The most enduring memory for travelers down China's country roads this past summer is the cornucopia of fruit available: the green but ripe, thumb-sized bananas of Guangdong; the small, striped watermelons of Hunan; and the pale peaches of Jiangsu. Trucks by the dozen with unwieldy mounds of produce rumbled toward towns and cities. Even in remote areas, vendors -- often grandmothers or young daughters -- stood under makeshift bamboo and straw huts on dusty roadsides hawking wares from their own backyards.
What made the abundance surprising was that the most popular China guidebook for independent travelers, written just two years ago, complained about the paucity of fresh fruit everywhere. Other books published more recently do mention that farmers have grown richer under the government's ``individual responsibility system,'' which allows them to pocket some profits.
But truly widespread evidence of the peasant's enthusiasm for the program has only appeared this year. Several early summer bumper crops, in particular a watermelon bonanza, gave the farmers encouragement. They gradually have been given fuller rein since 1981; currently, they may work private plots and keep what they make after they fill government quotas.
Stories from the late '70s about how the Chinese peasant had become lazy under the communal system of farming no longer ring true today. In the Sichuan mountains throughout July farmers headed for the fields at 5 a.m. As daylight faded they could still be seen bent over their crops or trudging home, violet peaks forming a backdrop behind them.
When summer fades here, temperatures drop from the high 90s to a more comfortable 80 degrees in the daytime. In Wuxi, a small city near China's east coast, the sun sets before 7 p.m., and farms in the area appeared quieter after the second rice crop was planted in the fields.
But the change of season did not appear to dampen the new-found spirit of free enterprise. Little family stalls were still hustling business; green apples -- much like Granny Smiths -- were starting to pile up; and, just as quickly, Chinese families were running to spend part of their food budgets here.
The four-year-old policy of relaxing state controls over agriculture is not without problems, but its general success has prompted the government to continue. The latest move goes into effect this fall. The government operates a grain monopoly under which farmers are given quotas to meet and are told which grains to grow. The new system will abolish quotas and leave it up to the farmer to decide how much rice, corn, or soybeans he should plant -- and he gets to choose which. The government remains the p rimary buyer, but peasants will have the right to sell directly to processors and privately-run stores.
Relaxation of controls has wrought major changes in the way the Chinese buy their food. Two years ago food lines in towns were not uncommon. This summer there were none to be seen, but outdoor vendors everywhere had throngs of people around them. The Chinese press reports that the abrupt shift toward private stores has nearly put some state-run stores out of business. In Guangzhou (Canton) alone, more than 400 state stores have recently become hotels or restaurants.
The farmer, too, has adapted, and not just by working longer hours to tend his private plot. A mid-morning scene in southern Hunan Province was repeated in several areas this summer: In a low, one-family farmhouse a lean-to addition was built so that the woman of the house could sell bottled orange soda for 10 cents. Half a dozen curious hens wandered out to the store from the kitchen. A younger woman scampered past the other end of the house with a large tin bowl of slops, five young grunting pigs at h er heel. They were not destined for the dinner table. They were market pigs intended to bring cash into the family coffers.
Pigs, like most livestock and poultry, are raised on a small scale. Getting them to market is an activity that keeps Chinese roads lively, to say the least. Piglets are usually put by fours or fives into baskets and carried on the backs of bicycles. Large pigs are often walked to town. A rope is attached to the animal's ear and two people accompany him -- one to push, one to pull. When a pig, like one in Shaanxi Province, decides he'd rather roll in a ditch, a crowd gathers to aid the hapless owners.
Ferries carry their share of pigs, too. In Yueyang, Hunan, four pigs were being unloaded. One owner had a heated discussion with the ticket-taker about how much he had paid for the pig's transport. It was amicably settled, but by this time the pig had decided not to go anywhere. The man tugged, someone else pushed. Finally, the ticket collector stepped back and gave him a mighty shove. One more pig was on his way to market.
According to the Chinese Ministry of Commerce, pig production has risen since pork-price controls were lifted early this year. In Hunan, the number of households with pigs jumped 10 percent. Jilin, a grain-producing area, has had its own kind of baby boom: Piglet population is 32 percent higher than a year ago.
The burst of farming activity designed to bring in hard cash is evident throughout provincial China. Vast communal farms still exist, but they are mainly around city suburbs. A more common sight beyond urban centers are tiny brick villages surrounded by paddies where a handful of workers are busy meeting the quota. Women often strap their babies on their backs while they plant or harvest rice. Toddlers play in wooden carts nearby.
Near the communal fields are small plots where other family members are busy with a variety of crops. Not an inch of ground is wasted. Sichuan's impressively abrupt mountains covered with corn would astonish any Iowa or Nebraska farmer. The spindly stalks climb the slopes and even the peaks, rising in untidy rows at giddy angles. Potatoes line the roadside. Even the roads are put to use at harvest time. The country's main north-south road becomes so narrow in spots that a truck can barely pass, because farmers spread corn kernels out to dry on the blacktop in strips two to three feet wide.
The government is increasingly making life easier (and more lucrative) for the peasant, but like farmers everywhere, the Chinese have another and less predictable master to contend with: nature. The summer started well, with good harvests and a hungry market. The second rice crop is now in. But the past two weeks have brought typhoons and floods in their wake to the north. In the south, riverbeds are nearly dry and rice shoots are looking wilted; July rainfall was 20 percent to 60 percent less than usua l.