West of Chengxi village, Sichuan province
Distance from Shanghai – 2,028 km
The advent of spring in the Chinese countryside is heralded by huge blankets of rapeseed flowers, covering the landscape in what must be the happiest of colors, for it is also the yellow of computer smilies. And there the blankets were for me again in the Sichuan basin.
I was also lucky enough to catch the blossoming of the plum trees, whose delicate white flowers are on display for only a brief week or so. The trees sit strategically placed among the fields and around the farmhouses and are anonymous except for their one annual shot at glory as spring creeps up.
The weather forecast was for heavy rain, but in two days I did not see a cloud, and it was pleasantly warm out on the road. I passed a lake and watched entranced as a man rowed a sampan over its still waters, standing as he wielded the two long crossed oars.
A little while later, I came upon an itinerant honey farm by the road, emptied my water bottle and filled it full of the freshest honey, poured straight from the hives nearby, with dead bees and other stuff filtered out through a cloth as I watched. It was delicious, but I could not take the honey away with me on the plane and most of it was wasted due to the inconvenience of Islamist terrorism.
I watched a farmer plowing his paddy field with the help of a female water buffalo. Her young calf, at most a few weeks old, was tethered just beyond the field and became excited and started dancing around every time mother approached. Mother and child strained to touch, but the farmer turned the animal for another circuit of the mush while the calf watched and waited.
For years, I have been depressed by the amount of garbage dumped and thrown thoughtlessly alongside China’s roads, but in Dazhu (big bamboo) county I was delighted to find for the first time a serious effort by the authorities to address the problem. Garbage collection points had been placed along the road, perhaps one every kilometer or so, and they were being used. There was clearly less trash scattered around than I had seen in most places before. So many congratulations to the officials of Dazhu county.
If the Communist Party of China is capable of creating national road and rail networks that are the best in the world, which it has done, then it is capable of creating a national campaign to have the garbage picked up if it decides to. The slogan should be ????? "In garbage learn from Dazhu."
I was walking towards the town of Dazhu which sits between two of the mountain ranges that traverse the eastern section of the Sichuan basin. One farmer told me the town was named by Wu Zetian, the powerful empress of the Tang dynasty, who was born in 625AD and died at the age of 80. She ruled all of Tang China, including Sichuan, either through her husbands and sons or directly, for more than 40 years.
My farmer friend Mr Li said that Empress Wu visited the area and named it Big Bamboo. Not a desperately creative name but certainly descriptive. The area in those days must have been covered in bamboo forests. Not much bamboo is left now, much less even than in the 1950s and 1960s, said Farmer Li.
As I was walking into Dazhu town – as anonymously uniform as any Chinese town these days – I was struck particularly by the amount of residential apartment construction underway. Massive aspirational middle-class property developments with names like Sunshine City and Time Plaza were climbing higher and higher. Driving the boom is the need of local governments for income – land sales and property deals are easily the biggest source of revenue for them. Will all these apartments be sold and at what price? It felt to me as I walked through Dazhu that it was too much supply coming on too fast, with market demand present but fickle. But who am I to say?
In Chongqing, I asked a taxi driver if he felt there was a property bubble and he replied "Absolutely." I asked another what he thought about property prices and he said: "They will probably come down." As to when and how much – as well as if – it is anybody’s guess. But if China does see a burst property bubble, I would expect to see early signs of it in places like Chongqing.
I saw another sign of the future, linked to the ever-more active property market: massive billboards with bank advertisements in Dazhu town and more bizarrely in the fields saying things like "Personal Loans – Up to RMB5 million" and "Loans – No Collateral Needed."
I don’t recall noticing such signs before, and it was interesting to note that the state banks trying so vigorously to undercut one of the mainstays of Chinese social stability – high savings rates, low personal indebtedness. But local governments make money by getting property developers to buy the land and build the apartment blocks, and the developers make the money by selling the apartments. People need mortgages to buy – apart from the one quarter of home purchases in China that are apparently wholly cash sales – so local banks controlled by local officials leap in to complete the circle and provide the cash to fuel the continuation of the boom.
How this plays in to the national credit crackdown, I don’t know. It probably doesn’t – and this has implications for inflation and the quality of the banks’ loan books. I doubt Beijing has much power to control property prices in Dazhu.
I passed a farmer sitting on a small green plastic stool by the road creating row after row of little mud cup holders, and placing two corn seeds in each. He had a hunk of mud beside him and pulled off a handful, rolled it into a ball, and stuck his thumb in to hollow out the cup. Then he carefully placed it next to the other cups, all lined up perfectly – 26 rows, already more than 700 of the little containers sitting before him. He pointed to a brick and invited me to sit with him.
(I am constantly amazed at the hospitality of Chinese people – the concept of "guest" is so powerful in this culture. Balanced of course with the power of the concept of "stranger," for whom one has no responsibility, be he in a supermarket line or half dead on the street.)
"Where are you from?" he asked.
"This is China," he said.
"That is true," I replied.
"You speak Chinese," he said.
"Yes, but not Sichuanese."
"You speak English."
"I don’t understand that. I don’t understand the language of the Tibetans either," he said.
He told me about the corn seeds. The cups are covered in soil and a tarpaulin for 20 days to allow the seeds to germinate, and are then transplanted into the fields. I was impressed by the precision of his work, just as I am in awe of the ability of the rice farmers to plant rice seedlings in such perfectly straight lines.
A little further along, I met two officials from the Dazhu Broadcasting Bureau who were taking a country stroll with their fancy cameras – better than mine.
"You speak Chinese, but do you speak the Sichuan language?" asked one.
"No, teach me," I said.
"Ngaan ye!" he said.
"Ngaan ye!" I repeated. "What does it mean?"
The characters, by the way, are "?"?."
Across China, I have seen many thousands of slogans, both political and commercial, on farmhouse walls. But just to the west of Dazhu, on the white wall of a farmhouse, I saw something I had never seen before – eight black characters written top to bottom, and right to left in the traditional way, a slogan or saying that sprang from an entirely different well – China’s rich store of literature: ?????÷"’???.
It is a phrase from the Thousand Character Classic, a work that summarizes various ideas and information about the world and life. It was compiled around 500AD by a man named Zhou Xingsi and was a core part of education in China, Japan and Korea for more than 1,500 years. It is now, suddenly, almost forgotten.
But here, unexpectedly, on a farmhouse wall in Sichuan was a phrase from the book, with the meaning: Devote yourself to your parents with all your strength; be loyal (to the emperor) even with your life.
China has much to gain in striving to recover and strengthen the links with its own past, its rich culture and profound literature, with all the wisdom they contain. The sign on the wall near Dazhu gave me hope that the link could be revived and retained.