The Pull of the City

The fabric of village life in Guizhou,China today is gradually being unwoven by the pull of the cities that beckon with possibilities of better jobs, more convenience and greater excitement. On a recent visit to Guizhou province I met people whose stories reflect this complex process. The Dong and Miao village communities there are still alive for now because their strong culture and history pushes against the drift to the city. However nearby towns are growing all the time and offer many attractions and hopes of a ‘better life’.

Rong, Long and Den are all 14 years old and had the day off from their local school as they had just graduated. I asked if they were nervous about the next step in their education – boarding at the high school 25 kms away. ‘Definitely not’, they told me. They liked school life and were looking forward to making new friends at their new school and would return home on weekends of course.  They will also have begun to experience town life and its many attractions.

Earlier the same morning I found Pan, aged 70, ploughing his fields with his ox. He proudly told me that he had 8 sons and 6 daughters and now 16 grandchildren. He had been ploughing this same field since 1973, planting it with winter wheat and summer rice. I was surprised to learn that despite the size of his family none of them live on the farm. They have all moved to the city. He wonders if anyone will plough this field when he no longer can.

Yan aged 30 washes the families clothing in the stream near her home

Yan aged 30 washes the families clothing in the stream near her home

Yan, aged 30, was washing the family’s clothes in the stream that winds through her village when I met her and stopped to chat. Her four year daughter was beside her and her two year old was strapped to her back in the traditional way. She told me that her husband worked in one of the coastal cities and she now sees him only when he returns home for the annual Spring Festival. She said many of the menfolk were working away these days as they earned seven times more than one could make in the village.

Walking on with my guide I wondered about the impact on marriages from this sort of extended separation. He told me that, among the Dong, separation was almost unheard of and was seen as very serious indeed. The villager who strayed would be shunned and forced to live elsewhere.

Yang, aged 81, has lived all his life in his 200 year old home.

Yang, aged 81, has lived all his life in his 200 year old home.

Later in the same village I met Yang, aged 81, sitting in the sun at the front of his substantial two-storied wooden house. He told me he had been the village leader and the family home was 200 years old. He happily encouraged us to explore his  home and it was there I found a way (short of a quick trip to the coastal towns and the factories) to make two images that spoke to me about the absent village men.

These images are of the room that was formerly home to his grandson who has moved away to work in the city. It is common to find improvised newspaper wallpaper covering up the cracks between the wooden boards that make up the walls of traditional houses in rural China. The first  image shows the addition of a picture that seems to reference the nostalgic glamour of Shanghai.

I had to move from monochrome to colour to show the increasingly modern images which had found their way onto the wall of this young man’s room and into the life of so many villagers.    In this  second image he has pinned, in addition to the ‘immodest lady’, an image of a modern western kitchen. It seems an appropriate way to show the lure of the city to the young village man. Kitchens with hot and cold running water and electric stoves as well as pretty girls clearly have their attactions.

Robert van Koesveld