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Chinese village reflects success of latest economic incentives

December 2, 1983



Dazhai, Shanxi, China

Portraits of Mao Tse-tung still occupy the place of honor in many homes here in Dazhai. Peasants remain grateful to Mao for freeing them from landlordism and encouraging them to stand on their own two feet. But whereas the late Chairman stressed the importance of collective endeavor, Dazhai today is set firmly on the path to individual as well as collective wealth.

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The richest man in Dazhai today is a peasant who owns a secondhand minivan. He transports apples and other produce all around the county and to many towns beyond.

Typically, he was out the day we called at his arch-facaded home, but his fellow-villagers expect him to make close to 10,000 yuan ($5,000) this year.

As a collective, Dazhai runs a coal mine with 38 workers. Dazhai is also part of a larger entity, a commune, which is also called Dazhai and which operates a deer farm atop Tigerhead Mountain behind the village.

The deer are raised not for their meat but for their antlers, which are harvested twice a year. They bring 800 yuan ($400) per catty (1.1 pound).

''A male deer will produce an average of 1 1/2 catties of antlers per year,'' said Li Yinfa, manager of the farm. ''We started raising horses and cows, and we still do to some extent, but deer antlers are much more profitable.''

Bees and silkworms are another sideline of the farm. The deer farm benefits all the villages in Dazhai commune, but the coal mine belongs to Dazhai village itself.

''We started it last year with an investment of 20,000 yuan ($10,000) and we are already making a profit of over 4,000 yuan ($2,000) per month,'' said party secretary Zhao Suheng.

''Twenty-two of the miners are our own villagers, and in addition we hired 16 experts and helpers from outside.''

''How did you find the mine?'' I asked Mr. Zhao.

''Well,'' the answer came, ''every hill around here is full of coal.We have dug 300 meters already, and we've been told we have enough coal to last at least 10 years. The seam is six meters thick, and it's good anthracite.''

The mine seemed a primitive affair. A pair of tracks led down into a hole. Every hour or so, two wagons loaded with coal emerged from the hole, towed by an electric cable. Young men waiting by the tunnel entrance pushed the wagons to a point from which they could dump the coal into trucks and carts waiting below.

''We sell the coal for 5 yuan ($2.50) per ton to our own villagers, and for 17 yuan ($8.50) per ton to outsiders. Some communes send their trucks from as far away as Shandong (two provinces and a couple of hundred kilometers away) to buy our coal,'' Mr. Zhao said.

''I make 2.70 ($1.35) a day as a miner'' said a strapping young man with wicker helmet and miner's lamp. ''That's more than I could earn working the land. But it's hard work, and I don't see the sun all day.''

For Zhao, nonfarming jobs like the mine are essential in terms of providing remunerative employment for the village's 250 able-bodied men and women.

''Our population has doubled since 1949,'' Zhao said, ''but our cultivable land has grown by less than 200 mu (about 33 1/3 acres). That growth was achieved by backbreaking work during the winter slack seasons - terracing hillsides, filling and draining gullies. Today we have 791 mu (132 acres) for 497 villagers, plus another 20 acres of orchards.

Every villager is entitled to 0.8 mu (a bit more than one-seventh of an acre). A family of five, say, would have four mu. They can grow anything they like on that land, and they can do whatever they like with the harvest.

''The remaining land we have divided up as follows - 5.6 mu per able-bodied man and 1.8 mu per able-bodied woman. Women get less because much of the land is hilly and requires very hard physical labor. The people who get this land must sign contracts promising a harvest of at least 850 catties per mu, which they will sell to the village at agreed, fixed prices. Anything over 850 catties they can dispose of as they please.''

Those who sign such contracts are considered specialists in grain farming, making a living exclusively from the land.

''This year,'' Zhao said, ''thanks to our new responsibility system, yield per mu will average well over 1,000 catties, and we expect our first harvest (will be) over 1 million catties (500,000 kilograms).''

This is a far cry from the days of the Cultural Revolution, when nearly everyone worked on the land, summoned by drum and gong. Slackers and sloughers often received equal pay with the conscientious, and sideline occupations such as pig-raising or beekeeping were discouraged. Still, there is a limit to the income obtainable from the farming alone.

The richest peasants in Dazhai are those who have specialized occupations such as forestry or orchards or who have gone into transportation. Zhao said he keeps his eyes open for any possible way to bring more jobs and income to Dazhai. How about tourism, he was asked. Are there any temples or scenic spots in the vicinity? Zhao's eyes widened.

''A marvelous idea,'' he said.

No, Dazhai had no temples, he explained. But it was 800 meters above sea level and pleasantly cool during the summer. It had a first-class hotel dating from the days when people came from all over China and even from overseas to ''learn from Dazhai.''

The village was only an hour's drive from a major railway station, a comfortable overnight train ride from Peking. There were horses to ride and hill trails with breathtaking vistas to hike along.

''Do you think you could persuade some of your colleagues to spend a family holiday with us?'' he asked.