Qinghe China credit Miriam Driessen
The mountain village of Qinghe in China is overgrown and perched between fields. It can only be reached by a steep climb © Miriam Driessen

The yellow of rape flowers has receded to the valleys, as has the silver of flooded rice paddies and the cream of grain fields. The purple and red of rhododendron groves that punctuate the mountain tops are as bright as before, despite the proliferating green of foliage. Terrace steps are fading away. Paths are disappearing under sprouting weeds. Directions have changed. Journeys take longer.

The lowing of cattle and the calls made to drive them to pasture grounds have hushed, as have the melodies of mountain songs. Chattering magpies and drumming woodpeckers fill the silence left by human residents who moved away. Flocks of birds now find shelter in the young trees that cover the once-cultivated landscape.

Qinghe lost most of its inhabitants to the valley. Perched between fields that are barely recognisable any more, the mountain village in the southern province of Guizhou can only be reached by a steep climb. A handful of residents remain; some by choice, others due to deprivation.

Those who are left grapple not only with unruly weeds but also with a discourse that renders their native place empty of life as well as meaning. Qinghe has been categorised, along with other shrinking mountain villages in south-west China, as uninhabitable, a classification that supports government plans to give emptying regions back to nature, tackling poverty by resettling residents.

The Chinese state is impatient. It has vowed to bring the whole society to a level of moderate prosperity by 2020, aiming to lift no fewer than 10m citizens out of poverty annually. While Qinghe’s residents await their turn to be incorporated into the country’s Targeted Poverty Relief scheme, launched in 2015, they engage with a landscape and a discourse that leaves them more and more isolated. Some suffer. Others spurn. The majority subsists.

Li Peng, one neighbour whispered, had been put under house arrest by his father, having lost the total of his family’s savings to a pyramid scam. His father was furious and still fumes when reminded of the event. Ponzi schemes spread like wildfire in China, where they ignite the imagination of young rural migrants who move to the city to earn quick money. Wealth is treacherous.

The promise of instant riches continues to tug youths to the cities. Yet gone are the times of unfettered opportunities. Moving on from the assembly line at Foxconn, away from the counter at fast-food chain Dicos or off the scooter at courier SF Express has become more challenging. Work, let alone hard work, no longer yields what it promises.

Silent about his misfortune, Li insists: “It does not make sense to go out for work.” Staying behind is his decision rather than his father’s. “You spend as much as you earn in the city. What is more, you earn someone else’s money. I prefer to make my own money.” Li is ploughing a narrow strip of land.

After more than three decades of mass migration from the countryside to the cities, Chinese typically separate the normal — the migrant — from the deviant — the non-migrant. Being left behind is a passive state, and an unfortunate one at that. Young men who choose to stay behind owe their parents, friends and neighbours an explanation.

Li resists condemnation with pride, in words as much as deeds. He is a hard worker, much like his father, who is the most productive farmer in Qinghe. The Lis are the only ones left to invest in a future in the emptying village. They are building a new cattle pen and are expanding their allotment of fir trees. In addition to their two mu (0.13 hectares) of land, they till vacant fields of former residents. Almost single-handedly, the Lis fend off wild vegetation from taking over Qinghe’s surroundings. Their neighbours fall short of strength and spirit to carry on.

There is one desire that continues to push Li to the city in the hope of earning a better income: a bride. Projecting his worries on to his son, Li’s father started raising his “personal problem” — a Chinese euphemism for involuntary bachelorhood — at New Year’s Eve, when Li turned 24. Since then, the father has brought up the topic every evening. Having married at the age of 20 himself, albeit some 30 years ago and with the help of a matchmaker, he is growing impatient.

“It is not that simple,” Li sighs. “You can’t just buy a bride in the shop. Women pick men; men are being picked. It is a women’s market.” Chinese women have lost their gentleness. They are no longer wise and kind, the virtues that distinguished traditional brides, he explains. “Women are really fickle these days.” Li jerks the plough from the agitated earth to steer it around and continue with a new lane.

Sometimes self-doubt gets the better of Li, aware as he is of the lack of marriageable women in this region and of his slim chances of convincing one to marry him. “There is no road. Our home is dilapidated. No woman wants to live up here.” He stops and looks up to the thick wall of trees that bar the view on his home. “Marriage consumes half a lifetime; you want to make sure that the circumstances you end up living in are good — not too bitter.” Li gives grudging credit to women who care about a man’s material wealth.

On the first day of the Chinese new year, the mountain comes alive. Dozing villages and sleepy fields are woken by firecrackers. It is a day on which ancestors urge their progeny to look back to where they come from.

With a mixture of melancholy and reluctance, former residents venture up the mountain, where they are met by recalcitrant vegetation. Thorny branches tear into their fashionable urban garb. Mud spoils their shiny shoes.

Old Huang and I are lazing on a rock, watching the water buffaloes fill their stomachs, as we hear voices travelling up the slope. The first to arrive is a boy, who looks up, gasps for breath, turns around, calls his parents to hurry up and proceeds unfazed. Chen De, the father, arrives with an exasperated sigh. He rolls up his pink polo shirt and sits down. His protruding belly catches pearls of sweat that drip from his forehead. “How does it feel to be back?” I try. “Tiring,” Chen cries. His body is not used to physical exercise any more. As a child, he climbed up the slope like a skittish mountain goat.

Chen’s mother is waiting for her son under the weeds that have conquered her grave. She continues to remind him of a past that he is keen to forget. Chen looks up to affluence, forward to a more prosperous future, sideways at peers to see what they have achieved. He does not look back. Looking back hurts his pride. He despises poverty, for it is haunting him, hanging on and refusing to let go.

Chen spent a good part of his youth in Qinghe until he dropped out of primary school, as so many his age did. Pursuing the promise of freedom, he followed his mates to Guangdong, the birthplace of China’s economic miracle.

Residents started turning their backs on the Guizhou mountains in the mid-1990s. Viewed as an act of breaking free rather than abandonment, migration is fuelled by a mixture of desire and angst; a desire to craft meaningful lives and angst at lagging behind in a struggle for resources. The first wave hesitated, afraid of the risks involved in migration. The second wave was confident, eager to pick the sweet, juicy fruits of development. Following the slowdown of economic growth, employment opportunities in Guangdong and other traditional migrant destinations have waned. The current wave is reluctant.

Chen met his wife “on the road to work”, as he puts it. Guiyang and Guangzhou used to be a day’s train ride apart. She was barely 15 and he 17 when they met. Two years later they got married in Qinghe. He worked on a construction site, she on an assembly line until her fingers lost their nimbleness, her eyes their sharpness. She returned home to look after the children — a burden her mother-in-law had previously borne alone.

Mother’s grave is perched on the edge of a paddy field, now tended by the Lis. Chen briskly pulls out the tussocks of grass and clumps of weeds that cover mother’s grave and tosses them to the side. He is grumpy, eager to go back home. He empties the basket and places a bowl with pork belly, apples, oranges, candies, a bottle of beer and cans of fruit juice on the grass. The children are running around. His wife burns joss paper. He lights incense sticks and handmade firecrackers — so-called “earth crackers”, long banned for being too hazardous.

Li watches from a distance. After Chen and his wife have finished the hasty ritual, he walks up and invites them to his father’s home, only to find his invitation rejected.

When the firecrackers have done their work, the mountain comes to rest again. None of the families that scaled the slope stay over for a bowl of liquor or a festive meal, not even a chat with Qinghe’s remaining residents. They anxiously turn their backs on the emptiness they have — fortunately — left behind.

Some have learnt to cope with emptiness or even come to embrace it. “I don’t move.” Old Huang turns to his wife, who is kindling the fire with dried corn cobs. “If you move away, I will stay behind to look after the buffaloes.” She remains silent, he conflicted. His sons, both in their early thirties, are unmarried. Old Huang blames himself for their marital misfortune. Were it not for his poverty, they would already have children of their own. Although he has settled on spending the remainder of his life in Qinghe, the plight of his sons, especially that of his younger rebellious one, continues to unsettle him.

A local official I spoke with before visiting Qinghe called the circumstances under which the Huangs live “primitive” and wondered whether I — a white western woman — would be able to endure life there. Backward, rustic, poor and primitive are the adjectives commonly used to describe places like Qinghe, by the state, the public and residents alike. “Life up here is too bitter. Why don’t you bring her back to the city?” a neighbour urged my host. Yet residents quietly value the lifestyle these adjectives describe.

The modern conveniences Old Huang’s eldest son bought in order to make his parents’ life more comfortable languish in storage. The electric heater produces not nearly as much warmth as the open fire and operating the washing machine without a water inlet hose is too laborious. In the chilly Guizhou winters, the Huangs tend a fire on the earthen floor in the living room and continue to do the laundry by hand outside. They wash their faces in the mornings, their feet in the evenings. A clean face brightens up the day. Warm feet guarantee a sound sleep. In summer they can bathe in mountain streams.

When his children were still in school, Old Huang joined the eager crowd after Spring Festival and packed his bags for Guangdong. These days, he stays at home. His eldest son’s government job has afforded some stability and ease of mind. He and his wife grow and raise what they need to satisfy their stomachs — rice, maize, vegetables, tea, pigs and chickens. They enrich their diet with fiddlehead — edible fern fronds — and chameleon plant from the mountains. Old Huang smokes and drinks his worries away with fresh tobacco and home-made liquor — “earth liquor”, as villagers call it.

Life on the land has become both easier and harder since “Old Mao’s time”, as villagers refer to the period under Mao Zedong. Old Huang now husks rice by machine. Before the advent of electricity in Qinghe in 2002, he used to carry unprocessed rice in 40kg sacks on a shoulder pole to a neighbouring village which, located next to a former labour camp, enjoyed electricity much earlier. The path that he and many others took has now disappeared under bamboo groves.

While electricity severed some bonds, it created others. The Huangs share their power sockets with the Hus, who still live without electricity due to a bureaucratic error. Their home is located right beneath the transmission lines that serve Qinghe. Once in a while, Old Hu comes by to charge his electric razor, and his wife to husk rice.

Fetching firewood has become easier with young trees besieging their lands. But Old Huang has lost helping hands, especially willing youthful ones. He had to hire two labourers to carry up the two stone slabs for his father’s grave. There was nobody to ask for a favour.

Everything used to be carried up the mountain without hired hands, including brides. The sedan chairs, draped in red linen and adorned with flowers, were carried by four men and accompanied by songs and chatter. Cast off as outmoded, the sedan chairs have disappeared, as have their carriers, who moved to the cities for work. Wedding ceremonies take place in restaurants and bridal processions proceed over asphalt. Few brides are now willing to move up the mountain to a rural life.

The emptiness left by those who moved away resides not only in deserted homes and fading terraces, but also in people’s minds. Emptiness is in as much as around them. Nonetheless, old Huang and his wife have found a certain contentment. They remain composed, stoic almost. Their forbearance mitigates disappointment and despair. It eases the fear of potentially being the last ones left.

Those who subsist submit to the transformations that unfold around them. They attune to a changing landscape that leaves them more secluded, more exhausted, more fragile. Despite thorny classifications that cast Qinghe as a hurdle on the path to urbanisation or a stain on the country’s grand narrative of modernisation, the restless earth continues to give colour to their lives.

Miriam Driessen, an anthropologist at the University of Oxford, is one of the runners-up in the 2018 Bodley Head/FT essay competition. The winner will be announced later this month

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