China Beyond Shanghai: What My Journey To Anhui Province Taught Me
Thirty years of rapid reform has led people to believe that the tall skyscrapers of Shanghai define China.
This writer’s experience travelling to Anhui and other provinces opened up a whole new landscape and newer ways of looking at the country and its transformation.
This article is part of a series called Notes On China. The aim of the series is to provide analysis of events and ideas related to domestic politics, economy, and foreign policy of China.
I was invited by my Chinese friend Fan Yu to visit her hometown in Anhui province during the Mid-Autumn Festival in 2016. It is a harvest festival held every year on the fifteenth day of the eighth month of the lunar calendar with full moon at night, roughly around mid-September to early October as per the Gregorian calendar.
Journey to China’s east – the long route to Anhui
While not matching the spectacle and scale of the world’s largest human migration, typically held every year during the Chinese New Year, getting tickets during the Mid-Autumn Festival was nearly impossible too. Eventually, we managed to get two hard-seat tickets, the cheapest and the only available ones (no high-speed trains run between Shanghai and Fan Yu’s town), which meant nine hours of trying to sleep while sitting, enduring shushus (uncles) playing cards and fighting loudly all through the night and filling the passengers’ nostrils with cheap cigarette smoke in the Chinese version of the Garib Rath AC coach (minus the smoking)!
The next morning we reached Fuyang city (阜阳), from where we took a taxi and reached Taihe (太和) county. We left Taihe for Fan Yu’s town, which took us another two hours to reach. Soon, the landscape shifted from concrete buildings to small and poorly constructed houses, dusty roads and corn fields on both sides of the road. For a while I was transported to India’s small towns and my numerous field trips around remote, inaccessible villages. Finally, we reached Lixing (李兴), a small, sleepy town, broad roads painted orange with all the corn cobs left to dry in the bright afternoon sun, signaling a bountiful harvest.
Complex family dynamics in Lixing town
Fan Yu’s mother ayi (auntie) greeted us during the school break and took us out for lunch. She is a secondary-grade school teacher at the middle school located opposite the residential quarters provided to their family. Wearing a bright knee-length red dress, high heels, short and crisp blonde hair, her looks complemented the sternness of her face, a result of dealing with school children, I presumed.
Going through back-and-forth fights and the uneasy reconciliation of divorce, my friend’s father left behind the responsibility of managing the house and taking care of children entirely on ayi’s shoulders. This has had a negative impact on my friend, who is all of 20 years old. So my purpose to come here was also to stay with her and support her through this tense period she found herself in.
In the evening, I was treated to Anhui’s special ‘Ge La Tiao’ (格拉条), a spicy noodle dish made with thick noodles mixed with sesame sauce, coriander, garlic and chilli oil. I also met my friend’s aunt and her husband who had just returned to Anhui from Xinjiang for the festival.
Ayi and Fan Jie were sisters, but in the ways of dressing, social status, work and personality were markedly different. Ayi worked in a school as a teacher, while her sister ran a medical store in faraway province of Xinjiang, where her husband was a cab driver. Their children (Meng Ya and Meng Diye) stayed back in Anhui, away from their parents. This is a very common feature in the small towns and villages of China, where left-behind children, defined by the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) as “rural children under the age of 16 whose parents are migrant workers, or who have one migrant-worker parent with the other incapable of guardianship”, are a reality.
Mid-Autumn Festival, the two villages and Chairman Mao
The next day for the Mid-Autumn Festival, our first stop was to Fan Yu’s paternal grandparents’ home. Although her maternal grandparents lived close by, as a woman married into the other family, her mother took us all to her in-laws’s house first. The village Fan zhuang (zhuang village) was named after the common surname ‘Fan’ that was carried by people living here. During the old times, village members belonged to the same clan or extended family and had the same last name.
As we reached her grandpa’s house, the white blocks of concrete houses faded away. Red bricks, a sloping roof and a broken office chair sat idly at the entrance to the door. Inside the house were an open courtyard, some corn cobs and clothes loosely hanging from the string, cycle tires attached to the kitchen wall and a shoe rack filled with years of dust and shoes lying unused. A small, open pit below the rack doubled up as a toilet and bathroom. Music from the TV led me to a dingy and dark room where a frail-looking lady sat and watched a music programme.
Fan Yu’s grandpa came out to greet us and ushered us into the dark room lit by the TV light. I smiled and introduced myself to her grandpa first and went inside to greet her grandma. For any word I spoke, she would bring out her toothless smile; she could not understand Mandarin and only spoke the local Anhui dialect. No sooner did I say something in Mandarin than she would burst into childish laughter.
Fan Yu seemed embarrassed, and apologised for bringing me to such an unkempt place. She was also angry and sad that her grandparents always discriminated and favoured her brother over her. Her embarrassment also stemmed from the poor conditions of the house. She then told me that her grandfather was a well-educated man but was purged for being a ‘capitalist roader’ and ‘bourgeois’, the favourite terms used during the infamous Cultural Revolution to target intellectuals and suspected capitalists. It changed his life for the worse, and he was relegated to do farming all his life. The hidden trauma of the generation who faced Mao’s wrath, was unleashed. Of course, I was not allowed to discuss this taboo topic with them, but silently questioned its impact on the thousands of lives to this day.
While walking around the narrow lanes to reach the village pond, my friend pointed out to four similar-looking bungalows in white. “It’s ours”, she said and explained that her grandparents built these houses for their four sons during their marriage. Since none of them live in the village anymore, it lies unoccupied and doubles up as a storeroom for the crops.
In the evening, we went over to her maternal grandparents’ house in another village for dinner. My friend, her brother and her mother, all seemed excited and eager to visit the Liu Zhang (Liu village). I felt the strange kind of similarity where in India too, children feel closer to the maternal side than the paternal side of the family. While I have never given this a serious thought before, their excitement in the evening over the dullness in the morning gave me food for thought.
This village was different than the one I visited in the morning. Roads were fully paved, most houses barring one or two were concrete-built, and more were in the making. Even her grandma’s house was fully concrete, with a separate kitchen, a room where they rent mahjong tables to villagers and a large living room with a TV set, a small makeshift shop selling essential supplies, and a small corner for Mao, Confucius and Caishen, a god of prosperity worshipped in the Chinese folk religion and Taoism.
My friend’s grandparents love Mao and treat him like God. Her grandma still cries at Mao’s mausoleum each time she visits the place in Beijing. People in the village still remember Mao with reverence and nostalgia. Both sets of her grandparents were affected by Mao differently. While her paternal grandfather lost money, hard-earned status, was called a bourgeois and relegated to lifelong poverty, her maternal side benefited from Mao’s empowerment of the villages and power to grassroots. Even to this day, Fan Yu’s grandparents and her mother strongly believe in socialism as the best form of system for China.
Visiting the Suanmingde
The next morning, I found myself sitting and watching Fan Yu and her mother intently listening to a short, old and nearly blind man wearing a cap. The ‘suanming’ (suan – to plan; ming – life/fate/destiny) is a Chinese fortune-teller who uses astrology to predict one’s future. Her mother drove us all, sleepy-eyed at five in the morning, far away from the town to meet the most famous fortune-teller in this part of Anhui province.
The mother-daughter duo asked about the latter’s chance to go abroad, whether her current boyfriend is suitable for marriage, how many kids she would have and so on. Then they turned to me next to get my fortune told. Although sceptical, I found it interesting to participate in these village practices that still survive amidst urbanisation, modernisation and the “officially” atheist state clamping down upon such traditions as antithetical to the scientific socialism of Communist China.
A China re-discovered
Thirty years of rapid reform has led people to believe that the tall skyscrapers of Shanghai define China, that there exists no China beyond the glitz of those tall buildings and lights. My travel experience to Anhui and other provinces opened up a whole new landscape and newer ways of looking at the country and its transformation for me. Villages are transforming into towns, and towns have started to metamorphose into new cities. Newly built cities are in turn trying to become another Beijing or Shanghai. Amidst all this dynamism, I saw firsthand the lives people led in small towns and villages, their aspirations, cultural beliefs and the prevalent social and gender inequalities. I also witnessed the disparities of a fast-changing China, mentally making comparisons with the Shanghai I knew and lived in.
As the overall economy is slowing down in China, the poor towns and villages are the most hit. On the one had, jobs are hard to come by, and on the other, income inequality remains high. Wealth is concentrated among the few rich people while the gap is increasing. Xi Jinping, who rose to power on the promise of prosperity for all, has pushed for an ambitious plan to eradicate rural poverty by 2020. Even to this day, 43 million people live on the equivalent of less than 95 cents a day, the poverty line set by the Chinese government. In order to realise his dream of a prosperous China by 2050, Xi Jinping’s focus has to shift in the direction of places such as Anhui that are surrounded by high-gross-domestic-product provinces (Jiangsu to the east, Zhejiang to the south east and part of Shandon to the north) but continue to live under moderate to severe poverty.
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