Dazhai, Shanxi, China — A village that became famous for collective self-help during the Cultural Revolution is now allowing individual peasants to ''get rich first,'' as the saying goes.
''Learn from Dazhai'' was a slogan celebrated throughout China during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) and for several years thereafter. The basic idea was that through self-reliance and determined collective endeavor, even a poor mountain village could work wonders, creating rich, wide fields where only scrubby hillsides and eroded gullies existed before.
Recently, this correspondent became the first journalist permitted to visit Dazhai since the ''Dazhai way'' fell into disrepute three years ago.
Visually, the village is like no other I have ever seen in China. Dazhai sits on the eastern slope of Tigerhead Mountain, and its 497 inhabitants live in two extraordinarily long buildings of stone and brick, plus an adjoining U-shaped building surrounding a courtyard.
Each family occupies two rooms, the facade of which is arch-shaped, letting in plenty of light. I was vaguely reminded of a convent in Assisi or some other Italian mountain town. Two characters spelling Dazhai crown the archway leading into the village, while below it, on the wall, are four characters signifying self-reliance.
Under the warming autumn sun, the courtyard spaces in front of each family unit were beehives of harvest activity. Ears of corn were drying everywhere - in the courtyard, on rooftops. Peasants were sieving linseed, beating soybean stalks to separate the beans, chopping up cabbage and turnip tops to pickle for the long winter ahead. It was a colorful, bustling, happy scene.
''Ai-ya,'' said one of the women chopping turnip tops, ''this is the time of year when we simply don't have any extra space anywhere. Just look at all the corn, sorghum, millet, soybeans, linseed drying everywhere outside. And we're just as crowded inside; cabbages and potatoes are sprawled all over our floors.
''It looks like this year's harvest will be the biggest we've ever had,'' said lean Zhao Suheng, the hydraulic engineer who has been Dazhai's Communist Party secretary since March this year.
''I think we're going to have more than a million catties (500,000 kilograms) of grain, compared to just 651,900 catties last year,'' he said.
Mild weather and plenty of rainfall have helped, of course. But more important, Mr. Zhao said, was that after a couple of years of confusion the peasants have managed to ''emancipate their thinking'' and take full advantage of economic incentive policies practiced since December 1978 by China's leaders under the mentorship of crusty Deng Xiaoping.
These policies represent a 180-degree turn from what China's villages in general, and Dazhai in particular, had been used to during the Cultural Revolution and before. In Dazhai the confusion was greater because for many years the villagers had been used to the charismatic leadership of Chen Yonggui.
Mr. Chen, a gruff, towel-turbaned peasant who eventually became a Politburo member and a vice-premier, is in disfavor as an ''ultra-leftist'' today. But he is still popular in Dazhai even though many villagers recognize that some of the things he did were wrong.
''These buildings we live in, for instance,'' said the elderly peasant Jia Jincai. ''Peasants don't want apartments. We want our own houses, our own courtyards. But we were told that, under socialism, there'd be no difference between city-dwellers and country-dwellers. As you can see, we just don't have any space to take care of our harvested crops.''
The buildings were constructed during an eight-year period after the flood of 1963, which wiped out the cave dwellings the peasants had traditionally carved out for themselves in the loess hillsides of Tigerhead Mountain, Mr. Zhao said. Whereas in most villages, peasants own their own homes, in Dazhai they pay a nominal rent - 10 yuan ($5) per year.
''We have a plan to sell our buildings to the peasants who live in them,'' Mr. Zhao said.
Even now, any peasant who feels too crowded in the present buildings may ask permission to move out and build himself a single-unit dwelling elsewhere. Few have done so as yet, but Mr. Zhao thinks this will be the trend of the future. Apartment-type buildings are recognized as one of Chen Yonggui's ''leftist mistakes'' today.
But Dazhai's citizens, including Mr. Zhao, recognize and appreciate the rare organizing abilities Mr. Chen displayed when he got villagers to work together as a team to transform their fields in the 1950s and early '60s.
''See these fields below us,'' Mr. Zhao said, after taking me up to a look-out point above the village housing complex. Cradled by two arms of Tigerhead Mountain, a series of one- to two-acre-wide fields stretched down the valley, each field a yard or so lower than the one above it.
''This used to be a gully called the Wolf's Paw. The sides were steep, and no field in it was more than a third of an acre wide. Every time there was a downpour, floods would roar down the gully, destroying our crops.
''Chen Yonggui mobilized us to turn the gully into a productive field. Many of us thought it couldn't be done. But he insisted that self-reliance and teamwork would do the job. It was hard work. We had to do everything by hand many times. We were nearly wiped out by floods. But bit by bit, we cut away the hillsides and filled the gully.''
Mr. Zhao knows, because as a youth growing up in Dazhai he took part in the work. Later, in 1971, he got a coveted slot at prestigious Tsinghua University in Peking as a student of worker-soldier-peasant background. He took a degree in hydraulic engineering and worked in various parts of Shanxi Province before being asked to return to his native village as party secretary this spring.
The ''wolf's paw project'' added 50 mu (8 1/3 acres) of cultivable land to Dazhai's acreage. The incredible work involved in creating it has to be seen to be believed - all done by human beings with shovel, pick, wheelbarrow, and occasional donkey. In all, Dazhai has increased its cultivated land by nearly 200 mu - some 33 acres - since the early 1950s, when the village had just 200 acres of cultivated fields.
''But, of course, our population has doubled during the same period, and there is a limit to the new land we can create, so we have to think of new ways of increasing our income,'' Mr. Zhao said. ''That is why the new responsibility system is so important.''