It seems to be that the further away from Shanghai I get the easier it is to engage people in conversation. Fellow travelers such as Pearl S. Buck and Edgar Snow used to go on and on about how natural and honest and pleasant the ordinary peasants of China are, and it appears to be true.
Here are some stories about the people I have met recently in western Zhejiang, 200km west of Shanghai. But first, let me relate an incident that should make the rest of the world afraid, very afraid.
It was 6:30am on a Sunday morning and Highway 318 was a traffic jam of trucks for around 6km in both directions, literally hundreds of trucks stopped in the road, causing a complete standstill. What the cause of this major traffic jam was, I don't know. But it was the implication of this huge volume of freight moving along this one small highway in eastern China on a quiet Sunday morning that interested me. Multiply it out by every highway across China and add in weekdays, and you have a staggering prospect.
Mr. Dong Wenxiang is a Chinese Ent. Ents, you will remember, are the tree herders of Middle Earth in J. R. R. Tolkein's novel, the Lord of the Rings. Dong, who says he is a distant relative of the former Chief Administrator of Hong Kong, Tung Chee-hwa, has a company on the outskirts of the town of Si-an which buys trees, including the roots, and ships them into Shanghai and other cities for greenification purposes. Dong buys the trees for around RMB1,000 each and sells them for about RMB2,000 taking a few hundred RMB of profit per tree after transport costs etc.
Trees are becoming a big business in this little part of China, and whole paddy fields have been recently replaced with transplanted trees being groomed for the big time. The China cliche is that the environment is fast being ruined, and it is true. But as with any process in China, the timescales are concertina-ed down to a fraction of that in the West. On the environment, we get to see within a few years both the problem and the solution. Mr. Dong is part of the solution.
Walking along a country lane, I came upon a group of construction workers resting in the shade next to a trench they were digging. I said "Ni hao," and one of them replied in English: "Where do you come from?" Wow.
He failed at the next hurdle, which was to understand my question as to where he learned his English. But still wow. His name is Shi Qifeng, he is doing some digging to earn a bit of money before he graduates from high school. And then? "I hope to go to university. Otherwise I will come back and work here."
"Here's my email address," he said, taking my pen and writing it out. Double wow.
In a peaceful village, I passed a young man with a diamond stud in his right ear, wearing a sharp white shirt and shiny black leather shoes. His name is Pan Qiang, he is 20 years old, and he is a vehicle repair worker. But he has ambitions beyond that. "I want to serve as a soldier for two years," he said. "No one wants to be a soldier these days but someone has to protect the country."
How much salary will you make as a soldier? "As a normal soldier, basically nothing. For Party members it is better. I am now a League (Communist Youth League) member, but I hope to enter the Party." And after two years? "I will come back here. If I have become a party member then, I can make a contribution to the people of Changxing County."
Ah, so you can become an official and enjoy the advantages of that? "No, that's not it. As a party member, I would have the right to express myself, the right to participate," he said.
Mr. Luo lives in a village south of Changxing with rich rice fields and handsome farmer mansions. He has a rice field, and also owns a truck and he looks pretty prosperous and happy with life. "This is very rich land; every family here has income of more than 10,000RMB a year. And there is more development coming along. Not of the rice fields, that is not allowed, but of the other land."
Mr. Luo has two sons, aged 7 and 17. "That's against the government regulations!" I exclaim in mock horror. "Ah, it's allowed, really," he said. "They understand. You have to have people to do things, right?"
His elder son is away studying, hopefully to become an engineer. His younger son, he says, is already aware that his fate is to stay in the village and look after the family rice fields. "That is the tradition; that is the way we do it," said Mr. Luo.
Mr. Wan is a farmer, the younger of two brothers, both of whom have a daughter working at a truckstop restaurant on Highway 318. Mr. Wan and his wife, daughter and an extra technically illegal backup son live in what can only be described as a tiny hovel. A roof of rotting wood, walls of mud bricks, two small rooms, one for the beds and the TV, the other for eating, cooking and storage. But the front door opens to the south, the fengshui is good, and within three steps of the hovel, Mr. Wan's crop begins – six mu (0.4 hectares) of diaogua, or "hanging melons." There is only one crop a year, in September. That's a big gamble for a farmer, and this year's looks not as good as last year's. So Mr. Wan also has a small tractor and he rents out his services to his neighbors for extra income.
On his left wrist is tattooed the character "ren" – put up with it. I ask him why, and he replied: "Twenty years ago, I got into a fight with another guy and almost killed him. I had this tattooed on to remind me to keep my temper." They are poor, but they insisted on giving me two live hens and a black fish as presents.
We then walked through the paddy fields to his brother's house, which looks inside and out like it dates from the 19th century, but which was built 20 years ago. The people out here seem to age the same way as the houses. The elder Wan, aged 38, tends paddy fields, and at some point in the past spent a while in Shanghai. "How old are you?" he said to me in English. He didn't understand my reply until I repeated it in Chinese, and then he didn't believe me. His wife gave me an eight-year-old live duck, which, I am reliably informed, was very tasty.