Stone village

by Dodong on 週二, 30 六月 2009 評論
Liu Wan Cun is a small village in the province of Guizhou that sits idyllically in a mountain valley. The Chinese call this type of topography a shangu and in their minds it always evokes both beautiful scenery and poverty. Liu Wan Cun has those features because it’s located in the limestone region of the province with breathtaking jagged karst stone formations but with very limited land for agriculture. Indeed, the valley of Liu Wan Cun is farmed intensively and farm fields even stretched up to the sides of the mountains in the form of terraces. Farmers here grow wheat, rice and corn depending on the availability of water. During the year they alternate with other crops like rapeseed and water chestnuts. While there are spots in the province that have dense forest, there is little vegetation that could be called forest on the hills around this village. There is a noticeable abundance of weeds, some scattered small trees that appeared to be local varieties of pines, and shrubs that farmers could use as firewood and materials for building houses. But the hills are also the source of small streams that provide the villages with water even in long dry spells or seasons. They are also feeding grounds for goats and sheep.

Nobody seems to have any explanation as to why this village (cun) is called Liu Wan, two Chinese characters that simply stand for six hundred thousand. However, if one lets his imagination wander, the name six hundred thousand could refer to the boulders of limestone that seem to grow all over the ranges of rolling mountains. For geologists, one could perhaps see a perfect area of study which could reinforce theories of rocks and earth formation. For tourists, there is the picturesque landscape which is perfect for both professional and neophyte photographers. Around this area there are first class scenic spots like the cascading falls of Huangguoshu, or Long Gong (dragon palace) which is a cluster of giant limestone caves, and hotels were built close to these places to accommodate tourists and nature travelers. However, it is tough going for people living in these remote areas who are mostly cultural minorities like the Miao, Bouyi, Dong, Yi, Shui, Zhuang, Bai, Tujia, Gelao, and Gejia. Because it’s a limestone region, except for few places, subsistence agriculture has been particularly difficult.
Stone is what villagers in this area have plenty of, and it is no wonder that their houses are also made of stones. Human settlements have been adapting and making use of the resources of their natural surroundings and the people here seem to have perfected the craft of transforming these stones into materials for building houses. A characteristic of limestone is that you could easily chip it according to the desired size, thus the walling of the house are stones cut into rectangular shapes and the roofs are made of wide but thin slabs of stones.

We were brought to Liu Wan Cun by a Chinese friend, Thomas, who works for an NGO called New China Link. This NGO was started by an Irish teacher, Matt Carpenter, who used to teach English in a university in Guiyang, the capital of the province. Guizhou is one of the poorest provinces in China, and while Matt was teaching in the capital the haunting presence of poverty in the countryside was brought to his attention. So he had been thinking of a possibility of extending help to the poor villages. After six years of teaching he had come to know some local people and provincial government officials who helped him to set up what he had always wanted to do. Thus the New China Link was born.

The center where New China Link based its operation was in the town called Zhenning, which is more than two hours drive from Guiyang. Started in the year 2002, they have gradually done projects which Matt categorized under the heading of human development. Getting a little funding from Ireland, NCL has helped the poorer families build small houses, provided some village access to water and started livelihood projects.
Thanks to the NCL’s vehicle and the new gravel road that the government built recently, what used to be a day’s walk from the highway took us only about thirty minute drive from the NCL center. Then we had more than an hour’s walk on trails that go through the fields of these mountain valleys before eventually arriving at Liu Wan Cun. It is one of the villages where NCL has water and livelihood projects. Villagers no longer have to go far to fetch water, with their buckets carried on top of their heads or on their shoulders using a bamboo or wooden pole. Instead, water is brought to their houses. Making possible even a very basic need such as water has dramatically enhanced people’s livelihood and has allowed them not only easy access to drinking water but better facility in maintaining small gardens, raising hogs and poultry.

One of the families we visited has a harelipped child. For a poor family living in a shangu (mountain valley), the possibility of a simple harelip operation would be unthinkable. Nora Mary, also an Irish teacher who recently joined Matt, has contacts with another NGO that runs a health care project in Kunming, capital of the neighboring Yunnan province. Because I live and study Chinese in Kunming, I volunteer to be available to help in whatever small things I can do. It could mean accompanying someone, like a child with a disability from these villages to get medical treatment in Kunming. I know it’s only very little but as Matt said, if people are willing to do little things, one could never underestimate the impact the little things can have on people. I remember Mother Theresa who once said, “One can only do small things with great love.”

Nora, Thomas, I and two other companions at that time were sitting inside this family’s house and each of us was offered a cup of green tea. It is only through this family’s hospitality and in our informal conversation that we get a chance to listen to their stories. The father’s surname is Liu, and he said that the hare lipped child was adopted which explains why there is a second boy in the family who is three years younger. In these villages, the young people go to the cities to join the millions of people from the countryside looking for work in the coastal regions of China where most of the manufacturing industries are located. These migrant workers have become the country’s source of cheap labor. Farmers like Mr. Liu would stay in the village for the planting season and then leave the farm to the remaining members of the family, mostly the small children, mother, and grandparents, to join the millions of the moving Chinese population. From another family that lives next door to Mr. Liu, both young husband and wife went to Shanghai to work, leaving their 2-year old child in the care of the grandmother.
Mr. Liu walked with a limp and Nora asked him why? A few years back, Mr. Liu went to Beijing and worked in a construction company, but he said, luck was not on his side because a few years later he met with an accident. He broke his right leg and was told that he could no longer do strenuous work. He received a small amount of compensation which he used to buy medicines to recuperate and the rest he used to construct his small house. Life has been hard for him ever since, and he has been feeling particularly useless because of his handicap. I noticed that the three middle fingers in his left hand were missing and he said he lost them in an accident when he was cutting trees. Any little help he could get from NCL, especially for his harelipped child would mean a lot to him. Nora promised that she would be in contact with people who are doing medical missions like “operation smile” so they could avail of their program.

When we were leaving the village, we were led by another man who is in charge of looking after the water project. The families in the village contribute a small amount of money for the water project and the money collected is used to meet other needs of the community. The farmers see the value of communal sharing, cooperation and participation. The man accompanying us was their community leader. It was already midday and the noon sun was starting to bite our skin as we were retracing our steps back to where we came from. Our local companion was insistent on inviting us for lunch. He said it was their way of thanking us. Thomas being local himself and belonging to a cultural minority has a gentle way of refusing such hospitality without offending the man’s sensibilities. However, he walked with us up to where the NCL vehicle was parked. And we said goodbye, promising to see each other again, which is the real meaning of ’zaijian’, a word that is used to bid goodbye to someone.
While we were driving back, there weren’t many words spoken, perhaps because we were all exhausted or maybe because every parting leaves a feeling of sadness. But somehow I could hear the words of Qu Yuan, a Chinese poet who lived more than two thousand years ago. He said, “No sorrow is greater than the parting of the living; No happiness is greater than making new friendships.”

We still passed those scenic spots that brought visitors from other parts of China to this place but this time the landscape had taken on a new significance for me. I realized that those were not the reason for our coming. And when I thought about the people I had just met in the village made of stones, I couldn’t help but feel a profound sympathy for them. It’s true that they do adapt and survive even in most difficult conditions in the countryside but they are grateful for the little help and friendships extended to them from well-meaning people. It is through mutual help and cooperation that hardship can be overcome or at least difficulties in life can be bearable. It is for families like that of Mr. Liu that the work of Matt, Nora and Thomas has made a lot of difference.

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