A couple weeks ago, I visited a village named 水头村 (Water Head/Source Village) on the outskirts of Beijing, China. It was a beautiful drive past the Great Wall and up well paved roads around tight mountain bends and breathtaking scenery. However, it was a very long drive and we literally kept going until the road’s end. When there was nowhere else to go, we reached the village.
Leaving the car, I felt like I had stepped into a ghost town. The village seemed huddled together and each house almost seemed to sit on top of its neighbor on the sloping hill. While small, the houses looked well-kept and quaint, with many gardens out front. The air was clear, the mountains painted a nice picture in the background, but not a single person could be seen in the streets.After timidly knocking on the closest home, we were led by an older lady to 李恩宗’s (Li En Zong) house. 李恩宗 greeted us happily and his wife quickly busied herself with setting out lunch even though we’d eaten on the way. They were both around 60 years old and seemed very easy going and satisfied. Their house was long but well-lit with seemingly three rooms; the entry way/kitchen where a huge wok called a 灶 (zao) stood in the corner, another room behind it, and the bedroom/living room. Easily the largest room in the house, it was also the brightest. Windows along the wall allowed light to flow in. They were covered with thin white paper, many of which were ripped. The opposite wall was decorated with pictures of loved ones and posters. In the corner stood a table with our lunch and stools around it and next to it was a TV, bookshelf, and wardrobe. A huge bed called a 炕 (kang) lined the wall and took up most of the space. Underneath it, heat from the neighboring stove would flow in to keep the bed warm in the winter.
The house was nicely decorated and homey, complete with electric lights and a TV. 李恩宗 talked about how the reason that the village was so quiet was because almost everyone had moved away and many of the houses were actually abandoned. Everyone who stayed behind were older and therefore less willing to start a new life somewhere else. The work was still hard and there was a drought, but this was their home. However, 李恩宗 did mention that his son and his family would come to visit from time to time.
After a while, we decided to visit the village’s namesake: the water source only a short hike away. On the way there, we saw more empty buildings and no people. 李恩宗 occasionally pointed out a plant that had special properties or was especially delicious. My uncle mentioned how we had seen a decent amount of tourists while driving through the mountains. It was almost a tragedy that none of them came here because the area had truly spectacular scenery and some of the largest, prettiest wild flowers I had ever seen. But while the vegetation all around us was a deep green, not a single water body could be seen and that’s what 李恩宗 said attracted the crowds. They wanted lakes and rivers. 李恩宗 explained that while a stream used to run down the mountains, it has long since and now we could only somewhat hear a faint trickle. When we reached the spring itself, it was black, completely unmoving, and surrounded by mosquitoes. It was hard to imagine that at one point, even Beijing had used this water source. Looking up, we could see the yellow rocks marked in one area by white where a waterfall had long ago run down. It was sad that we’d missed its prime.
Walking back to the car, it looked like it was finally going to rain. We came across the first two people in the village besides 李恩宗 and his wife. They were large circular straw hats and were plowing the field. One pushed the metal plow as the other acted as a mule pulling it along. They didn’t look down about the work and joked a little with 李恩宗.
Visiting my first Chinese village, it struck me how similar not only people are across the world, but entire communities. One of the problems that a previous professor of mine, Charles Piot, was trying to solve in Farandé, Togo was how to deal with the flight of the youth and how to make them stay in the village. The reasoning is identical: why stay in a place to be a poor farmer when you can get rich quick in the city without breaking a sweat? It’s sad to think that some societies may be disappearing forever but for the families involved, it must be nerve wracking to go out and seek your fortune but exciting when you win it.
I was also once again captivated by the happiness and generosity of 李恩宗 and his wife. Although they had running water and electricity, village life cannot compete with the extravagance or luxuries of a city. But they seemed happy. They shared their stories and food with strangers through only a connection of a friend of a friend and welcomed them into their home. Many times in cities (whether it be New York or Beijing), I am flabbergasted by how rude some people can be. Everyone busies on their way and tries to make the least connection possible with the strangers around them. It seems that time and again I see that people with the least are willing to give the most. And it’s not with a Bill Gates philanthropist flair or an American post-disaster guilt. It’s just sharing.