Tradition and Transformation: One Village’s March to Modernization

On a recent visit to the village of Peizhai, in central China’s Henan Province, I witnessed the achievements made on one particular community’s road to modernization—as well as how they are maintaining traditions despite the quick development.
by Nick Lanigan
Local people may have moved to more modern homes, but they still like to sit outside and eat their lunch in the sunshine.

As the high-speed train sliced through the Henan countryside and dropped us safely in Xinxiang City, I was struck by a jarring reminder of how high the stakes are for regional development in China. With a population of around six million, this Henan city, previously unbeknownst to me, has more people than many European capitals. If it were a country, Henan Province alone would be the twelfth most populous nation in the world. While I contemplated these fgures, we transferred to a bus to continue our journey to Peizhai, where I was to be introduced in earnest to rural Chinese life.

The defunct remains of a well mark the center of Peizhai Village, persisting as a reminder of harder times. Today, the villagers have much more convenient access to water, but just 10 years ago, locals’ daily struggles there were unimaginable. A victim of its geography, nestled in a valley deep within the Taihang Mountains, Peizhai faced regular and acute water shortages that crippled its development. Aerial photography has shown just how big a difference the village’s modern reservoirs and irrigation systems have made to the landscape: previously barren land is now blanketed by lush green crops. “Water is extremely important to the village,” explains Pei Chunliang, secretary of the Party committee of Peizhai Community and a local, self-made philanthropist who has reinvested heavily in the area. “A reliable water source has enabled us to progress.”

Traditional music and dance accompanies festivals in the village of Peizhai.

His and others’ efforts have proven effective. The water storage systems have given local people the upper hand in their battle with drought for the first time in history, and the resulting changes have rendered Peizhai almost unrecognizable. The village’s original buildings have largely been demolished to make way for newer structures, so to understand what life there used to be like, we visited another nearby community that has not seen the same pace of development: Dawangzhuang. There, a dirt road winds through ramshackle houses, some of which stand empty and dilapidated. A few dogs rummage through roadside trash. The people still subsist almost entirely on farming. With this as a reference point, Peizhai’s achievements are even more impressive.

A spacious village square now welcomes visitors to Peizhai with art designed by local schoolchildren. Basketball courts, pingpong tables and well-maintained exercise equipment wait for users, and neat rows of modern, terraced houses shelter families that previously inhabited deteriorating huts. As the country develops, such scenes can be found across China. So how does Peizhai retain its unique “village” aura? Its people. The village’s traditions were not abandoned as easily as its buildings. Seniors still gather each morning for their daily exercise before returning home to look after grandchildren while their parents head off to work. Later, they enjoy the afternoon sunshine in their front yards, which are lined with rows of vegetables or drying laundry. Their homes are clean and welcoming, but scattered with the paraphernalia of rural life. Despite the stress of moving into modern facilities, their mentalities and daily lives have remained remarkably consistent. The preservation may be fleeting—the children will never know the hardship their parents and grandparents endured—but for the moment, a curious tug-of-war between past and present, tradition and development, is crystal clear.

A chef hangs sweet potato noodles out to dry before they are used in various dishes.

Old habits die hard, even more so in cuisine. It’s no secret that food plays a central role in Chinese culture, and Peizhai is no exception. We were invited to lunch with other visitors to the village and seated in a clean, brightly-lit hall at one end of the village square. Despite the starkly modern surroundings, the cooking was all done in a large vat outside, with a roaring fre underneath. The food, vegetable stew served on a bed of rice, was delicious, but their traditional methods were even more remarkable, with someone running dishes in and out of the building. “The most cutting-edge cooking equipment in the world can hardly rival traditional methods” was a refrain repeated throughout the village. On multiple occasions, we met residents cooking steamed buns over an old-fashioned outdoor stove, right outside a perfectly functional kitchen. “Food is important because it leaves an impression on you,” stresses Pei Chunliang. “If you leave a place full, you’ll have good memories of that place.”

A prime example of the value still placed on traditional cooking is the celebration of fentiao, or “sweet potato noodles.” Throughout Peizhai’s historical struggles with drought and poor soil conditions, the sweet potato endured and became known as the most reliable crop. The village’s newfound prosperity has allowed them to begin holding a celebration devoted to the faithful vegetable, and it is a jubilant event. They open the cooking area to spectators, and I witnessed the transformation of sweet potatoes into fentiao before my eyes, backed by live traditional music. First, the sweet potatoes are cut into small pieces and mashed with flour to form a doughy mixture. When the dough reaches the right consistency, it is squeezed through a kind of sieve into long, thin strips, which land in a tub of hot water with a fire underneath it. The chefs cook quickly and expertly; their bright white outfits are fit for an upmarket restaurant and clash with the smoke and flames. After a few seconds, the thin strips are scooped out of the water and hung over a rack to dry in the sun. Nothing is wasted: even the roots of the sweet potatoes are exported to Japan, where they are a delicacy, according to 62-year-old Wang Zhongmei, who runs a sweet potato business with his son. A Peizhai native, Wang was one of Pei Chunliang’s middle-school teachers. He’s confident that despite the huge changes he has seen in the village in his lifetime, appreciation of the sweet potato and fentiao will endure. The people hired to set up the event seemed to share that sentiment. “This festival gives us a new opportunity to show our local specialty to outside visitors,” one told me. “It gives local people a new platform to display their produce and thereby a path to prosperity.”

Of course, the people of Peizhai have worked hard to get to this point, and far fewer now grow sweet potatoes. The village has come up with a number of innovative industries that employ local people and generate significant income. Peizhai is spinning the proverb about teaching a man to fish to feed him for a lifetime into “Teach a man how to raise goldfish, create a highly successful business.” At one end of the village, a long, low building houses row after row of large tanks, in which goldfish of varying sizes are raised until they can be sold to pet stores as far away as Beijing. For a village that only recently overcame a devastating drought, the decision to raise fish seems as symbolic as it is lucrative.

Children from neighboring villages have a chance to taste the sweet potato noodles.

Still, agriculture remains the largest labor sector. The establishment of Peizhai’s modern industries rests on a foundation cemented by generations of local farmers. Across a vast area, 28 large greenhouses house fruits and vegetables far more exotic than the humble sweet potato. Each greenhouse is angled to capture as much sunlight as possible. A tall wall of compacted clay on one side helps capture the warmth, and translucent, plastic sheeting serves as a roof. The overall effect is impressive, with the temperature noticeably warmer than outside. The greenhouses represent progress, but the tradition of families operating businesses together hasn’t changed. Mr. Liang, a farmer in his 50s, and one of his daughters maintain two tomato greenhouses. Business is booming, and the pair makes fifty or sixty thousand yuan a year. Nearby, Ms. Ru’s young daughter plays outside while her mother tends an exotic crop of dragon fruits, sprouting bizarrely from thin, spindly stems that look like they belong to a cactus.

We headed into the village center and reached Commerce Street, the pride of Peizhai and its commercial hub. The businesses there embody the hopes and dreams of many local people. Snapshots of traditional Chinese village life are infused with the trappings of modernity. An electronics store displays gleaming televisions, washing machines and air conditioners, while outside, an elderly man sells fruit from a wooden cart. A group of children enthusiastically learns the steps of a Latin dance, energetically waving a Chinese flag in each hand. Even places like this are within the reach of China’s e-commerce giants, and a store distributes purchases made online. The proprietor, Mr. Yang, is just 21 years old. A convenience store operated by the Postal Savings Bank of China offers well-stocked shelves of non-perishable food items and household goods as well as a preferential voucher system to encourage savings of bank account holders. The shopkeeper, who is six months pregnant, wears a thick coat behind the counter because the store lacks heating. This village is still a work in progress, but its people are proud of it, as they should be.

Peizhai’s realization of the Chinese Dream was possible thanks to the generosity of Secretary Pei Chunliang and the support of the Communist Party of China (CPC), and the village’s gratitude is overwhelmingly apparent. An exhibition celebrating the local achievements of the CPC has been placed proudly in the village square. But the narrative of Peizhai’s development is also a complex tapestry of individual stories. Successes and failures, triumphs and defeats on the smallest and most personal scale have all contributed to what the village has become, and will continue to do so as Peizhai’s people forge their path into the future.

In the exhibition hall, I was drawn to a large group photo taken at a celebration in 2015. “We are one family,” reads the caption. And despite all the changes that come with modernization, this enduring village spirit gives Peizhai its own special identity.

Photographs courtesy of Qin Bin.