Travelogue: Preservation, poverty reduction and prosperity in China's former revolutionary base

Source:Xinhua Published: 2019/5/18 20:49:56

In his influential 1937 book "Red Star Over China," American journalist Edgar Snow describes northern Shaanxi Province as "one of the poorest parts of China he had ever seen." On his mission to provide the first Western account of the Communist revolution in China following the Long March, Snow ventured across the vast Loess Plateau in search of the city of Yan'an in Shaanxi, a major revolutionary stronghold until victory in 1949. To Snow, Yan'an, "cradled in a bowl of high, rock-ribbed hills," was "ideally suited for defense."

Eight decades after his historical account was published, Yan'an is no longer a remote fortress with rampant hunger or a barren land with poor harvests, but rather an up-and-coming city where passionate locals hold dreams of chasing prosperity and eradicating poverty.


A hallmark of Yan'an's landscape in Ansai district, red and white figures twirl and shimmer in the afternoon sun as long scarves flutter in the gentle breeze. Against a backdrop of sand-colored houses and lantern-decorated hills, there stands, in contrast, eight waist drum dancers with beaming grins and cheerful spirits. Such dancers have been bringing a pop of color and an echo of beats to the drum-dotted towering mountains of Yan'an's Ansai for centuries. The distinctive, large-scale folk dance was once performed to celebrate victory in ancient wars, but now it is performed at ceremonies and to celebrate good harvests and festivals like Chinese New Year.

For some locals, however, the upbeat dance is more than a symbol of intangible cultural heritage; it also represents a pathway out of poverty. The compelling story of villager Li Dongdong epitomizes how people from disadvantaged backgrounds in China have embraced their unique traditions to earn a living.

Li's parents, wife and son have all suffered from serious illnesses in the past, bringing substantial financial burdens to the household and causing them to fall under the national poverty line. As the only family member able to work and medical bills mounting up, Li turned to his childhood hobby of waist drum dancing in search of a better source of income.

What was instantly striking about Li was that, despite his tough past, he wears this incredibly infectious smile when performing, while emitting such positivity with his friendly disposition off stage. Spending the day with Li, his immense passion for preserving the traditional dance shone through.

Just down the road from Ansai's folk waist drum base is the school where Li teaches kindergarten children the dance every Monday and Thursday. It was expected to find these miniature waist drum dancers utterly adorable -- some looking mischievous and others looking more attentive as they held on to their kid-size drums and scarves. But what was unexpected was to find this scene of such young children following in their ancestors' footsteps so remarkably endearing and beautiful. The minute Li started teaching was the start of a rare and precious moment: heritage preservation in action.

After teaching his class, Li showed us around his new 90-square-meter apartment. Although the local government subsidized his relocation home, it cannot be denied that Li's dedication and hard work is what got him where he is today. With his waist drum costumes hanging from his balcony and framed wedding photos displayed proudly in his newly-decorated living room, it is obvious Li feels a sense of ease for the first time in years. Seeing someone enjoy an apartment they once never dreamed they could own is priceless.

"Why does everything bad happen to me?" Li said he once asked himself, barely remembering a time when his parents were not ill. But with freshly-set goals and determination, Li no longer dwells on the past and instead looks ahead to a brighter future.

Now earning an annual income of 10,000 yuan (about 1,480 US dollars) from waist drum dancing, Li plans to raise his income even further by performing the famous folk dance in big Chinese cities like Beijing, as well as opening a chicken farm later this summer. A family-oriented man, Li added that when he has time in the near future, he will teach his wife some simple dance moves and show her the outside world.


Besides cultural heritage, Yan'an people have also turned to an everyday fruit to earn a living. Northern Shaanxi was once plagued by barren land and low crop output. As Snow noted in his book, Yan'an did not have a scarcity of land in the 1930s, but what it did have was a severe scarcity of healthy farming land. Today, Yan'an farmers are reaping the benefits of their city's "green revolution" that started in the 1990s. Who knew that something as simple as an apple could transform lives?

In a tiny village in the county of Luochuan, live farmer Wang Wangsheng and his wife Chen Xiuping. Like Li, Wang and Chen have also had to overcome incredible difficulties to better their lives. Knowing their son must receive a good education to succeed in life, Wang and Chen did everything they could to pay for his tuition fees, but this came with tremendous sacrifices.

"We tightened our belts to support our child in his studies. We would be lucky to afford adequate food and clothing, not to mention other things in life," Wang told Xinhua, while Chen, showing her kind spirit, ensured everyone had a seat before her, concealing her emotions while her husband recalled their heartbreaking story of struggle.

Stuck under the national poverty line, Wang knew his family had to walk down a new path in order to escape impoverishment. Defining resilience in the face of adversity, he scouted the village for a way to boost his income. In 2015, he joined a local agricultural cooperative. He was provided with fertilizer and practical skills in effective apple growing, quickly learning how to thin blossom clusters to allow the most nutritious apple flowers to bloom.

Things soon started looking up. He later bought shares in the cooperative and was able to put money toward a new but humble 100-square-meter four-bedroom home for him and Xiuping, which came after spending almost five decades in a shabby house on the other side of their courtyard.

Wang told us that before Yan'an's "green revolution," sand storms would often last up to three days, causing crop damage and impacting farmers' production. With an improved environment, strong business acumen and a new skill-set, Wang expects to earn more than 10,000 yuan per 0.07 hectares of apple farmland this year. And with a new house, shares in his company and a successful son, this hardy family is destined to prosper in Yan'an's emerging "apple county."

China, a country still classed as developing, is still pushing forward to complete the enormous task of lifting millions of more people out of absolute poverty. Poverty is complicated. It is a multifaceted issue with social and economic dimensions. But with the right support, those living in impoverished conditions in China can develop crucial life skills and turn their hometown's signature characteristics into sources of income.

In Yan'an, a thriving apple market and traditional Chinese folklore have helped write an inspiring narrative where empowerment and independence have led to sustainability and success. With today's Yan'an unrecognizable from the one described in Snow's book, the city is now setting a precedent for China's nationwide poverty-fighting mission.

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