Villagers move up from old 'machete'

Updated:2017-12-18 15:01:39

About 340 families, mostly from the rural Yanhe Tujia autonomous county in Guizhou province, have moved to this community in downtown Tongren since last year. YANG JUN/CHINA DAILY

  Related: Rural residents start to feel urban buzz

  Yikoudao's villagers sing a traditional song about leaving for the nearest settlement at sunrise and arriving at sunset.

  The song survives. But its lyrics no longer apply.

  Yikoudao's name translates as "machete" because of the shape of the sheer karst cliff beneath the settlement in Yanhe Tujia autonomous county, Guizhou province.

  The village's limestone "blade" cuts up to 1,170 meters at its apex.

  Until recently, transportation in Guizhou was less a challenge of traversing longitude and latitude than a problem of abrupt altitudes. Mountains make height more of an obstacle than distance.

  Stone soars to slice the province into pieces, long making human development an uphill battle in every sense.

  But a photo collage on the wall of Yang Cuihong's apartment in Tongrenwhere she has relocatedserves as a portrait of how her life has been transformed since she left Yikoudao in June.

  One picture shows the 37-year-old's family in front of the rustic home they left.

  Another shows her family and other farmers hiking over earthen roads with sacks of belongings slung over their shoulders as they trekked to their new, modern dwellings in Tongren.

  Another shows her family smiling on the couch above which the collage now hangs.

Xiao Han (fourth from left), a senior cadre, chats with Deng Zaifa (fourth from right), a resident of Yikoudao villiger, and other representatives about the local government's efforts to relocate residents to urbanized areas. YANG JUN/CHINA DAILY

  Free apartments

  Yang is one of 913 people who have relocated to Tongren from one of the poorest villages in one of China's poorest provinces.

  The government has provided villagers from Yanhe and Songtao counties with free apartments20 square meters per occupantincluding furniture and appliances.

  It also offers vocational training to enable farmers to work in skilled trades.

  Yang earned 1,500 yuan ($230) a month as a cleaner after arriving in the city in the summer. The government later helped her find a new job doing quality control for a local tobacco company that pays 2,000 yuan a month as a base salary, plus performance-based bonuses.

  "We had no expendable income in Yikoudao," Yang said. "It was really hard to make money farming there. We earned just enough to survive."

  So, she and her husband alternately worked as migrants or stayed to look after their three children.

  Yang only attended primary school for two years. She can read but "can't really write".

  Her husband returns from working as a migrant in Zhejiang province once a year, usually for Spring Festival.

  Zhu Hailu, their 17-year-old daughter, has adjusted well since the relocation.

  "Her classmates and teachers like her," Yang said. "She said it was difficult to understand the other kids' accents at first. But kids learn fast.

  She had no problem making friends. She'd come home right after school in the first few months. But now she stays out shopping with the other girls."

  Zhu is a year behind in school because she grew up in the village.

  "Usually, 17-year-olds are sophomores. But she's a freshman," Yang said.

  The girl started primary school at age 8 rather than 7 because she had to climb for an hour to reach the school from their home.

  "The path was dangerous," Yang recalled.

  In two years, Zhu will take the national college entrance examination. She hopes to become a civil servant.

  Yang appreciates urbanization's conveniences.

  "Our home was far from the village center," she recalled. "If we got sick, we'd have to go to a small hospital in Yanhe town. It was over an hour's hike. If you were too sick to walk, a family member would have to carry you. If no relative could, a neighbor would."

  In addition to consolidated public facilities, she's grateful for such home amenities as running water. "We washed with a bucket about once a week in the village."

  An elderly relative took a while to get used to flushing toilets, she said. Residents agree the relocation offers a better life. But it also poses challenges.

  Poverty-alleviation programs arrange for officials from Tongren city and Yanhe county to help the relocated villagers' to adapt to city life.

  "It was initially hard to persuade people to move downtown because they'd lived in the village for generations," said Xiao Han, a public servant in Tongren. "They have concerns about city life. It's difficult to serve those without professional skills or education."

  So, the village chiefs visited the eldest member of every household to persuade them to relocate, he explained.

  "Cremation is also a point of contention," he said. "Many villagers prefer to be buried in hillside tombs alongside their relatives. They fear cremation in cities."

Yang Cuihong, who relocated to downtown Tongren, sits in her new apartment under a collection of photos that show her old way of life in Yikoudao village. YANG JUN/CHINA DAILY

  Sense of community

  Public servants also mitigate such issues as dialects. Relocated residents from different settlements often do not understand each other well. And the government organizes events such as dragon boat races and singing competitions to build a shared sense of community.

  The government is considering a plan to provide gardens for residents to grow crops in, so they do not feel entirely uprooted from their agrarian identities.

  Livelihood challenges persist despite government efforts, said Zhu Yongxue, who has served as head of Yikoudao for nearly three decades.

  "Finding a job in Tongren is still hard. It's a citybut a small city," he said.

  "Industry is still developing. And people from villages are still adjusting. There are a lot of new rules for them to follow."

  Many relocated children are still getting used to advanced schools. Some struggle, especially in subjects such as English.

  Still, Zhu and his colleagues have persuaded most middle-aged people to move.

  "I'm still young in the village," the 55-year-old said. "Everyone ages 20 to 40 has left."

  Deng Zaifa said his three younger brothers have relocated.

  "My brothers told me their new houses are good," the 60-year-old said.

  "They have furniture and running water."

  Deng runs a restaurant for tourists in Yikoudao.

  "I thought it would make more than farming," Deng said.

  He owns 0.2 hectares of "not-very-fertile" land and raises pigs.

  Deng earns 10,000 to 20,000 yuan from his restaurant during the peak season from May to July.

Xiao Han explains the layout of Yikoudao village using a scale model installed in his office. YANG JUN/CHINA DAILY

  Tourists and profits

  Tourists started arriving in 2011, when a paved road reached the village.

  It used to take an hour to reach Siqu town center from the village on foot and another two hours to reach Yanhe county by boat along the Wujiang River, Guizhou's main waterway.

  Today, it is a 15-minute drive to the town and another hour and a half by highway to the county seat. Paved roads also reach Tongren, about 300 kilometers away.

  The mountains have long made agriculture difficult in Yikoudao.

  Only 7 percentabout 60 hectaresof the village's surface area is arable. And only 5 percent of that land can produce crops that require much water, such as wheat.

  As a result, the villagers mostly grew corn that they ate and also fed to their pigs.

  They would sell it outside to buy other foodstuffs they could not grow, such as rice.

  The relocation has enabled the villagers to lease their land for the production of more profitable crops such as medicinal herbs and peanuts.

  Farmers who have transferred land rights are shareholders of the companies that use their plots. The villagers will own 20 percent of the shares for the next 10 years, after which they will assume 80 percent control, Xiao said.

  The companies also hire villagers as laborers.

  A similar plan has transformed relocated families' old houses into heritage sites that draw visitors. The government then distributes a portion of the profits from tourism among relocated villagers, according to He Zhigang, deputy Party chief of Yanhe.

  The projects supplement the relocated villagers' incomes.

  And Tongren's government offers at least one job opportunity to every household.

  The service center in the Xiangtanglong community where Yang lives has so far helped nearly 90 people to find jobs. It has also provided vocational instruction to about 50 residents, who undertake security, construction and domestic work.

  Some relatively educated residents help farmers adjust to relocation.

  There are three main desks in Xiangtanglong's service center: The first helps low-income residents to apply for government subsidies; the second helps them switch from rural to urban health insurance; and the third enrolls children in local schools.

  About 340 families, mostly from Yanhe, have moved into Xiangtanglong since major construction ended last year.

  The community boasts a clinic, convenience stores and a square with exercise equipment. A kindergarten, supermarket, public square and cultural activity center are under construction.

Yang and her family carry their belongings to their new apartment. YANG JUN/CHINA DAILY

  Better prospects

  Yikoudao native Zhu Aiyong believes the relocation to Tongren offers a better future for his children than working as a migrant outside of Guizhou.

  The 37-year-old returned from the wealthier province of Jiangsu when he learned of the project.

  His wife is pregnant with their fifth child.

  "The village socially pressured us to have a son," Zhu Aiyong said of his wife's pregnancy.

  "We don't actually want more kids because of financial strain. I wouldn't have tried to have another child in the hope it may be a boy if I'd known we'd move to the city."

  He opened a roast fish restaurant near Xiangtanglong more than a month ago after leaving to work outside the province in 1999.

  Zhu Aiyong dropped out of his first year of high school to support the family.

  His father was a migrant worker. His mother raised him and his siblings.

  "School costs money. I left so I could earn money," he said.

  "It's a pity. I wish I could've learned more so I could have a better future. I won't let that happen to my kids."

  Zhu Aiyong recalled he had to quit a production line job at a Coca-Cola plant in Guangdong province because he could not use a computer.

  "It was my first time using a computer," he said. "I trained for a month. But it was still too difficult for me."

  Working as a migrant expanded his worldview, he said.

  "Villagers just wake up and farm. All of life is agriculture. They don't know anything else," he said. Two of his daughters, ages 5 and 13, are in Tongren, but two others are still in the village in the care of their grandparents.

  "I hope to bring them to the city," he said. "I want them to have a better education than I had. I hope they will have a better life and enjoy opportunities I've never dreamed of."

Deng Zaiquan, a villager who plans to relocate to downtown Tongren, makes chicha, a type of Chinese liquor, with his wife. YANG JUN/CHINA DAILY


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Zhu Aiyong and his wife clean their roast fish restaurant, which the couple opened near Xiangtanglong after relocating from Yikoudao. YANG JUN/CHINA DAILY