Pearl River Delta | China, 2005

by Bert de Muynck | Urban China #13 Hidden Pearl River Delta, 2006

Going back in time ((This text uses extensively samples from following book: Yang, C.K., Chinese Communist Society: the family and the village (The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1965). The book discusses the field work Dr. Yang and his colleagues did in the Pearl River Delta and documents from a sociological, anthropological and political point of view the changes in the Delta in the first decade after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.))

1955. While the North-West of China turns into an industrialized landscape, I explore the flat land of the Pearl River Delta. The past weeks I walked, drove and floated in between the numerous low hills of red sandstone of the Delta. With reason this area is the secret magical garden of south China. The hot climate and heavy rain, and intensive fertilization, makes the soil perfect for a multi-crop agricultural economy for the support of its population, a population living in an amazing concentration of 1,000 people for every square kilometer.

Since 1949 I investigate the changes this area underwent under the influence of the new Communistic land reforms. My journey brings me along village houses, fields, vegetable gardens, ponds, ditches, streams, the interspersed fruit trees, and the graves on the hills that the Chinese for centuries have come to call “t’ien, yuan, lu, mo” (fields, gardens, houses, graves), a classical expression signifying “homeland” or the roots of life. Here, until the end of last century, now 50 years ago, village life equaled 1,000 years without change. Seeing the recent changes it is hard to predict how life will be here in 50 years.

How will life be in 2005?

Difficult, the world, China and village life are changing so rapidly that only few dare to speculate; imagine that in this Delta, living from tide to tide, industrialization will ever gets its grip. Is the Pearl River prepared for the future? The foundation for future transformation is already laid; these can be found in the relation of the Delta with urbanization, the influence of the global economy and changes in farm life.

Urbanization anno 1955

The land transformations are the essence of the Delta’s recent changes. On my travels I visited Nanching, a small village located on short distance to the city, to which a round trip can be made by foot in half a day. This village has been subject to some urban influences, leading to a paradoxical condition; the village mixes the commercialization of agriculture with an ability to preserve its own identity as an agricultural community with a significant degree of self-sufficiency from the soil.

Economy anno 1955

Twenty years ago Nanching felt the impact of the global economy; shock waves of the world depression emanating from the Western industrial economy reached the village, thousand of miles from the center of the economic storm. Beginning in 1933 and 1934, prices dropped, urban unemployment mounted, and making a living in the cities became increasingly difficult. In those years the “bankruptcy of the countryside” rang throughout China, affecting many aspects of China’s rural life wherever modern economic influences had penetrated. Six years after the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the revolutionary impact of Communism changes traditional village culture into a modern one. Nanching is positioned between old and new, having lost the best of the old without having yet benefited from the dynamism of its new national setting. In this sense it represents a stage typical of the process through which every Chinese village has to go.

Farm life anno 1955

It seems that the people, and thus the village, and to a larger extent also the Delta, is transforming its identity; the peasant becomes a new type of farm employee. This identity swap happened in less than ten years, and during my travels, I was wondering if in the next decades, or maybe during the next century, a new swap can happen; will the farm become a fabric? Will the farmer become an entrepreneur; will the former landlords, now seemingly disappeared from the village life, become the new businessmen? Will this be the land of opportunities?

Pearl River Delta | China, 2005

Pearl People anno 1955

On my fourth day in the city a man approached me; his family was for centuries rooted in the village. I asked him in relation to the above analysis the following questions:

What is the relation of the village with the neighboring city?

In the past our relation with the city was a fertile one; it benefited our agriculture and our people. You have to know that human excreta and garbage were common fertilizers for farming here, and a major proportion came from the city. At high tide in the spring and summer, one would see large wooden barges docked at the edge of the village unloading city garbage and night soil; the city was feeding the village. On the other hand, some village people traveled often between the village and the city; when the urban economy was plagued by a depression or disrupted by political and military disturbances, the unemployed people returned to the village. Here their roots lay and the soil provided subsistence until times became better again for them to return to the city. The urban and the village economies thus helped each other to regain balance when either was struck by a crisis.

On my travels through the Pearl River Delta I heard a lot about floating elements and boat people, could you explain me what their role is?

Before the revolution we had in our village a limited number of landless peasants working on the field, but at times this was not enough to supply all the hired labor required by the village during peak seasons of farm work. The deficiency was partly met by large numbers of migratory workers who streamed into the locality at rice-planting or harvest time. They were mainly the “boat people,” the people of floating homes. They always told us they were the aborigines of the land, and are floating the Delta since centuries and that they are living and moving about on their boats, utilizing the slight climatic differences between the northern and southern ends of the Pearl River Delta; they were moving from south to north since planting and harvesting began earlier in the south.

Until a decade ago, this village was ruled by clans, could you tell me how life those days looked like?

Well, different than today. The clans dominated the collective life of the village that an individual without clan membership was socially isolated and looked down upon; his children could not attend the village school without paying a higher rate of tuition; he and his family would be only on-lookers at the grand ceremonial events. For the rest we worked on the farms, day in day out, year in, year out.

How do you think the future will look, how will the life your children and grandchildren will look like?

During the last decades my life has changed so much and now the Communists entered the village and brought us a new way of living; we have land, it is not ours, but in a way it is as it is of the collective. Look around, at this beautiful landscape of the Delta, looks at the hills; those will never disappear. It is good living here; I hope my grandchildren will benefit from the ongoing reforms. Maybe one day they will cultivate the land with a machine instead of a water buffalo (laughs).

Pearl River Delta | China, 2005

Pearl River Delta anno 2005?

Without doubt the economic status of the agrarian community I see in the Pearl River Delta is changing; due to the relation the village has with the city, the influences of urbanism, land reform and the ones expected from industrialization. The interlocking nature of economic and political power in the Communist system of rule makes alterations of the economic and political structures inseparable parts of the revolutionary process. In the Delta, as elsewhere in China, the economic changes which I viewed were accompanied by an equally sweeping political transformation. It is to be seen how the colonial powers, located on the entrance of the Delta in Hong Kong and Macau, will in the next fifty years have its influence on the evolution of this area. As everybody knows architectural and urban transformations are the display of ideology, and today in the Pearl River Delta that ideology is changing. It is to be expected that the landscape will follow. Will this agricultural economy in the coming fifty year become an industrial economy and how will this affect the landscape? Will one day the fields, gardens, houses and graves be replaced by factories, highways, warehouses and powerplants? Is the Pearl River Delta prepared for the change of its homeland?