Swapping Stories with Old Chinese Peasants

My friend's Er Bobo 二伯伯, or second eldest paternal uncle, and his wife

For Mid-Autumn festival, I was lucky enough to get the chance to tag along with an ARDY volunteer on his trip back to his home village to see family. Though his parents no longer live in the village, I met the volunteer’s Da Bobo 大伯伯, his father’s oldest brother, as well as his Er Bobo, or “second” elder uncle, as well as their wives. Both were in their early seventies, and, my friend insisted, had far exceeded the average life expectancy in China due to the pristine environment. They lived with their wives in homesteads just few dozen meters apart from one another. As we approached on foot from where the bus had let us off on the side of the road, I saw that each of them, man and woman alike, wore loose-fitting navy blue Maoist-era suits. Urban Chinese, even in a town as small as Jincheng, have abandoned the old uniform in exchange for the endless diversity of color and style now being produced by Chinese factories. However, old habits die hard for the rural generation who grew up under Mao. Many older peasants still wear the suits which, as my friend pointed out, have deep pockets and are quite functional for farm work.

At 73 and 75, my friend’s uncles had lived through tremendous periods of upheaval in the last century. As somewhat of a history nerd, I was eager to learn more about their experiences, but reluctant to ask questions about what I knew were periods of intense hardship. Luckily, Da Bobo 大伯伯 was more than happy to talk about them, and I listened enthralled to his stories, which my friend helped me translate from rustic Sichuanese into Mandarin. Though only 17 at the time, Da Bobo volunteered for the army after China entered the Korean War. I was quick to point out that my grandfather, my only relative eligible at the time to serve in the war, had deliberately joined the coast guard to avoid seeing combat.

Da Bobo's 大伯伯 home and adjoining fields

Bobo went on to describe his experience in the Great Leap Forward. While official government propaganda declared that collectivized agriculture should be able to produce 100,000 jin 斤 (50,000 kg) from every mu 亩 (1/16 of an acre) of land, all of the peasants knew that one mu of land could at most produce 1,000 jin. The massive famine that swept the country during the Great Leap Forward killed 70 people out of their small village of 1,000, including four in one family. In 1961, the last and worst year of the famine, their nine-member family was allotted only 3 jin of grain for each two month period. However, as my friend explained to me, due in large part to Bobo’s untiring efforts as patriarch of the family helped to keep all nine members alive.

Conditions have changed a lot since then. My friend is fortunate enough to come from a family that is relatively prosperous by rural Chinese standards, with several family members who have become public officials. Da Bobo 大伯伯 still collects 370 RMB a month from the government as compensation for his military service. Despite having more than enough money to live off of, however, they continue to spend some of their time in farm work. When we went to meet Da Bobo the first day we arrived we found him in out weeding in his field, wielding a heavy hoe. Though comfortably retired, my friend explained to me, they are simply too accustomed to agricultural labor, and would not know how to spend their time otherwise.

The shallow valley where both of my friend's elder uncles live and farm

My friend's Da Bobo 大伯伯 , or eldest uncle, and his wife. When I asked to take their picture, they both rushed into the house to change into clean clothes.


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One Response to “Swapping Stories with Old Chinese Peasants”

  1. Mimi Behar Says:

    Amazing stuff–thank you SO much for writing about all this!!

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