One family, four generations watch a nation transform itself
IN HER 91 YEARS living in Taishi, a village a little less than two hours from Beijing, Feng Shuwen’s even gaze has taken in a China in transformation, from the early, ill-fated days of the republic, when women still had bound feet and the Qing dynasty had crumbled only a decade earlier, to the doomed Kuomintang rule of Chiang Kai-shek.
From Taishi she watched the Japanese invaders arrive and eked a living through a terrible war that left bitter scars, until the country fell into civil war before the communist revolution of 1949. China is still a communist country, but the prevailing ethos is a freewheeling mix of socialism and capitalism. Even though many in the village have cars these days, she has never visited the capital.
“I’ve never been to Beijing and I don’t want to go. Why would I go?” she asks, and laughs. Feng wears her hair in a short bob, swept back off her face, and a heavy dark jacket.
We are in the family’s farmhouse, with large windows looking on to a courtyard, 30km from the township of Miyun, to the northeast of Beijing. Taishi has about 2,000 villagers, but it feels like fewer. Here in the dust, with chickens running around, the capital feels a long way away.
This county is home to some of the most spectacular sections of the Great Wall, especially Simatai, which has many well-preserved watchtowers. The family lives in the shadow of the wall near the Watching Beijing Tower, which is at an elevation of 986m and from which you can supposedly see the lights of Beijing, 120km away. And she still hasn’t been to the capital.
Her son Lei Chunyou, who is 62, has just come back from the fields, wearing a striped shirt, People’s Liberation Army trousers and plimsolls. He offers cigarettes, and is disappointed when I decline. “Dont worry about your health; smoking is no problem,” he says. He places one beside me, just in case.
His priority, as he wipes himself down after working in the fields, is that we bring eggs to the city. These are mountain-raised “organic” eggs, he says. Such concepts are not alien, even in rural China, these days.
Like the cigarettes, the eggs are thrust on us. They sell for 100 yuan (€12.60) a box. The level of hospitality is intense.
The family used to have three bits of land, but two went to the local village: in China, all land still belongs in theory to the government, although many choice parcels have been sold to developers, and agriculture still has strongly collective elements.
“We have 19 chickens. Both of us used to farm, and we grow corn,” he says, pointing to the corn drying outside. His wife, Wang Fengying, nods. Also 62, born shortly after liberation in 1949 when the communists came to power, she is very happy with the conditions they have, especially in the past 30 years of opening up and reform, for which they thank Deng Xiaoping and the Communist Party.
“Government policy is good for us farmers. Every month we get a pension,” she says. She gets 250 yuan (€31.40); her husband and mother-in-law each get about 300 yuan (€37.70).
The two farmers bustle around the small room where the family lives. It has a chicken run in the back, and stacks of fuel. There is a painting of the youngest son, Lei Junhong, in Shanghai. There is a daughter too, a dentist in Miyun.
“We thank President Hu Jintao and the Communist Party for these decent pensions, which help us live a good life,” Wang says. “About 30 years ago, when I was 30, it was much harder to live. There were 10 of us living together, and I had a lot of work to do every day.
“There is just no comparison with today – the food we have, the clothes. I used to have one set of clothes that I had to wash every day after work. Now I have clothes to spare.” As if to prove her point, she wears a smart green knitted jacket with a floral pattern, and a cheerful orange polo neck.
Modernity has crept into Taishi, not flooded in. Much of the power for the household comes from a solar panel outside the building, and there is a large television in the corner. Neighbours all seem to have mobile phones. But there is still a sense of surprise at this transformation. Lei tells of how, back in the day, at Spring Festival, or Chinese Lunar New Year, people were given a kilo of rice.