Chengdu, Sichuan, China — On a country road outside Sichuan's capital city, it seems that everyone who is not on a bicycle is pulling a cart or pushing a wheelbarrow.
Some carts carry backbreaking loads of bricks. Others are piled high with hay. Some carts, barrel-shaped, slosh night soil on their journey from the city to communal fields.
Sichuan calls itself the ''heavenly kingdom,'' and indeed at this season of the year the countryside seems golden. Tangerines glow orange in the diffuse sunlight that is seldom without a hint of rain. They will grow through the winter on this frost-free plain shielded by high mountains from the whistling winds of the northwest.
Something is growing all year long, whether it be rice, wheat, or green vegetables. In every season, someone is taking a squealing pig to market, trussed up on his bicycle or wheelbarrow.
To this ''heavenly kingdom'' recently came a friendship delegation from Washington State, headed by Gov. John Spellman (R) and including state officials , businessmen, farmers, and educators. Sichuan has nearly 100 million residents; Washington, 5 million. Sichuan is an inland province, 1,000 miles from the sea. Washington borders the Pacific.
Yet as Mr. Spellman noted at a ceremony celebrating an official agreement to open sister-state relations between Washington State and Sichuan Province, both regions share ''mountains like Chinese brush paintings, veiled in morning mist, '' fertile fields, vast forests, huge hydroelectric power resources.
And Washington, the only US state with a full-time nongovernmental China Relations Council, wants its ports of Seattle and Tacoma to be America's gateway to China, exporting grain and forest products and importing everything Chinese from tea and spices to textiles and measuring instruments.
The interaction between delegation members, most of whom had never been to China before, and the Sichuanese was widely perceived as excellent, surmounting barriers of language, customs, and living standards.
Gayle Gering, who farms 5,000 acres of wheat in Washington using just one full-time and a couple of part-time helpers, had no trouble relating to members of the Golden Horse production brigade outside Chengdu, whose 279 families have altogether just 213.5 acres of farmland on which they mainly grow rice, wheat, and rapeseed (for oil). This is not enough land to make an economic unit for even a single farmer in Washington State.
Mr. Gering was interested in all aspects of the brigade's activities, from raising pigs and chickens to the use of biogas for cooking and lighting. Everywhere he went, with a smile and cheery greeting, a trail of children followed. This was the experience of most other members of the delegation.
The work force of the Golden Horse production brigade numbers 500 - which by most standards is far too many for efficient management of the farmland. The brigade - which is actually a village and which will revert to this status when the reorganization of communes now under way is completed - tries to cope by trying to find at least two jobs outside of farming for each family. ''If a family has four people of working age,'' said a brigade official, ''we will send two of them to a factory run by the brigade or by the commune, or to a sideline job such as beekeeping. So only two will have to go work in the fields.''
Last year the brigade's total income was 870,000 yuan (now about $435,000). Fifty-two percent of this came from sideline production or industry, a brigade official says.
In agriculture, the brigade has been practicing the system of devolving responsibility to the individual household since last year. This was pioneered in Sichuan when Prime Minister Zhao Ziyang was party secretary in the province, and is now being applied nationwide.
Under this system, land still belongs to the collective, in this case the brigade. But each family is allocated land on the basis of its manpower. A family with four working persons, for instance, receives 3.2 mu or about half an acre. The family contracts with the brigade to supply a certain amount of grain each harvest, depending on the quality of the land. The contract is set low enough so that the family will easily be able to exceed the quota. Everything beyond the quota, the family can keep or sell as it pleases.
Peasants are pleased with the system and many have made money from it. ''We're not all eating out of the same big rice-pot any more,'' said one. ''Whoever works harder will earn more.'' Last year, income per capita was 414 yuan ($207), half of which came from brigade enterprises, and half from the farm earnings of individuals practicing the responsibility system.
But there remain many unanswered questions. How long will the system last? If a family grows in size, will it get more land? When would such redistribution take place, and how will it be managed?
''We assume,'' said one brigade member who wished to remain anonymous, ''that there will be no further redistribution of land, because it is just too complicated, and anyway, our land is not going to grow. So, if (the number of) family members increases, we will just have to manage with the land we have now.''
The ultimate answer, some observers say, may be to provide more and more jobs outside of agriculture to places like the Golden Horse brigade. Delegation members visited a flourishing silk-spinning factory run by the brigade. It employs 200 young men and women, who are paid on the average 40 yuan ($20) per month for an eight-hour-a-day job.
Another answer is to limit population by family planning. Sichuan is a standard-bearer in China's one-child-per-couple drive.
But the traditional desire for male offspring remains strong among peasant families. The responsibility system is itself an inducement for them to have more than one child, for now that each family is responsible for its own income, even a child can be helpful at chores such as caring for chickens.
It is not easy to find an answer to this contradiction and delegation members did not find anyone in the Golden Horse production bridage who would speak out on the subject. They could only ponder two visible facts: People seemed well-fed , well-clothed, and reasonably well-housed. And they are engaged in a purposeful activity which is apparently bringing them better material rewards.