Distant dreams of a better life for the working poor of Qingbao village

A remote village in Hubei is the sort of place where the young leave early, the men drift back in middle age, and the women don't return

PUBLISHED : Friday, 03 May, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 03 May, 2013, 6:28am

After working for more than 20 years as a coal miner in northern China, 40-year-old Long Yongquan has decided to stay at home - a traditional timber cabin and a leaking cement bungalow in the mountains of Hubei's Enshi autonomous prefecture - with his grandfather, father and mentally disabled elder brother.

He had a wife, but she left four years ago. "The family's too poor, and I was always away from home," Long said.

With his 88-year-old grandfather growing more infirm, his father also troubled by ailments and no longer young himself, Long, like many other people from Qingbao village, returned home after spending his best years working in small coal mines.

Now he has found a new wife, a 36-year-old divorcee from the neighbouring municipality of Chongqing , and is hoping for a new life and a baby.

Living costs in they city are high and it cost a lot to travel back home. It was impossible to save

But no-one in the family has a job and it looks like their poverty will linger, with their half-hectare hillside farmland too poor to grow crops of any worth.

"We just grow some potatoes, corn and vegetables to keep ourselves from starving," Long said. "The soil is poor. There's rock under it and nothing grows well."

Long and his father chop firewood which they sell to local tea processors for 34 fen a kilogram.

"People here are neither educated nor skilled … how do we make life better? I thought of raising some pigs, but I don't have the capital," he said.

Long said he was still more than 30,000 yuan in debt and the village committee had turned down his requests for loans. Relatives and friends were also unwilling to lend him money because they feared he was too poor to repay them.

"Few families in our village have savings of 10,000 or 20,000 yuan," he said. "My family is probably the poorest."

Because the area is so impoverished, many men have trouble finding wives and divorce is common.

Wang Dazhi , from the neighbouring village of Longma, said one of her biggest wishes was to have a daughter-in-law soon. Her 40-year-old son, Gong Fujun, who has been working in the eastern city of Wenzhou , remains single.

"We're too poor," Wang said. "It's difficult to marry."

Liu Dajun , a 30-year-old Qingbao villager, said local girls left home to work in the cities and none were willing to return. "And when you finally marry someone from another place, she runs away just days afterwards," he said.

Long said local youths normally worked as migrant labourers in urban areas after finishing high school. The men usually returned home when they were in their 40s but the women stayed away for good, preferring to marry someone in the city or from a better off rural area.

Long's mother died when he was eight and he quit school after fourth grade when the family could not afford the fees.

He left home at 17 and became the family's sole breadwinner. His first job was carrying bricks at a kiln in Jingzhou , Hubei province. Until last year, he worked down mines in Henan , Hebei , Beijing and the northeastern provinces.

"I got lots of experience, but none that made me any money," Long said. "They were all small, illegal mines that the government wants to shut down, so we often worked for two days and rested for another two.

"Living costs in they city are high and it cost a lot to travel back home. It was impossible to save any money."

He tried his hand as a labour contractor for coal mines, but that endeavour ended after a mine explosion killed 13 workers in 2008. Asked how he would face the extra financial burden that a child would bring, Long said: "In this place, we can only wait and find out."