The county town of Quxian in central Sichuan is bustling and dirty, but the most memorable thing I saw there was some policemen driving past me in a cute little police golf buggy, open to the elements and completely useless in winter and in the rain. I did not regret leaving the town at all.
The kilometer markers marched past me – 2065 … 2073 – recording the distance on Highway 318 from the Park Hotel in central Shanghai. Although, in many cases, the concrete marker blocks had been all but buried by the recent reconstruction of the road or had been repainted blank with the workers forgetting to add back the kilometer numbers. If only I had had a paint brush with me.
I talked for a while to a van driver making deliveries of soft drinks to little convenience stores – he said business was pretty good – then said farewell to him. I used to say zaijian, which means, "see you again," but as I almost never do with the people I meet on the road, I have changed to instead saying "I wish you peace," which seems to go over well.
I passed a villa that was empty and unfinished, painted the official required Quxian color of pale yellow, and was told it was the subject of a property ownership dispute. There was a big sign on its wall saying: "Strengthen the mediation of organized construction, promptly resolve disputes among the people."
The ownership surge and the importance attached to rights associated with property are changing this country more than any single factor.
Back in the countryside, the greenness of everything was pleasingly overwhelming. Everything was Sichuan-summer lush. The rice was surrounded by young corn at its greenest stage, and the bamboo and other vegetation all looked vigorous. Pools coolly reflected the greens around them.
The rice, I found, was planted in a different way from what I had seen in Anhui province, 1,500 kilometers to the east, and also on the Hubei plain, where I had last seen serious paddy action at close quarters.
Here, there were two lines of rice seedlings planted close together, then a wider gap before the next two lines. In Anhui and Hubei, the rice tramlines had all been equidistant.
The klicks passed by. The land in the Sichuan basin is not flat like the Hubei plain, but pleasantly undulating, which gives it character. As I walked through the landscape, I sensed peace. The cicadas burbled, the farmhouses looked solid and confident from the road, surrounded by mature vegetation, and I imagined the people living in them enjoying their lives. Some of the conversations I had reflected this vision, and some did not.
One man aged about 25 said he had been born outside "the plan" – he already had an elder brother and sister. So he was registered as the child of his maternal uncle, unmarried, who was now half-paralyzed due to a stroke. My friend said he had to pay RMB100 a month to cover some of his uncle’s costs, a sum he absolutely could not afford.
"The pressures of family responsibility go beyond anything you could imagine," he said. "It is a huge weight on my life."
I walked over a small wooded hill, over the rise, and into the small village of Songjiadian.
There was a little store by the road, and a tree with some wooden stools under it, so I bought some water, sat down and chatted with several local people waiting for minibuses going in either direction. After just half a bottle, I was being attacked by midges, particularly on my hands, which puffed up. So I had to leave the shade and head off again.
Three boys followed me out of the village and asked if I could take a photograph of them, which I did. I walked on after getting them to agree to send me a text message (which one of them finally did two weeks later).
One of the boys then walked on with me for a while, as it was on his way home. His name was Zhang Hao and he was 14 years old, but looked 10 to me. He said he was the youngest of four children. All three of his siblings and his father were working in Shenzhen while he stayed at home with his mother who looked after the family’s fields.
"What will you do when you leave school?" I asked. "Migrant work?"
"Study," he replied. It became clear that the family wanted him to be the one to graduate beyond farm work and migrant labor.
"So how good are you at your studies?"
"So-so," he replied. I handed him my camera and told him to take photographs of anything he saw that was interesting as we walked along, then gave him the short version of my usual spiel, telling him to not watch television, read books and be persistent. I gave him my name card and told him to call me if he ever made it to the coast. Who knows.
I have talked to so many kids like Zhang Hao in the past few years on my walk, and I believe that consciously or unconsciously, the system encourages them in the direction of semi-literacy.
But how to apportion the blame between Confucius and Chairman Mao – a rhetorical question, no question mark. I asked one smart 16-year-old girl if she had ever read a kung fu novel with no pictures. The answer was: "But they are so thick!" and then "But I have no time!"
It was pretty depressing. But it is not her fault, so much as that of the system that pressures her and all of them in the direction of mindless textbook scanning with breaks for mindless TV watching.
I passed the small town of Zhongtan. It is off today’s highway, but features a fantastic bridge that must date from the days of KMT China in the mid-1930s when Highway 318 was built and there was still the potential for a modern China with a close relationship to its past. The Chinese Communist Party owes Japan a debt of thanks. The Zhongtan bridge consists of a series of stone arches, well-built and graceful in design and therefore looks out of place.
I walked into the town of Youqing singing the Kool & the Gang song "Celebration time – Come on!" echoing the town’s name. I passed the police station and a plain-clothes cop bounced out the door and walked toward me.
"Hello!" I said. "How’s business?"
"What?" he asked.
"I said how’s business?"
He glanced back at the police sign over the door as if checking on the nature of his occupation.
"Pretty good," he said. "What are you doing here?"
"Just having a look," I replied, using the most innocuous and meaningless phrase possible. He turned away, completely uninterested, and walked toward a police car containing a couple of his colleagues.
The weather forecast had been for cloudy conditions, so I was concerned about rain. (Rain was forecast for the following day, so I did not bother to take an umbrella with me. Right both times.) Somewhere in the mid-afternoon, I got a text message from a man I had met in a little store in Quxian, saying: "It is starting to rain. Take cover." Sure enough, a few minutes later, the first drops fell.