Who Are They?


Joan, a girl, and Mount, a boy, were middle school classmates. And they are classmates now in high school. Actually they were in different classes for the first term of high school, Mount with me and Joan in another class. At the beginning of the second term, all the original classes were broken up, the students re-mixed, and new classes formed. Joan joined my new class for her good academic achievements. Luck has brought the two of them once again into one class.


Joan and Mount are from the same township in Danjiangkou. Their depiction of the hometown in their journals paints a picture in which there are mountains, forests, streams and a big reservoir where their folks live. People there lead a typically bucolic lifestyle.


Joan’s Siblings


Joan took her audience by surprise during the course of her talk. I asked her how many brothers and sisters she had got. Her answer was four. Her parents have five children.


A family of five kids is exceptional in today’s China because of the national ‘one child for one family’ policy. The audience looked at her, mouths agape.


But it is true. She is the third of the five kids. The oldest sister is already working somewhere in the country to help support the family. The second sister is a high school student at Danjiangkou No 1 High School. She is a high schooler here with us. Under her are a pair of twins—a boy and a girl. Probably the mom gave birth to a kid every other year or every third year. Joan is one year older than the twins and one year younger than the sister immediately above her.


We asked Joan why her parents reared so many kids. She said she did not know.


“Do you think boys are more valuable than girls?” I asked.


“No, of course not,” she replied.


Sibling rivalry is there. When she is back home, there is fighting among them. “I abuse my younger brother very much,” said Joan.


What a big family! We can imagine what life her parents are living, with all the mouths to feed and all the living expenses to cover, let alone the resources with which to put the kids in school.


“You have a great mother. And I respect your parents,” I found myself making the comment at the end of her talk.


Joan’s Childhood on the Farm


It was a hard and frugal existence. Joan often helped the family with farm chores. The mother had her and her siblings work in the fields, weeding or harvesting. They toiled in the scorching sun. They sweated, and their backs suffered from bending over the crops for a long time. And they were not allowed to go back home without finishing the tasks.

rustic china 01 

However, her childhood had no shortage of fun. Joan grazed the family bull on the hillsides. She enjoyed riding the animal as it was eating its way around. The highlight of the childhood was to stay in the open air after supper on a summer night. Joan and her siblings were treated to all kinds of sounds of nature. Beasts were howling in the forests. Insects were competing in a singsong contest. And the murmur of a stream flowing in the distance occasionally drifted to their ears with the breeze. They were enjoying the cool and music from the wild world. I bet they had a sweet dream every night.


Money was tight in the family. The mother did not give any pocket money to the kids who lived at home. However, when Joan’s eldest sister went to middle school, the mother gave one yuan to the girl as her weekly allowance. The girl did not spend the money on herself, though. Instead, she bought a snack and brought it home on the weekend. The snack was shared among the siblings. Joan wrote in the journal that although each of them got just a few morsels, they were basking in the joy and love.


Mount’s Ideal

picking chry 01 

Mount has a dream. He said that he would live the way Tao Yuanming, an ancient Chinese poet, did. “The human world is dirty,” Mount said. Tao is believed to have lived where there was no suffering and no sin. The poet turned down a position his emperor offered him. Instead he opted to live in the country as a hermit all his life, free from worries of the royal court. One line of his poetry goes, “Picking chrysanthemums at the Eastern Hedge, I raise my eyes; the Southern Mountains are over there in the distance.”


There is a classic tale written by Tao about a paradise-like world. The place is called shi wai tao yuan in Chinese. In the story, a fisherman was fishing on a stream when accidentally his boat took him to a village where he had never been before. It was almost heaven. People there lived by farming. Neighbours were friendly with each other. There was no fighting, no hatred, and no evil. Life there was perfect. In that world, peach blossoms were everywhere. Hence the name shi wai tao yuan—literally ‘a peach-blossom paradise beyond the human world’.


I wondered for some time why Mount the boy wished to live such a life.


Why Is Mount Black?


Mount is ethnic Han Chinese. We Chinese are known to be yellow-skinned. However, Mount is darker skinned than the other students. That’s why we dub him Mr Africa. It is a joke on him. He does not mind it.


When Mr Africa was in middle school, he and his pals went on fishing trips in the summer vacation. There are rivers and lakes in his hometown. His fishing trips were long; they left home in the morning and came back in the evening. And there were occasions when they did not come back home for days in a row. Their parents were too busy to bother. Where did the boys stay on the trips then?


Mount and his buddies built a hut as a temporary shelter on the river bank. They stayed there on their fishing trips. They slept in the hut at night. Every day was spent swimming, diving, sunbathing, fishing and lying in the shade of a forest. The river teemed with fish. And some fish were big. Mount recalled that a fish they once caught lasted them for a whole day. They smoked or grilled the fish over a campfire. The taste was great.


Probably you have seen now why Mount is black. A lot of sunbathing on the fishing trips tanned him. It is a healthy skin colour.


Why does Mount wish to live the way Tao Yuanming did? Have you got the answer, my reader?


Mount’s Voice


Mount has a masculine voice—husky and booming. When he is talking in English, all the eyes are riveted on him. A boy, Bowen, observed, “He sounds like a full-grown bull.”



rustic china 02 

Very likely both Joan and Mount will be treading the path their contemporaries do—high school, university, and a career in a Chinese city. I hope they do not forget their roots. Their roots are deep in rustic China. Urbanisation on this land has been progressing at a rate which is both encouraging and alarming. Should every young Chinese end up in a city? Should we preserve some pockets of the countryside and leave them as it is?


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. BB2
    Oct 04, 2016 @ 09:23:13

    i like your africa and joan.


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