ON a mountain field swallowed up by weeds, Tan Minquan, 62, is herding cattle. She remembers the old days when this place was covered with terraces of corn and wheat.
“Now it’s all empty,” she says gazing at the forlorn land.
There were also a lot more people around. Tan is one of only four residents remaining in Maijieping Village, which sits virtually hidden in a mountainous area 800 meters above sea level in Yanshi City of central China’s Henan Province.
It’s too remote for all but the most hardy to live, as there are no roads for vehicles and the only way to reach the village is by walking at least two hours.
In the 1990s, more than 100 villagers abandoned their ancestral houses and terraced fields here and moved away. Only two couples stayed. They live at the west end and east end of the village.
“When we pass away, there will be no one here,” says Tan.
Maijieping is one of thousands of villages in China that are disappearing. According to Feng Jicai, a famous author and artist dedicated to the preservation of traditional villages, China had 3.6 million villages in 2000, a number that dropped to 2.7 million by 2010. That means 900,000 villages vanished in 10 years.
More are on the verge. In the west of Jiangxi Province, a winding stream passes through Nankang Village, which was built deep in the mountains in the late Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
Among green mountains and clear waters, 31 houses were built, all with blue bricks and black tiles on their wooden structures. Zhong Zhaowu, 64, however, is the only man who still lives there.
Twenty years ago, Heshui Town, where Nankang is located, was the richest in its county, Anyi. Villagers made money by selling timber harvested on the mountain. But when the government took action to protect the forest, the villagers lost their way to make a living.
“A small holding on the hill could barely support a family,” Zhong says.
Finding themselves impoverished, people started migrating to where they could find jobs. Like most other villages, young people left first, followed by middle-aged men and women. After that, they brought their parents and children away from the village.
“There were 11 villages in Heshui Town, with 814 villagers,” Zhong says. “Now less then 80 people are left, all over 60 years old. Every village has less than eight people.”
“With the development of urbanization, the number of villages will keep reducing, so will the number of farmers,” says Yi Peng, vice president of the non-profit Urban Development Strategy Society. “It is an objective phenomenon. When farmers go to the cities, they will not go back. Hence, villages disappear in pace with the shrinking population.
“Though we can’t stop some villages from disappearing, what we can do is trying our best to protect the villages and towns with cultural and historical value,” he adds.
Anhui University graduate Wan Fang shot a documentary about Maijieping Village that was released this year and aroused discussion about disappearing villages. He realizes the inevitability of villages disappearing amid China’s economic development, but the director says he is concerned about the “abandoned villagers.”
For Pei Huayu, 61, life in Maijieping Village is reduced to the simplest of needs. Day after day, it is the same boring routine. On a sunny day, after having breakfast, Pei helps her husband go near the crumbling adobe wall to rest. Then she goes to farm the land while he suns himself. Qiao Tao, the husband, suffers Parkinson’s disease and is too sick to work.
Their one and only entertainment is the black-and-white television. Once they are in the room, they never turn off the TV.
They have no visitors. The only time they see other people is every winter when villagers come back to sweep the tombs, or when old villagers are returned to be buried here, as is the tradition when they die after moving away.
“Of course we want to move out. But our two sons need to marry, which cost several thousand yuan for each. And my little daughter just graduated with no job. We can’t afford buying a flat or land at the bottom of the mountain,” Tan says.
In another Henan Province village, only five villagers are left. In Shibao Village, they live alone at the end of a mountain road 6 kilometers long. The bumpy road is less than 2 meters wide, with a steep slope. It is arduous for people to visit, even if they are “neighbors.”
“We built this road with our own money, taking all the earth and stone from the mountains. I would love to build a cement road here but the whole project needs 6 million yuan. We don’t have the money,” says Shang Weihong, deputy of the Shibao Village Committee.
It was only two years ago that the village got access to telecommunications. The isolation the villagers endured was even tougher than poverty, they say.
Li Zhengwen, 78, still lives here so that he is not a burden to his offspring who lives in a small rented flat at the foot of the mountain.
He likes to weave bamboo baskets so that when the grandchildren come to visit, he can give the baskets to them as gifts — the greatest moment in his life.