Saturday, April 3, 2010

Literary Farming With My Chinese Uncle

This article was published in Farming magazine, Summer 2003, p. 52. Although written in the present tense, I should mention that Guo Liujin died in the summer of 2008.

Literary Farming with my Chinese Uncle
With fragments from some great Chinese writers and poets.

“If something is thought out carefully, it will succeed; if not it will fail; this is a universal truth. It is very rare that a person works and yet gains nothing. On the other hand, there is never any harm in trying too hard.” Chen Pu, The Craft of Farming, 1149 AD

I have looked at and studied many a farm, including the story of my father’s parents and grandparents, and how they lost the farm. My wife’s uncle still is a traditional farmer, but far away from American traditional farming. He lives in the Jiangxi province of China.

Like many farmers he found plenty to complain about in the modern world. On a visit to his brother, my father-in-law, in the big city of Guangzhou, he was bored out of his mind. He couldn’t help but use a farmer’s scale of values to judge the things he saw there. When taken to a nice restaurant, he complained that his meal cost 300 yuan, whereas he could easily sell a pig at home for 400. Imagine, a single meal costing nearly the same as a pig!

Uncle Guo (he is called “little uncle” by his extended family because he is the youngest of his brothers) is, in some ways, a throwback to rural people everywhere. He cannot read or write, he farms a small acreage, and keeps a mixed farm where he grows rice, and keeps pigs, chickens, and other livestock. Like many rural people, is somewhat bemused by the modern, flashy lifestyle he sees in cities. But many farmers and gardeners would find things to admire about Uncle Guo’s farm and his farming. Which of us has not yearned for a small, mixed farm where if one crop or flock fails, one can always relay on something else?

This essay will recount some observations on Uncle Guo and his farm, and by extension, offer some observations on the life of a small farmer in China. Family farming in China is basically unexplored country. I am thinking specifically of farming as a cultural artifact, not a scientific or mechanical study. Not so much how a much a particular crop yields, but how an individual works and cares to make a plant grow and feed his family and livestock. Uncle Guo has farmed all his life, and his seen many changes, but as with many changes, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

“The universe is but a tenement
Of all things visible. Darkness and day
The passing guests of time. Life slips away,
A dream of little joy and mean content. Li Po(702-762 ), The Guild of Good-fellowship

The youngest of six children, Guo Liujin was born on August 15, 1938 in Jian City, Jiangxi Province. Unlike his brother, my father-in-law, he received very little schooling and still speaks a difficult local dialect. His father, Guo Jiechai, was born in 1880, a subject of the Emperor of China.

As viewers of The Last Emperor know, China has had no emperor since 1912, and has been a Communist Party-ruled state since 1949. Uncle Guo would have seen the revolution as a child. And he would have seen changes. Rural Chinese lived in earthen huts before the Revolution; afterwards, homes of fired brick became the rule. Television, and quite recently, telephones, came to rural China. Roads, not always paved, but usable, opened the modern world to some extent.

“The serious problem is the education of the peasantry. The peasant economy is scattered, and the socialization of agriculture, judging by the Soviet Union's experience, will require a long time and painstaking work. Without socialization of agriculture, there can be no complete, consolidated socialism.” Mao Tse-tung (1893-1976), Quotations from Chairman Mao TseTung

The 1949 revolution brought several changes. But it was the 1967-1976 “Cultural Revolution” that disrupted life more thoroughly. An effort to bring the entire populace of China into line with the thinking of Chairman Mao Tse-tung, the cultural revolution caused mass dislocation, interruption of jobs and families, as thousands were relocated to the country from the city, and vice versa.

My wife’s father and mother were taken from city jobs as educators and made to labor in the countryside. Uncle Guo, however, went through the turmoil of those times relatively unscathed. Such was the rural isolation of his world that self-criticism, ‘Little Red Books’ and being re-educated did not mean too much for him. He was married in 1962, and during the tumult of the 1960’s happily ignored such Party novelties as the “one child” law that struggled to keep China’s population down. Uncle Guo has six children, and in the son-centered culture of rural China daughters simply aren’t counted, even if they be many.

Uncle Guo’s sons are still in the neighborhood. Such is his skill as a farmer that, while his sons still live in the neighborhood, they only farm part-time, and do odd jobs for cash money. Their father farms full time to keep everyone going.

“Methinks there’s a genius
Roams in the mountains,
Girdled with ivory
And robed in wisteria…” Chu Yuan (Fourth century BC), The Land of Exile

That his sons, or he himself for that matter, have land to call their own may seen odd to westerners. Before the Cultural Revolution, farmers in the village had no land to call their own. They farmed state-owned farms. After the hubbub died down after 1976, farmers were one again allocated land of their own. The government requires a certain percentage of their production, but beyond that, they are free to consume or sell on the open market, the yields of their labor.

In the West, we are careful of the right of land ownership. Our county courthouses are stacked to their ceilings with years of real estate transfers, tax lists, and wills showing which family members inherited grandpa’s land. But for Uncle Guo and others in his situation in China, land ‘ownership” is not clear cut. Guo farms the same land as his ancestors, but has seen several changes in how this land is held. As a young man, he lived in the village, and was sent out to work land that the government owned, planned for, and decided what, when, and why to plant.

Since the Cultural Revolution, Uncle Guo has been given land to farm however he sees fit. He still must provide a quota of rice to the state, but beyond that he can make his own decisions about what to plant, when to harvest, and how to sell off the surplus.

“They stopped to look and saw a farmhouse with a lamp shining brightly in the window.” Wu Chengen (13th century AD), Journey to the West.

Uncle Guo lives near the village of Taishan in the county of Wanfu. His sons live close by, and he himself lives in a cement house of two floors. The ground floor is his living space. His wife, Lo Quiying, and one child live in approximately 300 square meters of floor space. The upper floor is the barn, where harvested crops are stored. A separate small building contains the kitchen and its wood fires (there is no other fuel available at present) and toilet.

We might marvel at the Chinese toilets (marvel at but not necessarily want to use!). Uncle Guo’s toilet has no flushing mechanism, but is connected to a pump which makes it easier to apply the human waste to his fields. There is no stigma or squeamishness about this. In keeping 1.2 billion people fed, fertilizer must be found and used wherever and however it occurs. Uncle Guo and many Chinese farmers now use chemical fertilizers, but use it as an addition to, not a replacement for, human dung. Keep that in mind next time you have to ‘go.’

There is another small building beside the house, a shed where the Guo family livestock are housed. In this cramped building are housed cows, pigs, chickens, ducks, geese, and the water buffalo who is responsible for most of the farm’s heavy work. The water buffalo, incidentally, does not have a name in this unsentimental world.

Although Uncle Guo’s son has gone modern enough to get hold of a tractor, the water buffalo on Uncle’s farm does most of the plowing, spring and fall. Otherwise, most of the labor of the farm is done with that useful instrument, the human back and arms. Before the 1949 Revolution, the farm produced one crop of rice per year, plus a crop of soybeans and sweet potatoes on alternating years. Since the Revolution and a new dam that brought additional water to the neighborhood, two crops of rice per year are now possible.

“Grain and cotton cloths come to us from the earth. They are produced in due season by the labor of man…” Chao Tso, (?-155 B.C.), On the Value of Agriculture

The farm comprises about eight mu [a mu is roughly 100 square meters]of land. In that space, Uncle Guo cares for a rice field, a soybean field, a vegetable garden, and the house and outbuildings. The word “farm” in our vocabulary brings up mental images of “Land, spreading out so far and wide.” In China, a farm is what a person can work, and while Uncle Guo does not mind borrowing his son’s tractor for heavy work, he and his wife and children still provide the labor for the small farm. More acreage might mean hiring laborers, and that would be too expensive.

The water buffalo provides labor for the farm in the spring and autumn as, dragging the plow for soil preparation in spring, and turning up ripe sweet potatoes in the fall. And the noise of the water buffalo must sometimes be the only sound in that rural world. At least until the TV comes on in the evenings. The family diet depends on their work that they and their animals provide. Since meat brings in money on the open market, the occasional pig or chicken that disappears is sold, not eaten. Thus, the Guo family eats a mostly vegetarian diet as a result of this fact of economics.

As in our own past, harvests are cause for celebrations, as the family gathers first as a labor force, and then sits down to a big family meal. Other celebrations occur throughout the lifecycle. Chinese New Year is celebrated with annual feasting, fireworks, and wintertime relaxation. And in this Communist, materialist state, the local farmers of Taishan are still as likely to pray to the gods at a temple as see a doctor. Buddha, like Jesus to many of our own farmers, is a sure refuge for those with medical complaints.

Weddings, too, are celebrated in traditional style. One tradition that is widespread is the dowry which must be paid by the bridegroom to his father-in-law. His parents are expected to sponsor the wedding banquet. Her parents buy the dress and wedding makeup. And on Chinese New Year, a newly married couple is expected to bring gifts of a chicken or pig, although in urban China, money has replaced the livestock.

My garden plants bring no relief from sorrow;
I advise you: never be born a woman-
Wealthy or humble, you will end sorrowful all the same…
Shen Yixiu (1590-1635), An Autumn Night in Jinling

In rural China, sad and sorry is a women’s lot. Although things are changing for the better in some areas, women are definitely considered a man’s lower, unequal partner. Although Uncle Guo’s wife works as hard on the farm as he does, she is meant to do all the childrearing plus farmwork. Even in so small a thing as mealtime sitting, women get short shrift, as male guests sit at the table and eat, expecting the women to take their places later after the men are finished.

Another difference in rural China is how funerals are celebrated. The Party decrees cremation, but in Uncle Guo’s countryside, people still uses coffins and earth burial. A rural Chinese funeral is a noisy, flamboyant affair with people wearing special clothes. Drums and cymbals are central to the funeral, as is yet another dinner for family and friends.

“No travelers came to this remote spot,
And only wild flowers bloomed before the gate.” Wu Chengen, Journey to the West.

In this essay, we can get but a glimpse of Guo Liujin and his working farm. Uncle Guo enjoys farming, just as his niece has happily tilled American soil in our small American garden. Life being what it is, I will probably never see his farm, although I’d like to meet him. I’d like to see his rice crop and meet his unnamed water buffalo. But writing is cathartic, and if sketching his life can bring me at least to the imagined hinterland of my Chinese uncle’s farm, then it’s worth the trip.

[I cannot adequately express my thanks to Guo Liujin, or to his brother, my father-in-law Guo Jinyuan. This was all made possible by Guo Jie, my wife, and an excellent gardener herself. She did most of the asking and translating for her guilo husband.]

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