Turning over a New Leaf

ByWang Kaihao and Shi Ruipeng August 20, 2020

Before 2018, when a drivable road finally reached this stockade village in Hezhou, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, the only way out for locals living on the mountain was by foot.

The distance to the nearest town, which took about four hours on foot to reach, was enough to besiege residents of Dachong Village with a difficult life. Nearly 500 people from 87 families live in the village, which is home to the Tuyao Community, a part of the Yao ethnic group.

Tuyao literally means "indigenous Yao", which not only indicates the preservation of the traditional lifestyle and culture of the ethnic group, but also shows that its development was once blocked by poor transportation links.

Ancestors of Tuyao people migrated to Hezhou from elsewhere about 700 years ago. However, when they arrived, as the better farming land had been occupied by locals, these "new residents" had to climb up the mountains, where there was little land left to cultivate crops.

To make ends meet, Pan Qinglan, a 44-year-old woman, had to carry wild tea leaves, ginger and wood to the next town to exchange for rice, oil and other food.

"The path was dangerous," Pan recalls. "But we had no choice. It was hard to grow crops here... We set off when it was still dark. To stave off the fear, we walked in groups and always sang songs."

Landslides were a regular occurrence as a result of the area's changeable weather. Even on a sunny day, cliffs and rivers were still obstacles that needed to be overcome.

"Fairs were organized several times a month in the town," she says. "We would make sure to get everything we needed in a single visit."

It often took villagers two to three days to finish one "shopping tour "and they would stay overnight in the town.

Even while recalling the tough years, Pan wears a smile. For first-time visitors to the village, it indeed needs imagination to picture the old days of Dachong, which has experienced a huge shift in fortunes over the past few years.

According to Zhao Wanxing, the Party chief of Shidong, the village complex in which Dachong is a part, in 2014, about 90 percent of people in Dachong lived under the poverty line and the annual income per capita was just over 3,000 yuan ($433).

"This is the debt left by history and nature which we have to pay," Zhao says. "Upon hearing the news there would be a road built, many villagers volunteered to join the construction team. They learned quickly from construction workers."

Work on the paved roads began in 2016 and, in 2018, a nearly 10 million yuan fund from central and local governments was also allocated to improve the local infrastructure.

Pan and her husband, Feng Qiubao, were among the first ones to join the construction team.

Pan says: "Building a road was our biggest dream."

When entering Dachong, people will see some stone slabs paving the entry of stockade. They are carefully chosen from the leftover materials from the construction of the road as "a monument", to mark the locals' great effort.

It now takes the couple just half an hour on a motorbike to reach the town.

As always, the villagers of Dachong do not want to forget their past. For example, electricity was wired into the village in 2008.Before that, people relied on a dynamo system to generate power.

"We take care of the dynamo and exhibit it in the village, making sure it still functions well," Feng says. "That not only bears our nostalgia, but also reminds the younger generation to cherish the better life they have today."

In 2018, Zhou Huafeng, a tea entrepreneur from Hunan Province, was invited by the local government to visit Dachong to see whether there were any opportunities to boost the local economy. Upon a first glance of the old houses in the village, he was overjoyed.

Hoard of Tea

After their "biggest dream" was realized, the villagers soon found many more things to dream of.

"Once I saw those earthen houses, I thought of my childhood," Zhou recalls. "Such traditional architecture used to be common in my hometown, but has almost disappeared as people's lifestyle has changed."

In Zhou's eyes, those earthen houses-or more specifically their dark, well-ventilated wooden attics-would be perfect warehouses for the natural fermentation of dark teas.

"I found that some villagers also used their attics to store tea in stacks of gunny bags," Zhou says. "What I needed to do was to inherit that tradition so that it could benefit more people."

Pan Jieyin is from one of 12 households in Dachong participating in Zhou's project. They call it "raising", or aging tea. His livelihood used to come from selling wood and doing odd jobs.

Now, every morning and evening, he lights a small bonfire in the atrium to smoke the tea. To fully arouse the aroma, this is a key process in the tea's fermentation, which can take more than a year to complete. When it comes to dark teas, the longer the fermentation, the more valuable the product. The only other thing he needs to do is to rotate the packages of tea from time to time to ensure they all get evenly smoked.

Upon seeing neighbors demolishing their old houses and building new ones, Pan Jieyin wanted to follow suit.

"I didn't realize my old house was so valuable until I started aging tea," he laughs. "Now I have to take good care of it. You see, patience is important, not only in making good tea, but also in life in general."

Pan Jieyin has aged 500 packages of tea leaves. For each package, he will get 30 yuan a year.

Zhou has also encouraged him to grow tea to earn extra money and, as a result, Pan Jieyin's annual income has increased to 30,000 yuan.

Pan Manbao, 36, and his 33-year-old wife, Feng Qiugu, have also found prosperity in tea. Their impoverished life forced them to hold off on having their wedding until they finally saved 20,000 yuan, seven years after registering for marriage. However, last year alone, they earned 12,000 yuan. So they decided to take a further 100 tea packages to mature at home this year.

"It's much easier to save money now," Feng Qiugu says. "We don't need to engage in heavy labor by carrying our produce for a long way on foot."

Knitting a Brighter Future

Resources in Dachong are abundant, and the only thing needed is perhaps a keen eye. As bamboo can be found all over the mountains, Zhou and villagers have concocted another way to boost the value of their product — to make a pretty, handmade package in which the dark tea can be sold at a higher price. Getting rid of the old gunny bags, they make knitted bamboo baskets to hold the tea leaves.

In 2018, Pan Qinglan, Feng Qiugu, and more than 100 women in the village, were offered the opportunity to knit the baskets. Each product nets its knitter 9 yuan.

"When I was a kid, I saw my grandma and mother knit baskets, and I also knitted some for daily use, like every family here did," Pan Qinglan says. "But nobody ever thought this craft could also make money."

Pan Qinglan regrets that she is not very skillful, but the workshop also offers training programs to hone their basket-making technique, particularly those suited to tea fermentation. The best craftswomen can fashion over 20 baskets a day.

"I can only make 10, but it's OK," Pan Qinglan says. "It doesn't interfere with my farm work. I can do it whenever I have time, like people in cities sometimes also knit sweaters."

She earned over 6,000 yuan in 2018 alone from basket-making, and the villagers in Dachong can collectively earn around 600,000 yuan annually from the baskets.

Nowadays, there are also a greater number of vehicles arriving in the village to order local produce. Pan Qinglan and Feng Qiubao's ginger has become popular, and they also operate a fishpond. Pan Manbao has started keeping bees, from which he earned 6,000 yuan last year.

"My wife makes extra money by knitting," Pan Manbao says. "I cannot lag behind. I have to start my own business."

The recent statistics show that the average income per capita in Dachong reached 9,500 yuan in 2019, tripling in five years. But Zhao, the Party chief, plans to introduce new businesses to make villagers richer.

"We see tourists drive to the village every day, from nearby cities and from (nearby) Guangdong province," he says. "Tourism can be the next booming industry if we keep improving the infrastructure."

Wooden boardwalks and an observation deck have recently been built in the village to act as tourist tracks for future visitors, while some villagers, like Feng Qiubao, plan to turn their houses into homestay inns.

And he has other plans. The couple have never traveled outside Guangxi. Their daughter, who is graduating from college, abandoned her job as a civil servant with the local government and chose to work in Guangdong with the reasoning that "the world is big, and I'd like to see it".

An open-minded Feng Qiubao respects his daughter's decision. He also knows it is necessary to catch up with the fast-changing world, even though they live deep in the mountains. Broadband internet network facilities will be introduced into the village later this year.

"When we got married and first heard people talk about 'tourism' some years ago, I didn't even know what the word meant," he says. "But life is getting better now. Seeing tourists come here, we'd like to be tourists to travel to faraway places as well. If we can buy a car, that will be even better."

 

(Source: China Daily)

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