A sleepy Chinese village bustles with change. There have been dramatic changes in the Chinese countryside in recent years. Viewing them firsthand, Monitor writer Julian Baum recently spent five days in Luolin, a village in southeast China never before visited by foreigners.
AMONG the countless small ironies of Deng Xiaoping's China, one more deserves to be recorded: Li Junyong is going into business after 30 years as Communist Party secretary for this mountain village. He has made a modest investment in a hardware store worth about 10,000 yuan ($2,700).
The irony of Li Junyong's career change does not escape villagers who remember the disasters of the past 30 years, many of which were wrought by the hands of the Chinese Communist Party.
Villagers say the worst mistake was Mao Tse-tung's radical program to collectivize agriculture and prohibit private production in the late 1950s, a policy the former party boss now terms ``very stupid.'' It was the toughest job of his career, he recalled, and it brought this community of 2,000 people to the edge of famine.
Li Junyong's transformation into an amiable businessman, at the age of 60, is an example of how life in this remote settlement - and in hundreds of others in southern China - is changing.
There have been other transitions here since the early 1980s, when Peking adopted far-ranging economic reforms. The reforms have permitted farmers in Luolin to explore ways of making money instead of only growing grain, and also have brought broader changes in attitudes and lifestyles.
More than 200 miles west of Canton and seven miles from the main highway, Luolin lies in a secluded valley. In summer the rice fields and vegetable plots are in full growth and the landscape is an emerald green. Along the main dirt road, a visitor catches the scents of pine resin and rice grains drying in the sun. Houses are scattered, nested in clusters of seven villages. It's several hours walk from one end of the settlement to the other.
As a clan village, all but a handful of Luolin's four hundred families are named Li. The five branches of the Li clan are still distinct, though the ancestral halls where family altars once honored parents and grandparents have been forcibly abandoned to other uses. In the early 1950s, several were given to the poorest families and now are in bad repair.
``Not much has happened here, even during the Cultural Revolution,'' said Li Yihe, the village's oldest resident at 86. ``The Japanese didn't come here - the village has been very peaceful.''
As elsewhere in China, people's memories are selective. Li Yantan, the son of a former landlord, doesn't have pleasant memories of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). That was when he was accused of being a counterrevolutionary and severely persecuted. Even though his family had owned less than two acres of land, his father was labeled a landlord and sent to labor camp in 1958.
Now in his 50s, Li Yantan said his situation is ``quite relaxed'' and he runs a cottage factory making plastic seals for wine and soy-sauce bottles. But he said no one dared mention, much less apologize for, the public beatings and humiliation he once endured for several years.
Residents recall the hardship of food shortages. As late as the 1970s, families often ate cassava, a starchy root now grown for pig fodder. Rice was sometimes scarce and pork was a delicacy. The poorest ate wild vegetables and taro root. Many residents recall vividly the ``big dining hall period'' in the late 1950s, when families had to turn in their kitchen equipment and were forced to eat in communal canteens. Almost everyone went hungry during those years.
For the older generation in Luolin, life in the 1980s, with its privatization of agriculture and relative abundance of food, has brought freedom from anxiety about food supplies.
For the younger generation, the biggest difference is that it's now possible to make a living here without having to till the soil. Since the valley was first settled in the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644) by five brothers of the Li clan, the most ambitious members of each generation have migrated elsewhere to put their talents to good use.
``The best thing about life in Luolin has always been the scenery,'' said newly married Wang Xiao Quan. ``But now the transportation has improved, and you can get a factory job.'' Mr. Wang graduated from junior high school six years ago and works at the village mini-hydro power station which began operation last year. The station sells excess power to the provincial grid system, bringing the village outside revenue.
The biggest progress in Luolin, said many residents, has come from the factories run by Li Shiji, a local entrepreneur who employs several hundred workers from a village. Under primitive working conditions, the factories offer a cash income to young people who have discovered the pleasures of consumer goods.
The possibilities of wealth have raised everyone's expectations. A number of families in Luolin have built new houses of kiln-dried bricks and one-fourth of village households own a television set. There are now six motorcycles in the village and even more rare, there are two private telephones, and one video tape player.
The prosperity has made it easier for young people to find spouses. In clan villages, boys traditionally are expected to marry outside the village. But when the village was poor, finding a husband or a wife was difficult.
One young woman said she was in no hurry to find a husband and has already turned down offers from several matchmakers.
``Luolin's condition is good now, but so far I haven't found anyone suitable,'' said 21-year-old Li Chonyong. ``He should have skills, but need not be rich. If he's capable, that's enough.''
Miss Li insisted that her marriage decision is hers alone. Her independence may not be typical, but she's at least one woman in Luolin who is resisting the traditionally tight family control over marriage plans.
In another sign of social change, Miss Li's father keeps the clan records - at least what's left of them. Originally there were three volumes of genealogical history but during the Cultural Revolution two were burned.
The revival of clan organizations and rituals, once a dominant force here, appears unlikely, since it is forbidden by the Communist Party, and the most influential member of the local clan, Li Shiji, has no interest in such practices.
However, prosperity also has brought a revival of Chinese geomancy of feng shui - belief in the forces of wind and water, which are thought to govern the earth and man's fortunes. Before Wang was married last May, he consulted with a local feng shui man about the most propitious date for the wedding. A man whom locals often ask about the mysteries of feng shui said that consultations on marriage dates and where to build a house are now commonplace.
On the other hand, young married couples no longer pay their respect at the altar of the village god, named toh day bak gong in the Cantonese dialect. Yet the open-air altar made of brick and earth still stands near the main road, with ashes of freshly burned incense and stems of flowers recently offered by local residents.
The partial revival of traditional Chinese beliefs appears to be displacing the myths and symbols of an unpopular Communist party. The new party secretary for Luolin said he was having difficulty recruiting members, though he hoped to add several new names to the list next year.