Bleak Prospects in the “Economic Center”
NINGBO CITY, China—On July 1, a friend invited me to make a short visit to Yantou Village, Xikou Township in Fenghua County, which is about 12 miles away from Ningbo City in Zhejiang Province. During this period, I witnessed the bleak prospects of this village both economically and spiritually.
Yantou Village is located in the Yangtze River Golden Delta area, the so-called most active market economy area in China. It is near Ningbo City, the economic center of wealthy Zhejiang Province. Not too long ago, Yantou Village was named one of the “historical and cultural relic villages” in the Ningbo area. When I visited the village, I saw a spoiled natural and poor cultural environment, a seriously aging population, and a village government akin to the mafia.
In the Past, a Village Like Paradise
Yantou Village is located at the end of the Siming Mountains in eastern Zhejiang Province. Historically, it was surrounded by bamboo forests and a crystal clear creek, full of birds and flowers and had spring-like weather all year-round. It was rich in the production of bamboo shoots, taro, honey peaches and stone brook fish.
This little village hidden in the mountains was famous for being the hometown of Mao Fumei, Chiang Kai-Shek's first wife. Going upstream of the Yan River for about six miles from Xikou Township of Fenghua County, we came to Yantou Village. The village is surrounded by mountains; a shallow brook runs through the village along its rock beds, and is thus called Rock Brook. The village name Yantou means End of Rocks in Chinese.
A nice elderly man showed me around the village, I was surprised how many ancient buildings dating back to Qing Dynasty were preserved there. He also pointed out many homes of former Kuomintang generals, Huangpu Military Academy graduates, even ancient houses of successful candidates of the highest provincial imperial examinations and military candidates from the Qing Dynasty. I was totally amazed by the history of the village.
Shocking Environmental Pollution
When our car approached the village, I noticed the black-brown color of the forest on the mountains surrounding the village. I asked my friend what it was, and my friend answered while driving. “This forest was burned by the fire that happened last year. Many people were wounded while fighting the fire. The forest was so thick that it was impossible to put out the fire, we were lucky no one was killed.”
“How many trees were burned? How did it start?” I asked.
“It is about 1000 mu (approximately 165 acres) of forest. There was a reason for the fire… Well, it's hard to tell… ” my friend answered.
I knew there must be something going on, but I stopped myself from asking since I didn't want to distract him from driving on the winding mountain road.
While staying in the village, I felt so bad about how dirty the village was. There were flies all over the place—on outdoor garbage piles, in canteens and at the farmer's markets, on the animal droppings on the road, and even in children's bowls. It seems the flies were the true owners of the village.
The famous Yan Brook now turns into a small stream that sometimes even totally dries up. The riverbed is full of industrial and residential garbage, white plastic bags, black industrial waste, and other residential waste floats on the river.
Along the brook, I saw several village plants that had gone bankrupt and closed. I could see chemical materials in black plastic barrels piled up in the weed-covered yards, so these apparently had been chemical plants.
I asked my friend, “What happened to these plants?”
“These are village-operated enterprises that were later sold to individuals. They closed their doors because they were not profitable.”
I was happy, “It is better to close them; otherwise they will pollute the brook.”
My friend sighed, “There are many similar plants upstream on the brook. They are polluting the brook everyday, no one can stop them.”
I asked, “Are the villagers still drinking from the river?”
“No, it is stinky now, we all drink well water.”
Yet I knew that the Yan Brook turns into Yan River located in nearby Xikou Township, and enters Fenghua River, which provides drinking water for Ningbo City and other nearby residents.
An Aging Village Loses Hope
While staying in Yantou, I also visited nearby villages such as Zhangshu and Qiaotau. Other than women and children, there were mainly elderly people. They were sitting by the bridge with sluggish eyes and looking bored. Later in the evening, once again, elderly people were sitting at the entrance of Guzhang Village, motionless like statues. I walked towards them, passed them cigarettes and chatted with them. I asked, “Where are the young people?” “Can't keep the young ones here—the ones with money have moved and bought houses in Xikou Town or Ningbo City. The ones without money have left for work. Most of them have gone,” the elderly answered indifferently.
I asked, “So with the majority of elderly in the village, have you received pension benefits?”
“No, no, nothing. The village committee is having hard time as well. Where would the money come from?”
“What if you're sick?”
“Small illness, endure for several days and wait for recovery; big illness, wait for death…” the elderly answered as if talking about someone else.
The sunset was glowing upon the mountains. The ancient stone bridge lay silently in the shadow of the old trees. I was here to see and hear a group of elderly people “waiting for death” in a village that had lost hope.
A Desolate Place Born out of the Cultural Revolution
No modern culture could be found in Yantou, a village with about 100 to 200 households. On the street in the village center, there's a morning market with vegetables harvested by the elderly, and a few seafood items from somewhere else. There was no newspaper stand.
The only things to read are the still-recognizable slogans left from the Cultural Revolution, “Long Life Chairman Mao!” and “The Invincible Mao Zedong Thought!”
A Group of Gangsters
I had initially wanted to visit the head of the village committee in search of some local history. Instead, I encountered several “party and government officials” smoking and drinking tea while lying down on the sofa. I asked, “May I ask for the comrades in charge of the village?”
I was greeted with their alert, and yet indifferent, attitude.
“Who are you? What's that for?” asked a middle-aged man in the tone and rhetoric of a local official.
“Oh, we are tourists. We heard that Yantou has been classified as the historical and cultural village of Ningbo City, and would like to know whether you have the relevant historical information available for sale.”
All eyes gathered upon a slim-faced old man in untidy clothes who was obviously the secretary or head of the village. He opened his mouth impatiently, “We are in a meeting.” We left in dismay.
Outside of the village committee door, my friend started, “You saw it. Doesn't it look like a meeting of gangsters?”
I was stunned and asked, “What do you mean by that?”
He said, “Not long ago, the village committee had a general election. The former secretary Mao Heyi and former head Mao Ziwei were the two main power holders in the village. They have fought against each other in every way. People were almost killed because of the competition between them.”
“Is that supposed to be some 'democratic election?' Killing people? Why?”
“Mao Ziwei had been the head of the village for several years. This time he wanted to be the party secretary, the actual number one in the village.
“But Mao Heyi also had his connections with upper level authorities. Before the election, they had competed several times. That night, both groups started gang fights. Several people were wounded.
“A few days later, the forest was on fire. Both groups blamed each other for the incident. Thousands of acres were burned, and each group tried to put the blame on the other. Many people were injured while trying to put out the fire.”
“Oh, seriously? What happened next? How was it resolved?”
“Nothing! In the end, the secretary remained the secretary and the head of the village remained the head of the village!”
I was speechless after hearing the village government behind-the-scenes plot… It was the answer to my first day's question about the stretch of burned woodland.
These are the realities of an economically and culturally developed village in contemporary China. After more than half of a century of being ruled and transformed by the Chinese Communist Party, a village of natural and historical beauty has become so desolate and ugly! This saddened my heart.