SICHUAN cuisine with its uniquely numbing spicy hot flavors has conquered the taste buds of billions of diners from home and abroad. At the heart of the cuisine is a small ingredient called the Sichuan pepper or prickly-ash. Every year during the midsummer months, farmers welcome the harvest of this magical spice.
Around the middle of June, we arrived at Zhanpu Town in Fengdu County, Chongqing City, sprawling out along the southern banks of the Yangtze River. Everywhere the eye could see, the hillsides were all covered with the nine-leaf green prickly-ash trees that were laden with fragrant prickly-ash berries ripe for harvest. It was this fragrant little “green pearl” that lifted local farmers out of extreme poverty and placed them on the road to a more comfortable life.
A Farmer’s New Lease on Life
We made our way along the path recently washed by summer rains until we arrived at the house of a 53-year-old man named Zhang Jisheng. The house was situated half way up the foothills of the poor rural Baishui community. As we approached, we could see Zhang busy picking prickly-ash berries with his son in the field. On seeing us, he quickly came over and warmly ushered us into his house. Looking at his smiling face, no one could have imagined the challenges this man could have possibly endured being the only breadwinner of a poor family. Then in his thick local accent, he began to relate to us the moving and life transforming story of his family.
The mountains around Zhanpu Village in Fengdu County are covered with prickly-ash crops.
At one time, Zhang’s family consisted of four members who all lived under the same roof, namely his wife, who, due to a mental illness had lost the ability to work, his mother, who, even at 90 years of age still had to do chores around the house, and his son, who was studying in elementary school. The whole weight of supporting the family rested on Zhang’s meager earnings of RMB 2,000-3,000 which he got from growing corn every year. “In those days, our daily diet consisted of rice and corn. Meat was something we only dreamed of eating,” he recalled, “To make sure everyone else in the family got enough to eat, I often skipped a meal.” But even though he was facing such hard times, the strong man that he was, he did not ask for help from the government or extended family. In 2015, a string of tragedies struck his family beginning with his mother passing away and then his son coming down with a mental disorder. The weight of this pushed Zhang nearly to the breaking point. Zhang said, “I had lost all hope for the future. At one point, we even considered eating rat poison as a family and ending our misery once and for all.”
It was during this desperate time in Zhang Ji-sheng’s life, that he met Zhang Yuqiong, director in charge of the poverty relief work for the Baishui community. Then 48 years old, Zhang Yuqiong was an official with the Zhanpu government, who, answering the call to fight for for eradication of poverty throughout the country, took up the post of group leader stationed in the Baishui community in 2014. Along with four other team members, she visited each of the more than 900 families within one year who lived in the community. They recorded the living situation of each family and established archives for each poverty-stricken family. It was while she was carrying her work that she learned about the predicament Zhang Jisheng’s family was facing.
“When I first visited the home of Zhang Jisheng, I was dumbfounded by what I saw,” Zhang Yuqiong said as she recalled her fist visit, “There wasn’t much more than four walls in the home, and the house as a whole was in a desperate state of disrepair. The house leaked terribly when it rained, and the home had two people who suffered from mental disorders. I would say that Zhang’s family situation was the most critical in the whole community.” After she left, Zhang Yuqiong immediately reported the situation to the secretary of the local Party branch of the Beishui community, Ran Hailong. After discussion, they decided they would take quick action to help Zhang Jisheng’s family get through their trying times.
Zhang Jisheng trimming prickly-ash bushes at his home.
Soon after that, Ran Hailong applied for a basic living allowence to be granted to Zhang Jisheng’s family, providing each family member with a monthly allowence of RMB 180. Even though the amount of money was not extravegant, it did help alleviate some of the burden of Zhang’s family.
At the beginning of 2016, the community allocated a piece of land and organized workers and financial support to build a new house for Zhang’s family, completing it within one month. Zhang Yuqiong and other members of her team helped purchase furniture and other articles of daily life for the new house. Finally, they helped Zhang’s family move into their new house. Reminiscing over the experience of helping the Zhang family, Zhang Yuqiong said, “On the moving day, Zhang Jisheng was quite excited. Being a man of few words, he repeated again and again, ‘The Communist Party is so good!’”
After that, Ran Hailong hepled Zhang to plant the highly economically beneficial prickly-ash crop on 0.1 hectare of land, applied for a monthly subsidy of RMB 200 for the seriously disabled, his wife and son, and made job arrangements for Zhang to sweep the streets of the village with a monthly salary of RMB 1,700. With the rise of the monthly basic living allowence to RMB 350, the annual income of Zhang’s family is now RMB 38,000, an increase of more than 10 times the amount it was before.
When we asked Zhang what he thought about his present life, he pulled a full box of frozen pork from the refrigerator, and said grinning, “Our family is now able to eat meat at every meal. But for my health’s sake, I can’t eat too much of it.”
In last January, with the assistance of Zhang Yu-qiong and her team, Zhang Jisheng obtained a loan of RMB 30,000 to manage his plot of prickly-ash. “Since 2015, the Fengdu County government has been working together with several banks to grant poverty-stricken families in the county small loans to help them develop businesses. Over the past four years, loans reaching an amount of RMB 6.06 million have been provided to the locals of Zhanpu.” In explaining the condition of the village, the magistrate of Zhanpu Town Xiang Hailin said, “The poverty-stricken people who take out a loan only need to pay back the principal. The interest will be paid entirely by the government and the banks. In addition, the government officials working with poverty alleviation will work with the poor families, teaching them not only how to take out loans but also how to properly manage the money.”
Planting prickly-ash crops is the way used to alleviate poverty in Zhanpu Village.
Zhang Jisheng used the RMB 30, 000 to purchase fertilizer and pesticides, and hired labor. In this way, he will be able to gradually turn the prickly-ash planting into a money making business that can make a living for his family. He said he intends to pay back the bank loan in full later this year, so that the government will not have to pay too much interest.
“Presently, the family of Zhang Jisheng has basically risen above the poverty line. This was made possible by and large by the support of the CPC and government policies for poverty alleviation, as well as the individual hard work of Zhang Jisheng,” Xiang Hailin said. When talking about this change, Zhang got very emotional and said, “I could never have dreamed I would be living like I am today. The Communist Party is very good! The government leaders from the local Party branch are neither close nor distant relatives of mine, but they’ve treated me just as if we were. Whatever difficulties I might face in the future, I know I cannot give up on life, otherwise I will let them down.”
and Poverty-free Villages
“In 2014, Zhanpu Town set growing prickly-ash as the industry we were going to use to alleviate poverty, and in 2015 began growing prickly-ash on a large scale. Today the whole area is cultivating as much as 742 hectares of prickly-ash, achieving yields of more than RMB 70 million last year. This pepper industry has raised 155 of the total 261 housholds in the town out of poverty. It also shows that growing prickly-ash falls right in line with the ecological development concept raised by President Xi that ‘lucid waters and lush mountains are invaluable assets,’ for it not only protects the region of the Three Georges Reservoir but is also helping bring masses of people out of poverty,” said Xiang Hailin. Even though he has only been the town magistrate for three months, he has a clear idea of what it takes to fight aginst poverty here.
As of today, there are still 36 households with 71 people who are living in dire poverty in Zhanpu. According to Xiang, the main reason these families are living in such conditions is due to a lack of labor force in the household owing to illness. Through the policy of providing each home with a basic living allowance, these households will eventually be lifted out of poverty. “We believe that the year 2020 will see the complete alleviation of poverty in Zhanpu,” said Xiang.
Some people are concerned that when the objetive of alleviating poverty for the masses is achieved, the beneficial policies for farmers will disapear as well. Responding to this concern, Xiang said that the central government stated that it would not rescind these favorable policies after eradicating povery. In addition, after alleviation of poverty is completed, the revitalizion strategy for developing the countryside will continue to bring the countryside up to another level. “Because some people do not understand government policies, it is our duty to use practical action to continue improving their quality of life,” Xiang said.
In Xiang Hailin’s mind, there is a much higher goal to reach than just alleviating poverty according to schedule. When he first took office, he proposed the plan of achieving four aspects of beautification in Zhanpu. These include beautiful, clean houses both inside and out, beautiful tidy arrangements of villages, beautifully decorated yards with flowers and greenery, and good lifestyles of people who have cultivated good habits.”
In May of this year, the Zhanpu government gave out 10 seedlings of Chinese roses to each home in the town. It encouraged locals to decorate their yards by planting the flowers in old disposable containers that they used to throw away. “Our purpose for encouraging villagers to do this is to help them beautify the environment, as well as cultivate clean habits for a good atmosphere,” Xiang explained. He emphasized, “People who love aesthetics will pursue a higher standard of life, create a better living environment, and feel a strong desire and impetus for overcoming poverty.”
During our interviews, Xiang Hailin, Zhang Yu-qiong, Ran Hailong, and other government officials insisted that what they had done was no “earthshaking achievement.” But I belive that in the not too distant future, the results of what they have done will bring about drastic improvements to Zhanpu Town.
SHEN XIAONING is a reporter with People’s China.