Where I was going wasn’t even on the maps – well, not in my ‘Oxford Concise World Atlas’ it wasn’t. I’d brought the atlas with me when I left the UK for China in 1995. A year later I tried to use it to see where I was going and failed. What neither the publishers of the Oxford atlas nor I knew, at that time, was that the place I was heading for would cease to exist a few years later.
It’d taken me over six months of badgering government officials to get permission to where I was going, as the area was restricted to foreigners. The usual reason given for that was that the area was not suitable and too ‘rough’ for the soft lifestyles that us foreigners had become accustomed to. The conditions of my permission were that I could not photograph any of my route from the main town to where I was going, couldn’t write about it and couldn’t take any photographs of the villages or of the people. As you see, that no longer applies so I’m now able to write this and share the photos.
I was in Xiamen, which is on the south east coast of China in Fujian province, and I was heading to Xiapu where I’d already been a few times before. Xiapu is on the north east coast of Fujian but the Oxford Atlas didn’t know that. From there, I was heading into the mountains and to a few areas where no other Caucasians have ever been before. I was the first white man to be seen there. ‘The Dr Livingstone of China’ was how my worried mum described me to her friends when I told her of my tales.
The trip from Xiamen to Xiapu took 16 hours in a beaten up bus. As I boarded it there was a smell that could have been one-day-old vomit or one-week-old fish. It was probably both. An overnight stay in what Xiapu classed as a hotel and then it was up into the mountains. I say mountains but I’ve never been clear on what constitutes a mountain and what makes it just a hill.
At 9am I met with Liu Xiu Zhen, who I called Susan, and her husband. They were with Lei Mei Li (who I always called Mei Li) whose village, called Nui Zhai, we were going to in the mountains. I’d met Mei Li the previous year and in order to continue her education (she was one of the brightest students in the Xiapu No.1 Minority Middle School) and to prevent her from an early marriage and a life of planting rice and vegetables, I’d offered to pay for her high school education for the next 3 years.
Mei Li belonged to the Chinese minority people of the Shê Zu (Zu means ethnic group of which there are 56 recognised in China). The Shê reside in the south of China, mostly in Fujian province. In Xiapu district, which is mostly occupied by the Han Chinese majority, the Shê population is less than 5%.
Susan, who was Li Mei’s English teacher, was to be my translator and chaperone. She would tell me what to do, how to behave and when to stop taking photographs.
On a previous trip to Xiapu I’d visited three villages where I was told that as far back as anyone knew, no white person had ever been there before. Of course, I felt a whole mix of emotions knowing that I was lucky enough to be that first white person to go there.
At 9:30 we boarded a small local bus that was to take us to Chang Chun. The day was very, very hot. One man had loaded a medium-sized refrigerator onto the bus; others had luo kuang (those baskets which dangle from each end of a long, bamboo pole, called bian dan); others had children and shopping of crabs and seafood. One had a small pig in a sack and there were several women with live chickens. About thirty people and their goods were squeezed unbelievably onto the 20-seater bus.
The road to the tiny town of Chang Chun was pot-holed, dusty and rough. We arrived about an hour later and Mei Li went off to find her father who’d come down the mountain to guide us back up. While we were waiting there was a bit of a stir in the town. It was because of me. The word was around that a foreigner was in town. The whole place came to stare at me, but they were all friendly. Some thought I was a woman because of the long hair I had then. Some said I was a barefoot doctor and others that I must be a soldier (you figure that out).
Li Mei didn’t find her father but took us to a house where she thought her father might be. When we got there, her father and about thirty other people were waiting to meet us. There then followed a long discussion on whether I was fit enough to make the long mountain climb to the village. The father thought I was not, some others, including me, disagreed. I was quite insistent that I could do it. Li Mei’s father was crippled in one leg; Li Mei is a 17 year-old schoolgirl and they were worried about me? Eventually, I won but only on condition that I carried an umbrella to keep off the sun. I accepted the umbrella but was damned if I was going to use it. We started off the mountain climb in the blazing heat of early afternoon.
The path to the village was very narrow, one person wide, steep and occasionally hazardous but the scenery was worth it. I wondered how people could grow so many crops so high up and so far away from anywhere. But they did. Rice was grown using the plateau system but other crops were also produced, such as huge watermelons.
The going up the mountain was slow, probably for my benefit. It was so hot that every time I passed water, even a trickle, I soaked my handkerchief in it and covered the back of my neck. About half way there we stopped for a rest and Mei Li’s father started tugging and pulling at some clods of earth. When he’d finished, the hole revealed a huge watermelon, which he cut up for us and was as welcome as it was delicious.
Stupidly, I stated that I didn’t realise that watermelons grew so deeply in the ground. Mei Li laughed and told me that in the summer the villagers would bury watermelons on their way down the mountain to refresh themselves on the way back up.
The journey took us just under two hours and when we finally came upon Nui Zhai village it seemed to appear out of nowhere. We turned a bend and there it was, nestled in a tiny valley between some close mountain peaks.
The village or a hamlet, I suppose, housed 57 people. They lived in two buildings and the other dozen or so were kept for animals and storage of crops. Most of the buildings were wattle and daub style constructions with the two houses made with stone. Some of the buildings had tiled roofs. There was no electricity and no running water.The village shared a single toilet, which was a hole in the ground, next to the pigsty, covered by three planks. The middle one was pulled aside to reveal where to aim.
The hamlet kept a few water buffalo, some pigs, hens and a few geese. Water was drawn from a well about a quarter of a mile away and carried up in two buckets on a bamboo pole.
The habitable buildings were dark inside but very airy. At each end of the long house was an open kitchen area. Basically, they were stone built stoves about waist height with a space below for feeding in wood to burn. Mostly the children did this. Cooking was done on top of this in huge woks.
Along the back wall were 6 bedrooms of wooden walls daubed in mud. The ceilings were high but between the bedroom ceiling and the house roof was the area where the children slept.
As I arrived in the village, the children ran away, many of them screaming. They were not used to seeing foreigners, who looked so very different from them that they thought I was some kind of monster. I spent about an hour trying to play with them and it took that long for the bravest boy to run behind me, poke with me a finger and then run away again.
Mei Li’s father was the head man of the village and he’d prepared the dinner for that night. He’d killed the fatted calf, well, fatted pig and a goose for the meal and as we sat down to dinner I noticed that only a small group of the villagers had joined us.
One half of the house cooked at one of the stoves and the others on the stove at the other end of the house. Only those who belonged to our stove were allowed to eat at our feast. I felt a bit guilty as I looked at the faces of the children not at our table and when I tried to offer then some food, Susan kicked me under the table and shook her head. Another custom I never came to understand.
At one point during the dinner, a water buffalo started to come in through the open door. He probably had a penchant for a bit of goose but he was shooed out by the children. Ten minutes later the buffalo came back but this time tried in reverse gear. As his rear end entered the room, the kids pushed him out again but then he stopped over the threshold and deposited a helping of dung to let us know what he thought of it all.
After dinner, as always, there was a lot of food left over. The villagers lit some paraffin lamps. Susan asked me if I wanted to climb to the top of the mountain, which I guessed wasn’t very far as we were already quite high up. So, off we went with a few battery torches into the freshest night air I’d experienced for years. Mei Li and a few of the other children joined us.
When we got to where we were going, we sat in a circle and looked at the night sky, which was more stars than darkness. There was no light pollution to spoil the view. Then Susan started singing and before long we were all at it. She later told me that it’d always been a dream of hers to sing from a mountain top – shades of ‘The Sound of Music” if you ask me.
There, I learned that the Shê are famed for their singing and that it’s a crucial part of their culture. They use song to pass down stories, to compete with each other, even to discuss farming and weather events and mostly to enjoy.
When we got back to the village, the head man told me how difficult their lives were and how for more than 10 years he’d been asking the local government to move them to the foot of the mountain to improve their lives but he’d received no response. Only the very best of the village’s children could go to school as it was too far away for them to attend and for those that did go, the village needed to find a family to house them during the week and that cost money that they couldn’t afford. He asked me if I could help.
The villagers of Nui Zhai would rather their village was by these trees…
That night I was honoured by being given the head man’s bedroom. He wouldn’t accept my protests and I was pushed into a room which had mud walls, one of which held a Chinese calendar; high ceilings; a small, bedside, bamboo table which held an ashtray and a single candle, a naked bamboo bed and no mattress. The candle was already lit.
I lay on the hard bamboo bed in my shorts and T-shirt and lit a cigarette. I knew that on the other side of the ceiling, the village children were sleeping. Before I was half way through the cigarette I noticed a huge spider on the ceiling. It was directly above my feet and if it dropped down my feet were going to be it’s landing base. I wasn’t sure if it was dangerous but it was big enough if it decided to be. I thought of grabbing my shoe and trying to kill it, but I was worried I’d wake the kids. So I just watched and watched. I didn’t want to go to sleep until I knew what the spider was planning.
Two or three cigarettes later there was a gentle tap on the door, followed by the head man opening it and looking at me. He crept into the room and looked at the candle. Then he nudged me and pointed to his eye in the universal sign of watch. Then, he licked his forefinger and thumb and used them to put out the candle.
I chuckled to myself when I realised that he thought that I didn’t know how to turn the candle out. Imagine, over next few days when he met the people from the town and villages, how he told them about having an Englishman to stay who didn’t even know how to put out a candle.
I don’t know what happened to the spider, as he wasn’t there the next morning. Perhaps he was afraid of the dark.
The following morning I was woken at 4.30am for breakfast that was the remains of what we hadn’t eaten the night before. When I questioned why we had to leave so early they told me that they were concerned about my health in having to go down the mountain in the heat of the day. The fact that I’d come up the mountain at the hottest part of the day wasn’t factored into this. I quickly understood that the real reason they wanted us to leave so early was because as honoured guests they need to attend to us as long as we were there. That meant that they couldn’t work and that cost them money that they just couldn’t afford. So we left around 5:30am.
Li Mei’s mother joined us on our 1.5 hour journey down the mountain to do her daily shopping in Chang Chun. I thought of her having to climb back up the mountain with her supplies before starting her work in the rice fields. On the way down we met another villager coming back up. He was carrying a bian dan (long bamboo pole) with two luo kuang (buckets) and in the buckets were two children, his children. They’d already done the trip down the mountain and supplied their produce of fruit and vegetables to the street sellers in Chang Chun.
It’d been arranged for me to meet the town leaders – the mayor, the Communist Party Secretary, the Chief of Police and a few others – for some morning tea. During the meeting I brought up the subject of moving Nui Zhai to the bottom of the mountain and asked why they’d never had any answers to their 10 years of requests. The mayor told me that officially the village didn’t exist. Because it was so remote it wasn’t counted in the censuses and therefore they didn’t pay taxes and therefore they weren’t on the local government registers. Mmmm. Bit of a problem to solve.
A few month’s later, a journalist approached me from the province capital of Fuzhou who wanted to write an article about me sponsoring the education of some Shê students. It ended up being a two-page spread with photos. The next time I met with the government officials in Chang Chun, the newspaper article was the main discussion point. I quickly figured out that they would like one, too. So, we agreed a plan where the village would be moved down the mountain and I get some good publicity for the wonderful government officials of Chang Chun.
The next time I went to Nui Zhai it was in the company of two journalists and a photographer. I still wasn’t allowed to write or photograph the place then but Chinese journalists could.
A few months later I was back but this time the mayor of Chang Chun insisted that I had lunch with him. Mei Li and her father were there, too. After lunch the mayor took us to the edge of the town and indicated four separate points. Those were to be the boundaries of where the new village of Nui Zhai would be. In the middle of the area were two wonderful twin trees on the edge of a small lake. It was idyllic.
I looked around and then picked up a small stone. Turning my back to the trees and the lake, I threw the stone. It hit the wall of the local school. The school where the children of Nui Zhai would be going very soon. I was almost in tears.
A week or so before the next Chinese New Year, the whole village moved to the bottom of the mountain. Mei Li’s father, who was partially crippled, gave up farming and opened a small shop in Chang Chun. Today, all those villagers and their children live in good stone houses and the children get educated and so will their children and grandchildren.
About a year later, the villagers sent Mei Li to meet me in Xiamen. She came to ask me how to write my name in Chinese. I then learned that the villagers had placed a large rock at the entrance to the new village and wanted to carve into it the story of how the foreigner came to help them and caused the village to be moved. She wanted my name in Chinese so they could put it into the story on the rock. I refused to allow that but told her that they should just build me and the story into one of their songs. “Oh, we did that a long time ago,” she told me.
You can still find Nui Zhai on Google Earth but there’s nothing there now. Perhaps I should tell them that.
I count this as one of the greatest achievements of my life and I’m so proud and fortunate to have been able to be a part of it.
Much more by this author on his very thoughtful website.
Copyright © 2015 Scott Ballantyne