Roger, Liu and I left China Daily every Saturday at 8am and wound our way across various freeways until we reached the North 6th Ring Road on which we headed to the northwest tip of greater Beijing.
On both sides of the ring road, fearsome-looking power stanchions glared down at us. In China, power stanchions are given creative designs. Some reflect the tiered architecture of traditional roofs; others look like elegant line drawings of human faces. I was impressed: power stanchions with Chinese characteristics.
As we left the city we passed a large military base on the left and, on the right, a typical Chinese recreation of a famous foreign building, this time the Capitol in Washington. It turned out to be Beijing Geely University. Geely is a huge Chinese international auto manufacturer.
Like most huge cities, Beijing’s outskirts could be dusty and drab – a mix of small farm plots, mechanics shops and messy building sites. Occasionally there was a huge industrial complex or a sprawling residential estate in mock English Tudor or European chalet style.
Instead of heading north to Badaling – the most touristy Great Wall spot - we went west off the ring road into a mountain range that runs north-south along the western side of Beijing. The views on the winding mountain road were spectacular. Perfectly clear skies and clean country air. On some days, we looked back through a gap in the mountains and saw a thick brown cloud of pollution pressing down on distant Beijing.
After crossing the border into Hebei province we soon came to Zhenbiancheng, the largest of the five villages. It had a population of about 850 mostly elderly people, two shops opposite each other on the main corner and an easily missed guesthouse on the hillside at the back.
A crumbling wall ran around three sides of Zhenbiancheng, with the back sections set on hills overlooking the houses. On the eastern side of 415 County Road was a row of houses and behind them what looked like an ancient flat riverbed, which ran for about 15 kilometres through this area. Hills rose up to the mountains on both sides. Along the riverbed low stonewalls divided the land into small agricultural plots, growing mostly walnuts and soybean.
At the village entrance were a new tower, gate and wall, like the few ancient gates in central Beijing that Mao did not pull down. To Westerners, these renovations can look tacky but the Chinese have been renovating buildings for thousands of years and, with the quality of materials and workmanship, they soon look authentic.
The sign on the wall at the village entrance:
A brief introduction to Zhen Bian Cheng
The name Zhen Bian Cheng meant “a town guarding the border of the Great Wall” during the Ming Dynasty. The town was built in 1520 between two mountain peaks, but was destroyed by flood. A few decades later, a new town was built to the west of the original place. It was called New Zhen Bian Cheng. Centuries ago it used to be a checkpoint for entering Beijing. It is now a key cultural relics protection unit. During the war against the Japanese, the governments of three counties — Changping, Wanping and Huailai — were all based there. The first branch of the Communist Party of China in Huailai county, Hebei province, was also established there. The new town was built with stones not bricks. The three city gates — in the East, South and North — were made of wood. Apart from the regular shape of the East wall, the walls on the other sides were irregular, following the contours of the mountains. There was a drum tower in the center of the village, and three turrets along the west wall. There were two barbicans at the north and south gates and a gateway at the south end. There was a stone tablet carried by a stone turtle at the north gate. There were three streets, six roads and 72 alleys in the village. There were 13 (Buddhist) temples and some well-preserved traditional courtyard houses. In the town there are 306 households, 861 residents and 80 Party members. The main source of income for local villagers is the production of walnuts and almonds. The Party branch of Zhen Bian Cheng has long been an outstanding branch in Huailai county.
Most villagers were 70 or older. This was typical of rural communities all over China. The young people leave home to study and work in the cities and don’t return. The mass urbanization of modern China, the largest urbanization in human history. The old people are left in their villages, where they’ve seen far more dramatic history than my country – white-colonised Australia – has seen in 240 years. And through it all, they’ve kept their heads down, worked the fields and fed themselves and their children. Very few have been able to grow any extra food to sell. Water is scarce here and they can only grow corn, walnuts and soybean. Without having had government jobs, most received a very small pension, if at all.
The two corner shops acted as the town square, the place where many people sat to smoke and chat. In winter they gathered in front of one shop in the winter sun. In summer, many moved across the street to the other shop where there was shelter from the heat.
On my second visit, a few men asked me something and I heard Liu answer “liu shi yi” – 61, my age. It seemed to be the first thing the villagers wanted to know. They’d tell me their age and ask mine as soon as we met. They seemed proud to have made it into their 70s and beyond. As poor farmers, they had proven that they could grow enough food to live to an old age. In an area with low rainfall that during their lifetimes had been affected by wars, famine and revolution, they had every right to be proud of their longevity.
During my third visit to the village, Zhao Ying invited us to her house for tea, and while we were there a woman I’d noticed at the shop looking at the prints I'd brought turned up and showed me a small battered photo of herself dated March 28, 1967 - the early days of the Cultural Revolution. I put it on a chair in the other room and copied it. When I returned it to her she was asking Roger something. “Bu, bu,” (“No, no”) he said. He told me she’d asked how much I’d charge.
A week later we dropped in to Zhenbiancheng for 10 minutes to hand out some photos. I’d had an A4 print done of the restored photo of Cheng Jingrui in 1967 (she was 20 at the time) but I couldn’t see her among the people sitting and chatting outside the shop.
I pulled out the photo and someone called her. She came out of the shop in a second and was speechless, stunned by the restored photo. I was on the street so she was a metre above me on the shop step. In the end, she stood square on to me, feet together, and bowed. “Xie xie,” (“Thank you”) she said slowly and formally. I said “Bukiqi” (“You’re welcome.”)
Everyone was impressed by the print. Some villagers gave me serious thumbs-up. Then another woman handed me a tiny old black and white photo and I nodded. Soon, two more women appeared with old photos.
Interview with Cheng Jingrui and Li Qinghai
April 5, 2014
Cheng Jingrui and Li Qinghai have two children, a daughter and a younger son. That was common in rural areas. When a couple have a daughter first they will invariably have a second child in the hope of getting a son. The daughter lives in Beijing, the son in Xuanhuai, Hebei province.
Cheng Jingrui: “I was born in 1946. I grew up in Zhenbiancheng and have lived here all my life. I’ve been to Beijing once, to get a photograph taken of myself in March 1967, before I got married. My husband, Qinghai, was born and grew up in the Mentougou district of Beijing. Our parents were farmers.
I went to primary school in the village but I dropped out in grade 5 because I found it boring. I was a teenager during the Great Leap Forward, when agriculture was collectivised. At that time we worked in production teams. We didn’t cook very often because all the members of the production teams ate in the village canteen.
There used to be a bell tower in the village. Its ring was so strong that it could be heard from miles away. The bell tower was torn down to produce steel during the Great Leap Forward, when people were encouraged to produce steel by using whatever means they could. The roads in the village used to be stone, but they were torn up at that time and replaced with cement roads. In those years I had pigtails down to my knees.
We grow corn, millet, yams, broomcorn and soybeans. We can’t grow most vegetables or fruit because there’s not enough water in the area. We eat whatever we grow, and we often have to buy food from outside because we can’t always grow enough to feed ourselves.
During the Cultural Revolution, we farmed to gain credits and used those credits to earn wages in production teams. I earned about 0.4 yuan a day, and I was in the top rank of workers in the production team.
I think life is much better now because of the good policies of the government. Now old people can enjoy a ‘minimum wage’ so they don’t have to worry too much about their life.”
Li Qinghai: “When I was young I heard stories about the Japanese invasion. The Japanese army occupied the village from 1937 to 1945, I think. I remember seeing bullet and cannon holes in the village gate that happened during the invasion. The Japanese tortured and killed some villagers, and forced many into slave labour to build roads and other projects.
There used to be 13 Buddhist temples in the village but they were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. During that time there were struggle sessions in the village but not that many. At the struggle sessions some ‘bad people’ were insulted, beaten in public and forced to admit their mistakes. Most of them were landlords.”
Interview by Wen Jia