December 4th – The house of the doctor and the Japanese consulate.
I have come to Xiamen, Fujian province. Xiamen has always been a foreign city in China. The town is laying on a small island and is a very modern and clean city. On the westside it is connected with the mainland by a bridge. On a very bright day you can see the outline of Taiwan in the east. 10 minutes with the ferry brings you to the neighbouring Gulangyu Island. In the middle of the 19th century many foreign nations obtained trade concessions and build their consulate on the island. Many of the splendid villa’s are now owned by wealthy Chinese and foreign families. Others are waiting to be restored. If not they will whither away. In those houses still many less affluent Chinese people are living.
With my guide Li Wen I visit several courtyards. In the first one we are welcomed by an elderly men. He was born in this house 66 years ago. At that time the house belonged to his father – a doctor, who build the house in 1935. In front of the house there had been a wonderful garden. Now it is only a concrete slab with some concrete tables to play chess or cards. The son of the doctor is still comparatively well off. He lives in a part of the downstairs floor. 7 other families also live in the house. But the house is very damp and you can see the walls crumble away. In a second courtyard the people are much less well off. A girl, her old mother and her baby son try to live from gathering old boxes and other paper. The house is in a very bad state and their few rooms have no outside windows. The kitchen and toilet are outside in the yard. Grandmother is preparing a few tiny fishes, which she kindly offers to share with us. Of course we do not accept this kind invitation. But to my big surprise the living room is almost filled up by a huge flat screen TV.
December 6th-2009, Brides and groomes at the beach.
On the east coast of Xiamen there is a footpath along the beach. a wooden platform to walk even by high tide People sit on the rocks and scrape mussels and shells or search for other seafood in the shallow puddles. On one flat rock a wedding photographer is working with a whole crew of people. The young bride is all in white - a strapless dress with a long train. Also the groom is in white, even his shoes. The assistants help to layout the train in a big circle on the rock. One of them walks over the train. It does not seem to matter. A slip of the dress ends up in a puddle of seawater. Also that doesn’t matter. The young groom has to stand next to his bride on the train and is pushed in many difficult positions by one of the female assistants. The bouquet is thrown over to him, but he misses it and it ends up further on the rock. No problem, it is all plastic. An other assistant has another go at it, this time with more success. A stylist puts some more hairspray on the hair and the veil of the bride and then the photographer can start taking his pictures. He is taking pictures and smoking at the same time. Amazing how he does this. More changes of the dress and the carriage of the young couple. I really admire the shy young boy. It cannot be easy to look serious and loving while you have to bend your hips in an impossible curve and at the same time at least ten other couples next to you try to do the same. All these pictures are not the real wedding pictures. This al belongs to the preparation for the wedding and more sessions in other places will follow. That time the bride will be in pink, green or soft blue and the groom again will have a matching dress. All is rented. When I can see the bride from the back I see that she is slimmer then the average girls. The dress is heavily pinned in. Also when she lifts her skirts to move into another position, she does not show a beautiful pair of legs andnice wedding shoes, but under the skirt she wears blue jeans and black leather boots. On the big day the girl will be in red and perhaps even the groom. But that can still take some time. First these pictures have to be paid for.
2 years ago I saw in Gansu province the wedding album of a young moslem couple. We could only reach their village by walking for an hour through a narrow cleft. In the photo’s they were both dressed in their most beautiful moslem dresses – the girl without a veil – and in front of a big pink American old timer and another one with a bright red racing car. Daydreaming for one day only! They were very proud of their pictures and many poems in English telling about all the happiness in the world. Only neither they nor their family could read a word of it. But they were told that this was the most modern way to have your wedding album made. The picture with the race car hang almost full size over the bed, that filled the largest part of their home. Their home was a cave, hewed out in the rock, like most of the homes in that village.
December 8th – Hakka Houses
With Li Wen - my guide - and female driver we set out to visit several Hakka villages between Nanjing and Yongding on the mainland. A few miles after Nanjing we turn from the main road into a small winding country road. Beautiful bamboo forest on both sides of the road. And then between the soft green of the bamboo I spot the first ‘castle’. On top of a small hill there is an earthen round house – one of the famous Hakka houses. This one is not a museum, but a normal house in a small village. It takes a long walk up to reach the round house and unfortunately the rain is pouring down on us. But looking through the porch it is as if I have entered into a film set of some medieval warrior story.
On the inner coblestoned circle of the house life is going on as usual. Wood has been stacked to dry, chickens and ducks try to gather some scraps of green and grain. The well is in the middle. Dogs everywhere. Many of these houses are 200-300 years old. In the old days as many as 400 people could live in it, all from the same family. The inside of these three-or four-story houses look perhaps most like a Shakespeare Theater. Wooden balconies in the first and second floor on which cloths and vegetables are laid out to dry. On the ground floor there are many small doors, all leading to individual kitchens. The front of the kitchens are made of wood. These massive buildings are made into shape layer by layer, using a mixture of raw earth, sand, lime, glutineous rice and brown sugar all reinforced by ‘bones’ of wood and bamboo. The foundation exists of big stones. The outer wall is at least one meter thick. On the path way between the kitchens people are sitting to chat and smoke. Each kitchen belongs to a separate family, but everybody is still related to each other. On the upper floors there are sleeping rooms and storages. Now there are40 people living in the house, 8 families and a number of single older men and women.
Everybody is very friendly and we are invited in for tea in almost every place. Here serving tea is still a ritual. The home grown tea is served intiny cups. Several times I had to drink at least 10 cups of tea before I was allowed to take a picture. It is good that the cups are very small, because the toilet facilities are notto be described.
An old man tells us he was born in this house. The work on the land was always very hard, but there has never been hunger in the house. And next to the hard work there were the many festivals during the year and many big marriage festivities with lots of guest and many dishes on the table. He tries to give us a description of the cloth they were wearing at that time, but either he or my translator are not succeeding very well. Anyhow all of that is gone now. There is also no antique furniture left. During the cultural revolution the Red Guards destroyed the Ancestral Hall in the centre of the circle, but they left the house to the families. An old lady joins us. She is only about 140 cm high, fragile, but with beautiful white hair. She is not very Chinese looking. She tells us, she came from Quandong, the neighbouring province and was brought to the house when she was only 2 years old. Her parents had arranged, that – at the proper age – she would marry one of the sons of the house. It was the custom that the girl would leave her own family as soon as the contract was made. She told us too, that she was raised on horse milk to make her strong. Also her feet had not been bound, as the Hakka women have to be hard workers on the land. I heard this same story many times later onthis week.
December 10th – Slaughtering a dog
We find a road with at least 30 round and square Hakka houses. Not all are inhabited any longer. The empty houses are sad to see. In other houses only a few old people are living. In one house there is only a blind father with his young daughter. He is beekeeper and has his bee hives fastened on the top floor of the small round house. Not only was there a fantastic light in this high, but small inner circle, but the whole circle smelled sweet from the honey. The next house is full of live again. Many young families and most of the houses have been modernized. Tiled kitchens, electric stoves and big TV’s and stereo sets. In one of the outdoor kitchen two men are slaughtering a dog. The first time I saw a dead dog on the market in Guizhou in 2005 my stomach turned. Now I notice it, but do not react so strongly. I go on with taking a picture when - behind my back- a sudden crack split the dog’s head. I think it better not to look.
Another house has a complete different architecture. All houses are as a slice of a cake. No communal upper floors. Also the houses are much deeper, so there is space for both a kitchen and a ‘sitting room’. In between there is an opening to let light and rainwater into the house. The large round house is surrounded by two circles of smaller houses. The streets in between are so narrow that no warrior could have drawn his sword, should there have been a fight to take the castle. In this group of houses several men have taken Vietnamese women as their wives. Many of these men had first been married to a Chinese girl, but after a year the girls did not want to stay in the village and work on the land. So they divorced. Vietnamese women are both willing to live in such far away places and are hard workers to take their share of the work on the fields. With three crops of tea and rice a year, there is so much work, that no man alone could do all thisby himself. I had heard the same stories a year earlier in Northern China. Also there the Chinese women just disappeared after a year. Here the men took women from Russia as their second wife. In the north it was the city of Haerbin that gave the women ample possibility to work and earn their own income. In Fujian province Xiamen and other cities offer the women enough possibilities to become independent of their husbands
December 11th - old ladies with their ‘handbags’
The last days I met many po po’s – beautiful ladies, always elegant in their Chinese jackets and their silver gray hair. Most of them were between 80 and 90 years old, one even 96. Just think what a turbulent time they have lived through. But how much of the big world events had reached them in their circular world. Most came from Guandong and they had all been brought to the house, when they were 2-3 years old. In between the Japanese armies had landed on Fujian’s coast, not far from Xiamen. Mao had started his Long March in Fujian and through Fujian the Nationalist armies had retreated, before they left the mainland for Taiwan. Some of the most important events in modern Chinese history did happen on their doorstep. The kitchens of these old ladies show they are poor, but all are spotless clean. And in many I find a special atmosphere of a hard but gentle life lived through. Through an open kitchen door you can see one of these ladies having her meal. On the floor there is a tin with some food for her chicken. They are having a cosy meal together. But one day the chicken will just as well end up in the pot.
I notice that several of these ladies are holding tiny bamboo baskets in a very special way. They hold them with both hands covering the top of the basket, as if they want to be sure that no thief can put his hand inside. But it turs out these baskets are no handbags. Inside there is a small pot and in the pot some hot coals to keep their hands or their feet nice and warm. There have been many days I could have had very good use for such a warm ‘handbag’.
One of the ladies is especially elegant. She is even wearing a nice bonnet with a flower on the side. She lives together with her youngest son, who takes care of her. The son is 38. He was born when his mother was 43. He is the youngest of eight children and all his brothers and sisters are still alive. All eight children have been born during the cultural revolution – one of the most difficult times in Chinese history. It must have taken great efforts to give birth and raise eight children and keep oneself alive on top. Perhaps the mind of the lady is now faltering a bit, but she is very cheerful and findsgreat pleasure in our visit.
December 14th – Dehua
If Beijing has 9 million bicycles, then Dehua has at least 1 million motorbikes. And they all blow their horns constantly. This is porcelain city. There are many porcelain factories in Dehua and in the villages around. Big ones but also many one family businesses. They have been porcelain makers for generations. You can easily recognize their houses. Just look at the litter outside. Teapots and cups, bowls and spoons everywhere. But not only porcelain is made in this region. Also earthenware and bricks are made in very large quantities. Other families have different sources of income. The men most probably work in the factories, but the women and the old people are doing piece-work at home. They produce Christmas or Eastern decorations and iron basket and teapots covered with moose. All these decorative articles that end up in our shops for 3-6 euro’s. They perhaps will earn a cent a piece.
In Dehua the number of apartment towers cannot grow quick enough. In the surrounding villages the workers build their own ’modern’ houses. Concrete structures filled with bricks. If there is no money for the window-frames then they leave the holes open, until they have earned enough to continue the building. It all looks like a hurricane has just past through. In between the remnants of the old farms - courtyard houses - 200-300 years old. They are falling together because of devaluation, negotiation and neglect. A modern man lives in a modern house – no matter what quality. Moa Tse Tung ordered during the Cultural Revolution the destruction of all old values. What has been spared in that period is now falling apart for the cause of globalization.
December 15th – San Ban
Not so long ago it San Ban must have been a very nice small old town. There are still many of the old courtyard houses. But they are all in a very delipitated state. Many of them are now stables, storages or just standing empty, usually full of garbage. Of many of them the owner is not known. He may have moved out of China many years ago and did not reclaim his property. Until a few years ago it was possible to reclaim your possessions if you had papers to proof that you were the rightfull owner and many overseas Chinese have done so. Still it is not clear what will happen with these ancestral homes.
In some houses still some very old people are living under pitiful conditions. These men and women are between 80 and 90 years old. From their ranks the young people followed Mao on his Long March, which started only 100km away from here. And not many of them survived to return. They went through all the misery and growing pains of the CPR China. They saw it all happen on their doorstep. They made it all possible. But they do not want to leave the houses. Many of them have been born there. Even when their sons have build a new home for them, they are very reluctant to move in. These old houses give them hold and shelter and together they will slowly wither away. And although they seem very poor, they manage to keep structure in their households and in their lives. They and their belongings are the last witnesses. After them there is nobody left to tell their grandchildren of the heroic past - of China’s modern history. It is very quiet in the houses. Through the cracks in the roof and in the walls a blessing light falls on all those things, that soon will be no more.
December 16th – Nanchen
We take the mountain road from Dehua to Nanchen. As we climb higher it gets cold in the car. The heating in the car does not work, usually not a problem in the warm climate of Xiamen.. The ventilation does not work either, so the windows have to stay open. Otherwise the driver cannot see a thing. It has also started to rain. We take a mud road down to an old village – Gaosi.
Luo Cheng Chan is hogging firewood in front of his house. He is born in this village. He is 68 en was 6 years old when his parents moved to this house. In that time there were 40 people living there. He now lives there with his wife, who is 66. His two sons and grandchildren live in Dehua. They have more then 20 oxes and 2 pigs. He grows rice, vegetables and sweet potatoes for themselves and the pigs. The oxes find their food in the forest. Fatting the oxes is his main source of income. An ox sells for about € 200,00. A few other houses in the village are also still habitated. A woman offers us hot soup with sweet potatoes. For them the weather is exceptionally cold and the rain makes it even more miserable. The soup is just what we need. A simple but much appreciated lunch that day. In the village there is no restaurant, only a small shop.
I am surprised to see the many electric appliances in the houses. Waterboilers and highspeed cooking plates, rice cookers and a large number of pressure cookers. The relatives have brought them as gifts. Electricity has made the housework much easier. But now the cooking fire is much less on and this makes the kitchens very damp. But in the morning the big stove is heated, as they have to cook the food for the pigs. We all sit almost on top of the tiled stove. Many houses in the village are deserted and falling to pieces.
A bit further on the road there is a big billboard “Louton Grand Canyon”. A very new concrete road goes deep down into the valley. We follow the road along a light green foaming river. Farmers walk on the roadside, carrying vegetables, firewood and all kinds of equipment. One woman has at least 5 kg of pork dangling from her carry pole. The curving road falls down to the river only to go up steep again into a new bend. Bamboo forest on both sides, pine trees in the higher parts. Just as we decide to give up and return we see the village in a rounding in the shape of a horse shoe. Xucuo village is at least 300 years old. All houses are built against the slope of the mountain and made from a very dark wood. The foundation is made from large granite blocks. Huge granite slabs are used as steps and bridges over the brooks and water channels that reach every house and every field. The fields in the center of the horse shoe are very old terraces for rice and vegetables. In this village most houses are habituated. In every house we are welcome.
There are only old people and a few younger women around. All houses are occupied by several families, all related to each other. We are free to wander from kitchen to kitchen. Chinese courtyard houses are like warrens. Very narrow dark allies connect the different small kitchens and storages. Where the house has been enlarged, it often is build over a small brook. Where extra light comes in from the roof a wide wooden bridge is build over the brook . This offers a new place for an extra kitchen. Here also rainwater from the roof is collected that forms a small waterbasin in thecenter of the house.
Many of the 400 inhabitants are no longer farmers, but work in the industries around. The new road has made it possible for them to commute on their motorbikes. In this way the village stays alive. But perhaps not for long. A big tourist attraction is in the make for the river, the valley and also for the village. What in other villages is left to decay, is here seen as a good opportunity to bring new income to the area. We are not allowed to leave without accepting a present. So we are loaded with bags of bamboo shoots, steamed and then dried sweet potatoes and small nuts from the forest. If I should eat them my dentist would earn a fortune. I leave the presents to our driver. She does a great job for us. Not only has she to drive all those steep and curving roads, but she is also the only one to understand the several local dialects. And coming with a woman always helps to gain the trust of the old people.
December 22nd – Miao Quan town, Zhi Xi village
Deep down next to the road we see a sea of black roofs. In the middle a very small hill sticks above them. On the hill three very old trees. This is Zhi Xi village – 760 years old. In this village there live 12000 people in 134 old houses, but there are only 4 family names. The houses are 200-300 years old. All of them are protected. One house measures easily 100.000 m2 and they all have over a hundred rooms. These houses are all build according to the 9 hall – 18 courts architectural system. In the wooden houses all the different courts and halls are interconnected. When it is raining tou can walk easily from one to the other without getting wet,. That is also the idea behind this architecture, as it rains very often in this mountain regions. Also this system was very well suited to keep the clan together. Now there live about 80 people in such a house. In old times there were often over 200. We need a guide to help us find our way through the very narrow alleys between the houses. Our first host sends his daughter with us, together with her friend. They are around 16 and both are wearing stiletto heeled high boots. They chat on their mobiles constantly.
Yang Ying Bao is the ‘cultural relations officer’ of the village. He is 76 years old. He joined the army when he was 16 and stayed in it for 8 years. Then he got a job in the forest department, but left his work at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution. Since then he has worked as a businessman. He has 6 children and 6 grandchildren and one great grandchild. All his children and grandchildren are living in the village. Today it is a festival day, so firework regularly forces us to stop our conversation. All workers are free and at home and all families are cooking large diners.
The smell of incense is everywhere and on many house altars a fried duck is ready for diner. The gods have new golden paper hats and new red paper dresses. For the festival the people eat small pancakes filled with a mixture of bamboo, mushroom and reddish. We have to eat them in every house we visit. Also the rice wine is abundant everywhere. In China it is always very difficult to say no, when something is offered. But I try to stay as sober as possible.
December 23rd – Lu Fang town, Gang Tuo village.
The countryside north of the road from Lonyang to Changting is very poor. Many villages are almost deserted. The mud houses are falling to pieces. But Gang Tuo is more alive. We meet a group of 4 young farmers, who have formed an agricultural co-operative. They are 27-30 years old. They all see a future for themselves in agriculture. Since they are free to grow what they think is profitable, live has got much better for farmers. One of them has 100 mother pigs and offers manure for the others. They are growing tea, rice and sweet potatoes. The fourth has rented a large piece of forest and sells bamboo and pine from there. They also have a fishpond. As a toy, they race around in a Quad. I ask them whether for them it is difficult to find a wife. They do not see any problem, although none of them is married yet. When they have money to spend, they expect to travel and they also will repair the old house of one of them. Grandfather is 100 years old, happy and very proud of his grandson.
December 24th – Sibao town, Zhu YuanShan village.
The road to the top of the mountain is in a very bad state, although it is only two years old. Erosion has taken its toll and too heavy trucks have destroyed the mud road. We walk half the way to keep the car as light as possible and we have to push the car out of the mud several times. But our driver is courageous and we almost reach the village. Fortunately for the way back there is an alternative road. Ma Cong Yuan is 89, his wife 90. They both look very healthy, happy and alive. They have always lived in this village.
Ma Cong Yuan has not been in the army and the Red Guards have never come to their house. Only bandits have troubled them several times. There has never been hunger in the village. All of the turmoil of the last 90 years has gone past their house. If there was not food enough from the land, then there was always enough to eat in the forest. They hunted and gathered bamboo sprouts and several roots and wild vegetables. Once there lived 20 families in the village, now there are still twelve. Their grandchildren have decided to stay in the village instead of living in the small town down the road. They take their brand new motorbikes to go to work. The village has always been good for their parents and grandparents, so it will also be good for them and their children.
December 25th 2009 – Changting
At midnight there were enormous fire works in Changting, because of the start of the ‘Christmas Festival’. I seem to have been the only one who has slept through it.
Today we will visit a friend of Li Wen. His friend is a Feng Shui Master. Li Wen asked his advice before he built the house for his parents. We have to drive two hours to Hong Shan town and then on to Tong Shan village. In Tong Shan an eight course Christmas dinner is waiting for me. It is rare they have guests in the house and certainly not one from outside China. My presence helps to enlarge the status of the Master. There is braised duck, fish soup, shredded pork, fatty pork cubes with jam roots and carrots, cabbage, another root vegetable, a green vegetable and a carrot and reddish salad, rice noodles and wheat noodles and rice for the driver. She cannot do without. And of course a good rice wine with many herbs in it, a splendid combination with such a heavy meal. But also his village is dying. It is too far to town for people to go from here to work.
On the top of the hill there is another village. This time the road is very good. The World Bank Program for Rural Roads has paid for it. So I am told by stone tablets along the road. This village is more alive. But also here many houses are locked. The owners live in town and may come back only for the festivals. But people are repairing the pavement in the alleys. The Long March went through this village and I find many old and new Mao posters on the walls, often above the house altar with the small god statue. Mao and the little god share the incense together.
December 26th – Nan Shan town, Zhong Zu village
Zhong Zu is the first village on the Long March. From here they went off. I am standing in front of the building in which Mao held his great speech. The old cobble stoned street is still fully intact. You can see them leaving before your eyes. What if he had not succeeded. What would then China look like to day. With what consequences for the rest of the world.
For the people in Zhong Zu it does not make much difference. The people in the small street are still very poor. We knock on the door of one of the larger houses and a man opens. He tells us he is a doctor, but later we understand that he works at the local hospital. He is delighted that we knocked on his door. He is a collector of antique ceramics and shows us several of his pieces. All very valuable, so he tells us. Then he offers to take us around in the village, but it ends in a show tour along all his friends - endless cups of tea. But such a day happens every trip. It does not matter. It is the last day of this trip and it has started raining again. We invite him to have lunch with us, but no way. We have to be his guest. He buys food in the market and the girl next door has to prepare the meal. In the meantime he tells us his story. Shen Gan Gui is the son of a teacher at the Chinese medicine department of the local hospital. He is 57 years old. During the Cultural Revolution his father was attacked badly by the Red Gards from his own school. He had been forced to wear the white paper hat and the paper board around his neck with all his sins written on it. Of course our host could not go to school any longer and he had to work for the farming collective. There was a terrible famine in the village, as they all refused to work hard on the land. He never became a doctor. Later his father was rehabilitated. It was very important for him to show us the official paper, that proved that his father had become a member of the Communist party in 1966.
Shen Gan Gui was embittered for not having been able to study. He told us he read many books for himself. He thought the Constitution of the USA and of England were the best in the world and the constitution of France was the worse. He would never in his life wanted to have anything to do with France. France should not have been allowed to join the EEC. We share his meal with him and thank him for his hospitality. A remarkable way to end my last working day in the countryside of Fujyan.