Grandma's House

A Trip to the Hunan Countryside

China, yes, but which China?

We hear so much about China, it’s hard to escape the news about it – but what do we ever hear and see anything about? Hardly how the majority of people live, what moves them, quite outside the usual focal points of the big cities and the people with grievances against the government (or, of course, the political and economic doings at the “important” levels).

All the more interesting to see the China that sounds like it should, in the drive for urbanization, be disappearing. Except here, it’s only in some parts that this does happen. In other parts, not so much.

Where my wife’s family lives, Jiubujiang, Youxian, Hunan, seems hardly on the map, but their maternal grandmother’s place is even further in the countryside.


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It was a long drive over country roads just recently paved and now getting re-surfaced, reinforced, and widened, along lots of fields but also a few industrial installations.

On the Road
On the Road

Towards the end, we made a stop in the town where ‘restaurant uncle’  lives with his family, and a trip to the market there. Always of interest to me, especially for the insights into ChiliCult-y matters.

Market Hall, Middle of Hunan
Market Hall, Middle of Hunan

 

And of course, the place in the countryside, interested in agriculture and simpler living as I am, provided a host of fascinating images to me – and now, you…

The traditional farm house, rickety as it has become in places, is a lesson in and of itself.

Traditionally constructed of mud bricks and wood, it is considerably cooler than the modern apartments even without air conditioning, for one. Also, the way it is organized around an entrance ‘hall’ with gate and big door makes it offer a place for the usual kind of family altar and a living room to meet people in, half-outside when gate and door are open, but also set off. Just close the gate to point out that visitors wouldn’t, now, be welcome. Or, close and bar all the entrance, of course, to keep everyone and everything away.

Off this main room lie living room (by now, with fridge and satellite TV, what else?) and bedrooms to one side; another living/dining room, kitchen and storage/washing room to the other side.

Upstairs also offers storage and further bedrooms, long since unused – and so, containing all the more of the kind of furniture and knick-knacks that might nowadays be exotic and not without value in ‘the West’…

It’s not just the house that’s interesting, either, but also its surroundings. In a way also to be seen in modern construction, but apparently going back farther, the space for this house (and the neighbors’) is cut into a hillside. Vegetable gardens, naturally, surround the houses.

Roaming farther afield, a trail goes past the houses, joins up with a creek bed, and moves into and up the hill. Of course, we went exploring… There were quite a few plants I recognized, interestingly including what looked like the herb/vegetable the Japanese call mitsuba (and the Chinese do not eat), the Chinese wormwood that has anti-malarial properties, and lots of what might be Salicornia. (Well, it was a water course, after all.) Of more interest to everyone were the crabs that we found…

The trail there was interesting in a typical Chinese fashion: It looks quite wild, offered some wildlife – at the same time at which there are pipes and concrete channels to funnel water where it’s wanted and needed.

It’s not without reason that earlier scholars spoke of China as a “hydraulic civilization,” and the importance of water still pertains – especially in the rice-growing region that pretty much all of Hunan is.

And what's your take?