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Filming the End of Poverty

2023-05-05 15:10:00 Source:China Today Author:ROBERT WALKER
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It is impossible for most of us to imagine the anguish of poverty. Likewise, few of us understand why poverty is so difficult to eradicate. 

Stills from Rooting, a documentary narrating how people in Shawa Village, located deep in the mountains of Nujiang Lisu Autonomous Prefecture, Yunnan Province, were lifted out of poverty. [Photos provided to China Today] 

Rooting, a documentary directed by Chai Hongfang that premiered in Beijing in April 2023, aids our imagination. So, too, does Farewell to Poverty, directed by Lu Guanghua and released in 2020. 

Imagine the village of Shawa perched high on Biluo Snow Mountain in Yunnan Province. It is 2017. The 343 families, members of the Nu ethnic community, reside in traditional wooden houses, cooking on open fires. There is still no road to Shawa, just a narrow mountain track that takes two hours to scale by foot or mule. The paddy fields, to which villagers typically leave at sunrise, are an equal distance away, their retaining walls sculpted by hand each year from mountain soil. In spring, they form a precarious patchwork of reflective waters laced with the bright green of newly planted seedlings. This is where the story told in Rooting begins. 

Xiaohuagou Village, 2,682 kilometers away in Shanxi Province in the Lüliang Mountains, already has a road; the town of Shuiyuguan is some 11 kilometers away. Farewell to Poverty opens with Jia Huanrong, a 53-year-old shepherd, walking up a barren hillside path weighed down by two buckets of river water, a carrying pole across his shoulders. He lives in a yaodong – a single tunnel-like room carved into the loess hillside – that he shares with his 80-year-old mother.  (Virtually every house in Xiaohuagou is a yaodong, ‘cave dwellings’ made either of earth or stone.)  Huanrong’s mother is largely housebound, spending her days in the semi-darkness lying on a kang (bed) that half-fills the room, wrapped up against the biting cold.    

Shepherding 45 sheep, Huanrong can organize his working day to provide three meals for his mother that he cooks over an open fire. Water being scarce, bathing is rare, and washing up after meals is necessarily an art-form, rinsing every utensil from a single soup bowl of water. 

Huanrong has a son away at college, but his wife left years ago ostensibly due to the remoteness and poverty of the village. This, it appears, is a common occurrence. It happened to both sons of elderly villager Wang Quisheng who, with his wife, looks after the two grandchildren left behind. Quisheng drives them down the hill to the school each morning with all the other village children crammed into the back of his noisy three-wheeled truck. While children abound, most of their parents live as migrants in distant towns and cities, leaving the village ‘hollowed out’ with few villagers making a viable living from the dusty yellowish soil. 

With per capita annual disposable income being a mere RMB 6,000, Xiaohuagou is arguably the poorest village in Kelan County. Local officials have therefore decided that, for ‘a better life,’ the villagers all need to move to live in the town. This also allows for industrial restructuring and for the county to eradicate poverty as President Xi Jinping urged it to do when he visited Kelan in June 2017. 

For a multitude of reasons, villagers do not want to relocate despite being told that they will receive a new heavily subsidized apartment, cheaper access to healthcare, the possibility of social assistance, and compensation paid on demolition of their home. Cui Jianliang, the village head, reflects the views of older villagers: “Our ancestors’ graves are still here.  We will be back here as well after we have died. Even though the old cave is so poor, we still don’t want to leave because it’s the place to call home.”   

Wang Quisheng speaks of the fears of many: “Frankly speaking, we peasants are dependent on the land. I’m afraid we are not able to survive in town, to live. How can we live without it [land]?  That’s the biggest concern. Things are different in town. We need money for food, for vegetables, for everything!” His wife adds: “We don’t have any land in town. We are too old to find a job. How can we make a living?”   

Another woman, crying profusely, raises practical issues: “I borrowed money to buy those sheep. If I leave, can I get enough money to pay the debt? I am not able to read. The only thing that I can do is raise sheep.” 

The poverty alleviation officer responsible for Xiaohuagou, understanding the villagers’ concerns, requests that they be allowed to stay only to be rebuffed by his seniors: “You become the one who drags people’s feet.” Only through encouraging the village head to set an example, by moving out and to see his house demolished, is the opposition finally quelled. 

Villagers in Shawa, led by Adengyan who is younger, emotional and articulate, also resist moving: “The government wants us to relocate but we wish to develop our home village because we have so many memories here... My most desperate request is to pave the road. Without a paved road, there won’t be a future here.” 

The immediate problem to be addressed is land that is left idle. With the policy of returning farmland to forest, growing corn as traditionally done is prohibited; the recommendation instead being to farm Sichuan pepper and urn orchid (used as a medicinal herb) under walnut trees. Given that trees take 10 years to mature, villagers lack strategy as to how to use the land in the interim. The problem is solved by poverty alleviation officers bringing in agricultural expertise and villagers begin planting millet.