The agenda was a visit to a village outside Xi’an, and the question of the day seemed to be: Would this village show us the true quality of life in rural China?
From the beginning of the trip, it has been obvious that the trip is taking place under the auspices of the Chinese government. We go everywhere with a police escort (which periodically uses its sirens to get us out of sticky traffic situations) and are greeted with large red banners welcoming the “Yale 100.” This has engendered some skepticism about how accurate a portrayal we are receiving of the country, particularly because the packed schedule leaves us little room for exploration on our own. But today’s visit to the village put the question of representativeness on almost everyone’s lips.
The 1,890-person village of Bai Cun was about a 90 minute drive from our hotel in Xi’an, and the ride took us through a series of suburban and rural communities. As we left the limits of Xi’an, the persistent traffic of the city subsided and small markets selling food and clothes cropped up on the sides of the roads. We could literally feel the move from urban to rural areas, as the roads became worse and the ride got bumpier. For the first time that I noticed, people were stopped along the side of the road to stare at our buses.
On the bus, our guide — a representative of the All-China Youth Federation who has been with us for the entire trip — described Bai Cun as a “typical” village for this part of China.
“Chinese villagers are very different from Western villagers,” he said. “They tend to be very content.”
It was comments like these that made me wary of how accurately this village would represent rural life in China. Earlier on the trip, we had heard about how China was trying to deal with a mass migration to the cities in pursuit of better job opportunities.
The village of Bai Cun, about an hour away from Xi’an. (Michael Blank/YDN)
When we pulled into Bai Cun, we were greeted by a troupe of traditional drummers and cymbalists. Villagers were standing around the courtyard we drove into and watched as we got off the bus.
We had been randomly divided into 10 groups while we were on the buses, and we quickly headed in different directions around the village.
My group first went to a primary school, which we were told was built in 2003. It has 254 students and 14 teachers, nine of whom have a college degree. We were first taken to an English class for 10 and 11 year olds. When we walked in, they were learning how to say, “go skateboarding, go bike riding, go hiking, go rollerskating.” We were encouraged to talk to the students, but most were too shy to say much more than their names.
We also saw a 6th grade Chinese lesson — where the classroom was decorated with signs encouraging them to study and improve themselves — and the school library. which offered books on environmental protection, how to watch opera, and biographies of Bill Gates, Mikhail Gorbachev and Isadora Duncan.
Our guides then led us down the main street of the village, with stops in a China Telecom Internet café and a “scientific reading room” with books about farming. In response to a question, another guide from the ACYF gave a slightly different assessment of the village, which he called “a little bit better than the middle.”
“There are man of the rural areas that have shabby houses [made of] clay,” he said. “This is built up by bricks, with paintings.”
Villagers look on at the Yale delegation from the side of the road. (Michael Blank/YDN)
He also acknowledged that in western China — including the Xi’an area — young people do prefer to go to the city for construction or engineering jobs, where they can earn more than they would in agriculture. This differs from the more prosperous eastern regions of China, he said, where villages have shared in the country’s overall economic growth.
He then led us to see the home of one village family. It belonged to an elderly man, who was a retired teacher, and his wife. We learned that their annual income is about 7,000 yuan, or $1,000. The couple’s two adult children had left the village to take government jobs in Xi’an, close enough to bring occasional gifts back home, he said. (Other groups visited multigenerational households, where elderly couples lived with a child and his or her family.)
The house’s large living room — compared by one student to a “barn” — was sparsely decorated, with a bare concrete floor, three posters, six full-size chairs and several more stools. The small bedroom contained two beds and a dresser, as well as a television and stereo that were somewhat incongruous compared to the general lack of furnishings.
But the most interesting part of the home tour was the small kitchen. There is running water in the village for four hours a day, so they fill a water cistern in the kitchen for use throughout the day. They use a wood-fired stove to cook, and had one wooden cabinet for storage. Some staples were stored on the floor, including bags of grain and about three dozen eggs. The man was most proud of his electric rice cooker, which like the TV was a surprising addition to a decidedly un-modern home.
The Yale delegation then reunited and walked out of the village to nearby orchards, where we attempted to tie bags around young apples, a technique to protect them from bugs. The village switched from growing wheat and other grains to apples and pears as part of the government’s attempt to give each village a “key product” around which to structure their economy, our guide told us.
A Chinese farmer shows Kevin Olusula ’10 how to wrap young apples to protect them from bugs. (Michael Blank/YDN)
We were then taken to a textile factory, which was little more than nine hand looms in a very large room. The availability of a gift shop and a rest area, as well as large photos of Westerners wearing scarves produced by the factory, suggested that the facility was at least partially a tourist destination. In fact, we were told, textile production for this company is a kind of cottage industry through which looms are distributed to individual workers to keep in their homes.
The visit to the textile factory sparked much of the debate about the authenticity of the village visit, with one student terming it a “Potemkin village.” Others defended it as an innocuous example of China putting its best foot forward, akin to cleaning up one’s apartment before having guests (just as Yale-sponsored tours of New Haven focus on more middle-class neighborhoods).
Rachel Friedman MED ’08 tries out a loom at a textile factory in Bai Cun. (Michael Blank/YDN)
To my eyes, it seemed clear that Bai Cun had received substantial improvements compared to other villages that we drove past. The homes boasted more attractive exteriors than the relatively worn-down tan brick structures we could see from the bus windows. And one guide’s assertion that the villagers had never seen Beijingers, much less foreigners, before was just implausible, given the photos on display at the textile factory. But on the other hand, the village as we saw it was not Disneyland China (several other women told me that the public bathroom was just a series of holes in the ground, without dividers or doors), and its inhabitants still lived in much worse conditions than we saw in Chinese cities or in much of the U.S. It was not necessarily a false picture of rural Chinese life, but an incomplete one.
On the bus from the village to the airport for our flight to Xi’an, someone raised an interesting question: Why were we all so eager to see China’s poverty, as opposed to its development?
“I do think we want to see that everything’s not peachy,” Elissa Berwick ’09 said.