Quenching the thirst of China’s Yao minority
Remote and isolated, the Yao minority face a back-breaking journey down mountainsides to fetch water. But now a humble Han Chinese teacher has made it his mission to ensure these families have a ready supply, writes Thomas Bird
Lingzhan village is 740km from Hong Kong or, if you prefer, an exhausting 16-hour train ride followed by a five-hour bus trip away. On a crossroads in Lingyun county, in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, Lingzhan is a settlement of two streets containing a few fly-infested restaurants, a smattering of shops, a hotel and a middle school. It’s the definitive market town, where rural folk congregate to do a little business or wait for a bus.
The marketplace is the hub of Lingzhan, and it is here that Yang Keshu is having breakfast. Stout with a kind, unpretentious smile, Yang is Han Chinese but distinctly southern in appearance: brownskinned and easy-mannered. As he tucks into rice noodles, the market bustles around him, and colourfully clad women sell their wares.
“In Lingzhan, Han Chinese are a minority,” Yang says. “Most of these women are Zhuang. The Yao villagers aren’t here yet as it takes longer to get down from the mountains.” Yang runs a grass-roots initiative, Yaozhai Xiwang, that helps ethnic Yao villagers build water cisterns, large round tanks that collect and store rain water. He and I have met before, after I completed Ride for Hope, a sponsored cycle from Shenzhen to Shanghai organised by Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts to support his charity.
I have come to find out why there is a need for Yaozhai Xiwang.
After all, how could anyone in the subtropical south find themselves short of water? The lush vegetation around Lingzhan indicates a wellrained- upon region. Furthermore, in boom-time China – a nation that hosted the world’s most expensive Olympics and has its own space programme – why isn’t there enough cash to build a few simple cisterns?
After breakfast, Yang takes me to his apartment, in the staff block of Lingyun Middle School, where he teaches mathematics.
“Sorry about the mess,” he says. “We just moved in.”
It’s a humble dwelling: stone floors, grubby walls, no sink. “An older teacher retired and gave this flat to me because my family needs more space.” Yang lives with his mother, wife and six-month-old daughter in the two-room home. “Our old place was half the size.”
His monthly salary is a paltry 1,800 yuan (HK$2,265), he says, and that’s before rent and other costs are deducted. Yang works long hours, often getting up at 6am and working until 11pm. With teaching conditions and salaries far better in the cities, why doesn’t he relocate to a more affluent school?
“I’ve thought about it. But I would only leave if somebody else could do what I do; if someone other than me could help the Yao people.”
GUANGXI IS A LAND of camel-hump karst mountains, vast underground cave networks and meandering rivers dissecting plains of rice.
The complexity and diversity of the region’s geography are reflected in the mix of cultures here. In addition to the Han majority and China’s largest ethnic minority, the Zhuang, who account for about 32 per cent of Guangxi’s population, the Miao, Dong and Yao all call the autonomous region home. These “nationalities” have essentially been swallowed up by Han expansionism and can be found scattered across Southeast Asia.
Unlike the Zhuang, the Yao people have historically been a stubborn bunch, far less inclined to acquiesce to Han dominion. Their incompatibility with mainstream Chinese life has led to ethnic conflict over the centuries and forced them to retreat into increasingly remote areas.
A new class of the minority group can be found in and around picturesque Guilin, exploiting the explosion of tourism happening in their backyard, but “they are a different kind of Yao”, says Yang. “Those with long hair are called Hong Yao. The Yao in Lingzhan are Beilong Yao.”
Do tourists come to Lingzhan?
“Very few,” Yang says. “But I think it would be a good thing if more travellers came, it would at least inject some money into the economy.”
After Yang finishes teaching, he takes me out on his motorbike, which is prone to splutter and stall.
“My parents gave me this motorbike a long time ago, it’s too old,” he says.
Thankfully, the roads are empty, a rare experience in congested China.
The lowland fields, still tilled by water buffalo, appear productive and their three-storey farmhouses are better than many rural residences seen throughout the mainland.
“This is the good land,” shouts Yang over the buzz of the engine.
“But it all belongs to the Zhuang.”
We’re soon racing through an area of towering, rocky peaks cascading into deep ravines – the kind of scenery depicted in classical mountain-water ink paintings. Giant caves, resonating with the buzz of wildlife, and gorges that look as though they were dug out of the landscape by a giant’s pickaxe fly by. Boulders dot the landscape, a reminder of the instability of the craggy peaks that surround us on all sides.
On the roadside we meet three Yao women planting trees.
A male supervisor watches from the cool interior of his Toyota.
One of the women explains that they are labouring “to make the road more beautiful”.
“It’s also a good way to stop landslides,” Yang adds.
Theirs is back-breaking work, the soil here being riddled with stones: a hindrance to the planting of even the simplest of crops.
Superficially, things don’t look bad in Nongxin village, or Lower Nongxin, as the newly established settlement is known.
“These houses were built after I brought a journalist from the Southern Daily to see how the Yao live in the mountains,” says Yang, indicating a neat row of cottages.
“She exposed the neglect of local authorities in a feature article and they were forced to do something about the situation. But, after they built these houses, the local officials told me not to ask for anything more.”
Yang is, in essence, showing me a job that is only half done: houses without cisterns. The Yao have a long walk down to the river and can only carry limited water back up the mountain. He then explains why it remains hard to contest government action in the mainland.
“I taught in Nongxin Primary School for three years but the government forced me out for causing trouble.
They wanted me to go elsewhere, somewhere far away, but I would only go as far as Lingzhan.”
We enter a local house. A ceremony is under way to rid the house of ghosts and we have to wait until the chanting ends to get acquainted with the residents.
“I’m not a ghost,” I assure the villagers, who don’t know quite what to make of the foreigner in their midst.
Yang is clearly held in high regard among the Yao, who are traditionally wary of those who are not their kin.
Many of the elders can’t speak Putonghua, so Yang uses the Yao language to communicate with them. For a people whose language is orally transmitted and scarcely understood by outsiders, this effort is perceived as a gallant gesture, even if Yang lacks fluency. As he helps the women prepare vegetables, Yang notes down their needs and complaints.
Yang has become a bridge between the Yao and the outside world.
As he says later, “What else can I do? The Yao are so distant from the world. I have an education, so I can help.”
The old man who’d led the shamanistic ceremony introduces himself as Mr Luo and starts loading up his water pipe with tobacco.
“I’m good at scaring off spirits,” he says.
According to him, the relocation to Lower Nongxin village, spurred by the critical Southern Daily article, has been a good thing on the whole.
“Up in the mountains nothing is convenient, it is hard to live up there,” he says.
It’s hard to imagine how one might subsist in such remote and rocky terrain.
The next day I find out just how unreachable some Yao villages are. The steep mountain road passes through sequestered Han and Zhuang villages. The motorbike struggles against the incline but at least the path is smooth tarmac; “freshly laid”, explains Yang. This changes when we approach the Yao villages. We soon find ourselves bouncing over rubble on a road scarcely fit for a mule, never mind a motor vehicle. Eventually, the prospect of bouncing off a cliff proves altogether too likely and I decide to walk.
The mountain-dwelling Yao all seem to know “Teacher Yang”. Many of the youngsters are his former students.
He asks them how they are and whether they’ve married or faced any hardships of late. He often has to help Yao people deal with tragedy.
“Nineteen students out of the 130 that attend Nongxin Primary School are without fathers,” Yang says. “If someone has an accident they can’t easily get to any kind of medical care. Plus animistic healing is still believed in.”
Along the road we start to see cisterns.
“It’s a day’s trek to the nearest water source,” Yang says.
“I raised the money for these water cellars,” he adds, referring to the cisterns labelled with the name of a prominent Shenzhen jewellery company. “I can get three built in the time the government builds one.”
Along the road we meet Wang Chaohai, who’s keen to show us his government-built cistern, which is of poor quality and doesn’t work.
“It’s a scam,” says Yang.
Though nobody openly makes the accusation, I infer that cadres are siphoning off funds, leaving infrastructure works such as roads and cisterns incomplete.
“I went through the communist education system,” says Yang. “As a teacher, I’m a party member. I used to respect them; I had no idea how corrupt they were. A party leader would never come this far up, so they don’t see what’s going on, what is needed here.”
After an arduous journey along increasingly dire roads we finally make it to Wang Hua’s house. Wang is an exstudent of Yang’s. Three generations of his family live in a primitive thatch-roofed home. It is here, in the village of Zhudong, that Yang hopes Shangri-La will construct two of the 20 cisterns it has promised.
“Up here the cellars are most needed,” he says.
Wang is busy smashing rock with a sledgehammer.
Farming here is incredibly labour-intensive. Corn is planted in tiny terraced plots on the mountains, sometimes less than two metres across.
“I built the road around this valley,” Wang says, referring to the rocky trail we’ve just used.
“This is my father’s home, my grandfather’s home,” says Wang, over dinner, explaining his reluctance to leave. “This is where we come from. We don’t have culture or much education. What can we do in the city?” Nevertheless, he says, “I just got back from labouring in a place near Beihai. My father is out working now.”
Yang says, “There is simply no money in the local economy. Nothing. Every time somebody wants to build a house or get a utility device like a fridge, they must go and labour in the cities.”
In cities such as Shenzhen, the factory minions assembling gadgets for export and the workers building towering skyscrapers come from places like Zhudong.
The following morning we cross the village and take an even more perilous mountain path back towards Lower Nongxin that passes through Upper Nongxin, where Yao people still live in wooden homes, sustaining themselves with animal husbandry and what few resilient crops they can grow. The stunning mountain views may please a hiker, but they’re also a reminder of how far we are from any reliable water source.
Yang sits and looks out across the hilltops.
It really is a spectacular place in which to get some perspective. The landscape is green and dynamic – an unpolluted land despite China’s vast industrial build-up.
Down below are the miniature houses and single road of Lower Nongxin.
I ask Yang if he believes he can help these people. After all, isn’t part of China’s great economic drive urbanisation?
“I don’t know about that. I only know what I see. Since I first came, 10 years ago, things have improved a lot. Nobody had access to education or medical care then. This village didn’t have electricity until two years ago. We’ve managed to build a lot of cisterns. I have volunteers in Nanning, Guangzhou and Shenzhen helping me raise money by liaising with big companies like Shangri-La.
People help simply because they can make a difference.
“The Yao take convincing; sometimes they don’t grasp what they need to do to help themselves. But I’m sure we’ve made progress in improving their circumstances.
“Just think, before 1996 that road below wasn’t even there. They had no connection with the outside world.”
It wouldn’t be fair to say that the Communist Party has done nothing for the Yao. Throughout these hills are government-built schools, houses and roads. Nor would it be fair to suggest that this is a case of Han Chinese oppressing another ethnic minority. The dominant Zhuang bear, by all accounts, a historic grudge towards their impoverished minority neighbours.
The principal issue Yang and others have, however, is with the Byzantine practices of the party at local level. President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign has garnered much publicity, but, as Li Huiming, a migrant from a remote mountain area, observes back in Shenzhen, “The crackdown is happening in the big cities. Corruption in the countryside is far worse.”
Officially, the nation’s ethnic minorities are all members of a greater Chinese family. They’re afforded special rights, media to voice his dissent. No matter what roadblocks local cronies have thrown up, he’s found a way around them.
The concrete cisterns, those that have been built and are being built, are testament to Yang’s determination, giving credence to his organisation’s name, which translates as “Hope for the Yao”.
To support Yang Keshu, or find out more about his initiative, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.