From my book (pp.310–11):
As young villagers abandon the stagnant countryside to seek laboring work in the towns, it is mainly the elderly who are left behind; younger people still stuck there seem listless and devoid of prospects. In the hills, some new villages have been built in rather better surroundings nearby, like Yang Pagoda and Sujiayao. Around 2009 half of the population of Renjiayao paid a one-off fee of 50,000 kuai to move to the new village of Xinhebu, built just south of the county-town as part of a state poverty-alleviation project; the new village has four hundred households, assembled from various poor villages. Now only a couple of dozen poor elderly people are left behind in Renjiayao. Most of the population of Gaojiayao have been relocated to Luotun, itself none too prosperous but at least on the plain. Just southeast of Upper Liangyuan, Shankoutou, always tiny, is nearly deserted now. Ghost villages are emerging. And meanwhile the plain villages too are depleted of young labour.
Soon after midnight on the day I land in Beijing, I take the night train to Yanggao. As I leave Beijing I also abandon the modern calendar: instead of Monday 12th March it is now 2nd moon 25th. The train is quite empty, and I doze fitfully on my bunk (for a fuller diary, see here).
Arriving at 5.36am, I get off at the sleep station along with five others. Li Manshan’s son Li Bin is there to meet me; the roads in the county-town have been mended, so at last the street before his funeral shop is passable. After stopping off to unload my gifts, he drives me to Upper Liangyuan to stay with his father. Driving along new roads smooth as a baby’s bottom, we pass the new elevated section of the train line—soon the journey from (and more importantly, to) Beijing will take a mere hundred minutes! Even the track from the main road to the village is improved since my last visit.
Li Manshan is now only doing funerals nearby—Li Bin has very much taken over, and he’s always worked off his feet. After taking me to Upper Liangyuan he has bowls to smash that morning in three villages—the solo ritual that poor families sometimes request instead of the usual lengthy liturgical sequence with the whole band.
As the sun rises, the wise and adorable Li Manshan comes out to greet me. I say hello to the family’s new doggie, occasionally let off its tether in the courtyard. After lighting the stove Old Lord Li soon has to zoom off on his motor-bike to Yangguantun to decorate a coffin (my book, pp.190–92). I stay home to try and sleep off my jet-lag, only waking up to be fed by his wife Yao Xiulian. Over baozi dumplings I ask a bit more about her background: born to a poor-peasant family in 1951, she was one of five kids. Unlike the illustrious Li Qing, who sent all his children to school, Yao Xiulian’s parents declined to let her and her sister attend, so she remained illiterate. The only city she’s ever visited is nearby Datong, where her daughter lives.
By the time I wake from my siesta Li Manshan is back and fast asleep. A neighbour drops by for a gossip; he wakes up and joins in. I get used again to the basics of country living, though after all these years I still find the local dialect really tough. I get online courtesy of his cool shepherd neighbour. We have a nice supper of noodles and then retire to the west room to chat till late.
Next morning we wake just before dawn. After a relaxed breakfast with Li Manshan and his wife, a guy shows up to ask him for a “determining the date” prescription (see my book, pp.185–9): it’s for “moving the earth”, so Li Manshan writes it on red paper.
We stroll over to the site of the old Zhenwu miao temple (see map), hoping naively to find a neglected stele like we did for the Fodian miao and Sanqing dian temples (my book, pp.46–9), but there’s nothing to see at all. The woman living opposite invites us in for a chat; she’s a Protestant, one of a tiny community that has sprung up in the village over the last few years. Hedging her bets, she has a Xi Jinping poster on the wall, next to her Christian calendar. Li Manshan is always affable, popular with everyone. It’s getting quite hot, so I leave my jumper at her place.
I’ve long wanted to visit Shankoutou (pronounced Shankioutou!), the next village south, 2 Chinese li (1 kilometer) distant—mainly because it’s so tiny. When I ask Li Manshan, “Is there a temple there?” he replies, “Every house is a temple!” I can’t think how to convey the wryness of this aperçu.
So we set off, first along a narrow track through a barren gulley, then emerging into open country, following Li Manshan’s internal Daoist satnav up and down to a frozen river. Fording it, we climb the slope up to a reception committee of nine free-roaming donkeys awaiting us.
Figures in the county gazetteer give a 1948 population of 63; according to our hosts, in 1970 there were 100 dwellers (under the people’s communes the village counted as the 9th brigade of Upper Liangyuan); back with the gazetteer, by 1990 there were still 75 villagers. Now only five aging families, eleven people, are still “left behind” here. But it’s hardly the mysterious ghost village I envisaged, and my only reward is the murals around the kang brick-bed in the house of a family that invites us in; they were painted in the late Cultural Revolution, which counts as “old” round here. They also have a Xi Jinping poster on their wall.
On the walk back we stay west of the river, the idyllic vista marred only by the cement factory, with its stink and pollution. Old Lord Li sets off over the fields he was given after the land division, which he now rents out. I call him a landlord, and he takes it in the spirit in which it was meant. Reaching Upper Liangyuan again we pass by the site of the Sanguan miao temple and Li Qing’s old house. As I collect my jumper from the Protestant woman I wish her a Happy Easter. Stopping off to chat with various friends, with the usual copious exchanges of cigarettes, we get home by midday.