of four, under whose influence stilts had been banned in Long Bow for years.

    Stilts are a very old tradition in Shanxi Province, but only Long bow has stilt dancers who do acrobatics, jump over tables, and climb up and down ramps. The village learned this kind of stilt walking from a captured Kuomintang officer who was "reeducated" there in 1945, when the Communists' famous Resistance University, headed by Lin Biao, migrated to Long Bow from Yan'an.

    The dancers stood so tall on their stilts that even the shortest of them looked down on the musicians playing on the high, jolting bed of a four-wheeled trailer drawn through the city streets by tractor. The horn player's cheeks puffed out like two swollen bladders. His fingers moved so swiftly that they blurred. Sometimes he held the horn away from his face and blew through the reed alone. This sounded like two turkeys in a forest squaring off for battle. The bamboo pipes, the snakeskin fiddles, and the bulging red drums of the other performers fell silent to let the turkeys quarrel, then suddenly resumed their frantic rhythm as the horn, two octaves lower now, rejoined its reed.  

The music trailer, with its long double line of elevated dancers, moved slowly down the city streets through dense crowds of celebrants. Ahead and behind it moved other floats, other performers, other dancers, and acrobats, some of them also on stilts, in what seemed to be an endless procession. Their motion on the street generated a dense cloud of dust that softened all outlines. Through the dust, one could look ahead to see villagers holding costumed children high overhead on flexible poles, and behind to see factory workers dip and roll various huge papier-mâché figures. A second trailer carried a pyramid of opera stars made up to resemble the heroes of Water Margin, the men driven onto Liang Mountain in the days of the Sung Dynasty, eight centuries ago. This was the first time these legendary figures had appeared in public for ten years.

China's most persistent tradition is tilling the land by hoe.

   We were all out in the fields wielding our heavy, mattock like hoes. Smash. Drive the blade in, pull the soil back, break the biggest lumps. Smash, drive the blade in again . . . try not to take any extra steps, they compact the soil.

    "How long is it going to be?" asked Jinhong.

    "How long is what going to be?"

    "This bit with the hoe! We're stuck here with hoes in our hands one thousand, two thousand, three thousand years. It's time to get rid of these jewels."

    "That it is," I said.

    "I'm not afraid of hard work. I'm willing to hoe alongside the next man. But I don't like it. In America you till 250 acres alone. I'm lucky if I till one. It's time for a change!"

    "It's hard to run a tractor through a field when you have two crops growing together."

    "Never mind two crops. We'll plant corn alone until we learn to do it with machines. And we'll push up yields while we do it."

    "Do you mean that?"


    "What will the commune say?"

    "That's a problem. When you try things in America, you take a chance. If you fail, you can't pay back your crop loan. You risk your land. There is no such risk here, but I still can't try out most things to the point of finding out if they succeed or fail. The way it has been here the past few years, the commune has decided everything -- what to plant, where to plant it, what variety, how much seed, how deep, how far apart. If you try anything new, they come down hard right away.

'What are you trying to do? Set up your own Central Committee?' The technical question turns into a political question. You are violating democratic centralism."

    "That makes it hard. How can you experiment with anything?"

    "It isn't easy. But really, here in the brigade we are in a better position than anyone else to try things. Take mechanization. We have land, labor power, money, and materials. What materials we don't have, we can usually find. Who else has that kind of leverage? The supply departments have materials, but no labor power. The factories have labor power but no materials. The mechanization office has nothing but a sign on the door. What can those fellows do but talk?"

    Wang Jinhong was not content with mere talk. He went ahead on his own without regard to the consequences. In 1977, he asked me such questions as, How would you put grain on the second floor of the office building? How would you irrigate corn land? How would you dry grain? I suggested a grain auger, a center-pivot irrigation system, and a coal-fired grain drier. (A grain auger is like a long, unbroken screw or drill bit that carries grain up the spiral formed by its turning threads. A center-pivot irrigation system is a pipe up to half a mile long, mounted on wheels every few yards; it turns in a huge circle around a well at the center, which provides water for the pipe to spray at intervals up to the outer circumference.)

    Instead of saying, as so many in China are wont to do, "Someday we'll have those things," Jinhong said, "I'm going to start tomorrow." In ten days, he built a grain auger twenty-six feet long. In a month, he built a center-pivot irrigation pipe 100 yards long that traveled full circle under its own power. Over the winter, he built a grain drier that broke through all the obstacles that had plagued grain handling in the brigade for years.

    Then in 1979, he launched a 100-acre experiment in the mechanization of corn farming. With some equipment borrowed from the Mechanization Institute of the province, with other equipment built in Long Bow, and with support and advice from various levels of the government, his special team produced over twenty-five tons of grain per worker, a fourteen fold increase in productivity in one year.

    This achievement had extraordinary implications. It meant that for every person left raising crops, fourteen could leave the land and do something else. In Long Bow, they could probably be absorbed manufacturing grain augers, irrigation systems and grain driers -- if the state supported the idea with the necessary supplies

 That was a big "if." My impression was that China's leaders had not yet confronted the question of the mechanization of peasant agriculture. Or if they had, they had backed away from it. Combines for the wastelands of the Northeast and Xinjiang -- yes. Milking machines for state-operated dairies -- yes. But corn planters, corn pickers, and herbicides for Shanxi villages -- well, maybe, probably not. The upheaval this would cause in the economy staggered the imagination. There was no commitment to any program that could accomplish it. In fact, the thrust of much public argument was against it. The status quo of the hoe was defended with the slogan: no mechanization for mechanization's sake.

    Nevertheless, in the fall of 1978, the government did take concrete steps to untie the hands of peasant innovators. Beijing announced that state functionaries must respect the property rights of cooperative units. Within the framework of some general guidelines, production brigades and teams had the right to make their own management decisions, to grow what suited them best in a manner that reflected local conditions. If implemented, this decision could liberate enormous creative forces. One could only hope they would not be blocked by some new countercurrent of bureaucratic obstruction.

    Jinhong had been sick for three days. Since nothing seemed to be happening on the street and nobody came or went through the big door of the brigade office except the accountant, we decided to go and find out where all the action had gone. Gatekeeper Zhang and I followed the only person who seemed to be heading anywhere. His trail led straight to Jinhong's home.

    The main section of the house was ample in size. There was a low-ceilinged living room about 15 feet long, then a doorway leading to a dimly lit bedroom on the east. The main room was full of people, about ten in all, and there were two more in the bedroom talking to Jinhong, who was lying fully dressed on a wide wooden bed. Manfu, the opera lover from the saw-blade shop, lean Chou-fa covered with grime after a twelve-hour shift in the cement mill, Wende from the Fifth Team garden, reeking of raw pig manure, two capped and jacketed buyers from a trading organization in the city, and a messenger from Horse Square Commune milled about, waiting their turn and all talking at once. In the cookhouse outside, Dr. Shen of the brigade clinic was brewing a special cough medicine


out of herbs. He had to compete for space on the adobe stove with Jinhong's willful daughter, who was heating some gruel for her father.

    When the two men in the bedroom came out -- they were leaders of a neighboring brigade -- the two buyers went in. As they ducked through the door, each pulled a pack of cigarettes from his pocket. It was a conditioned reflex. Prior to doing business, one offered a cigarette.

    Seeing this, Chang called me into a corner for a confidential aside. When dealing with certain industrial units and certain notorious functionaries, he said, buyers from the countryside had to be prepared with three kinds of armament -- the twenty-shot clip (pack of name-brand cigarettes), the hand grenade (bottle of fine wine), and the explosive satchel (box of sweet biscuits). Working out the terms of a deal had come to be known as yen chiu, yen chiu, which means "to study the question" -- but also means "cigarettes and wine, cigarettes and wine." Needless to say, Jinhong had no use for any such preliminaries. His policy was to judge each offer on its merits.

    While we waited for the buyers to complete their business -- they wanted guarantees on a large order of cement -- three other people came in. One was a cadre from the Railroad Construction Bureau who wanted to negotiate the transfer of more Long Bow land. The second was the head mechanic from the trucking depot at the railroad yards. He had completed repairs on one of Long Bow's tractors. The last one in was Zhang Wenying, head of the women's association. What she had to announce, with her usual good cheer, was that a delegation of sanitary inspectors was on its way. She wanted people mobilized to sweep the streets. Dr. Shen offered her a cigarette. She lit it from the burned stub already in her mouth.

    "Two more women have agreed to have their tubes tied," she said.

    "How many does that make altogether?"

    "Fifty this year."

    It was a commune record.

    Jinhong suddenly appeared out of the bedroom, concerned that we had not been offered tea.

    "Aren't you supposed to be sick?" I asked.

    "Oh, it's not that bad. I'm almost well now," he protested with a voice


that faded halfway through the sentence. Then he coughed, a rasping sound that came from deep in his chest. He didn't sound well to me, but no one else seemed worried. The dampness underfoot aggravated coughs, and so did the dust in the air. Within a few hours after every rain the dust blew up again because so much of the earth was bare. You could feel grit in your mouth whenever you clenched your teeth.

    It did Jinhong little good to stay home. The affairs of the brigade followed him day and night. They were ever present, like the dust. But his spirit, if not his body, thrived on the challenge. And I could see why. I had a strong sense, sitting there that day, of the vitality the raw energy, the unleashed creative power of the cooperative and its 2,000 members. There had been years of stagnation. They could be repeated. But right now the sluices were open, and almost everyone was wading out to do battle -- remaking the soil, bringing in water, setting up industries, building homes, taking hold of birth control, planning a new school, sending out buyers to places as distant as Shanghai and Harbin. Above all, they had the temerity to challenge the age-old dominance of the hoe. That impressed me the most.

Next: A trip to Fengyan County1983

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Created by keza
Last modified 2005-07-17 01:52 AM

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