MA GUICAI used to feel a jab of shame when neighbors called him away from his mud house or tiny plot of barley by using his given name, ``Noble Fortune.'' So, last winter Mr. Ma decided to live up to his name and find his riches in gold in China's wild west.
Ma hired a dozen men, spent his life savings on shovels, tents, food, and a truck and left his ripening barley to the hoeing of his wife.
On a warm spring day last March, Ma and his mining crew rumbled over the snowy Sun and Moon Mountains west of their village and looked out on the high plain of Qinghai Province. There, he had heard, gold glimmers on the grasslands and can be picked up grain-by-grain like rice.
In the past decade, more than 400,000 peasants like Ma have dropped their hoes, shouldered pickaxes, and left poor villages across China to join the ``Crazy Yellow Rush.''
Most prospectors have gone west to barren regions like Qinghai, Xinjiang, and Inner Mongolia. They pan for the ``river eel'' in freezing mountain streams until they can no longer feel their feet. Or they wriggle deep into hillsides in ``rat holes'' just wide enough for a man and his pickax.
The jin nong, or gold farmers, take on rough-and-rowdy ways when they quit the serene rhythm of growing grain for the frantic passion of digging gold.
Far from the prudent customs of their quiet villages, they have thrown together boom towns made of tents and rickety wooden shanties and taken up gambling, smuggling, and whoring.
Many miners have fallen victim to corrupt officials, shootouts, and armed robbery. Some of them are ``sand kids,'' naive youths lured by traffickers in laborers and sold to hard-driving bosses, according to official press reports and prospectors in Qinghai.
Like their counterparts in the US Klondike and other fields of high hopes, China's miners share good fortune and folly, fast friendship and betrayal, elation and despair.
Just as gold can stir the profane in men, China's gold rush has provoked misguided policies by the socialist leadership.
Beijing spurred the westward stampede of avarice in 1978. As part of market-oriented economic reform, it raised the official purchase price of gold and allowed Chinese to dig for the metal on their own.
The state condoned the wild miners on the fringes of the far west as gold production climbed more than 160 percent. The prospectors helped build up China's gold reserves for the peak repayment period for foreign loans that began early in the next decade. These reserves are particularly precious today as Western nations withhold loans in outrage over the June massacre of liberal activists in Beijing.
Yet a year ago, as part of a general tightening of central economic controls by conservative leaders, Beijing banned the mining, smelting, and sale of gold by individual prospectors. Like the larger program to restore economic powers to Beijing, however, the effort to curb the miners has so far failed, according to the official press.
Many local officials have ignored Beijing, reluctant to deny peasants a quick way out of penury. Others have found ways to claim a share of the miners' findings. The police chief and two former mayors at Golmud in central Qinghai illegally sold licenses to gold miners and pocketed more than $270,000, the official newspaper People's Daily reported early this month.
Poor peasants have also disregarded the regulations. They have little to lose and can easily evade state officials and sell gold to smugglers who deal on an extensive black market. Miners in Qinghai have turned over only 10 percent of their gold to the state, say provincial officials quoted in the official China Youth News. The ban on prospecting highlights costly contradictions typical in a socialist state that defies market forces.
While attempting to restrain independent prospectors, Beijing has forsaken a policy of tight austerity and raised funding for inefficient state gold mines. And Beijing has tried to halt the mass, voluntary drive west by prospectors while paying hefty bonuses to state workers who settle in desolate regions like Qinghai.
The antipathy of Beijing toward ``Qinghai '89ers'' like Ma ultimately rests on ideological grounds.
Ironically, the prospectors exemplify ``pioneering spirit,'' ``plain living,'' and other officially extolled ideals. But their free, exuberant ways and the envy unearthed with their fortunes irks the strait-laced Marxist regime. Thousands of peasants have challenged the Maoist credo of equal wealth and returned to their homes from the gold fields many times richer than their neighbors.
Ma, however, only struck it rich in wisdom. After an 800-mile journey to western Qinghai over some of Asia's most rugged terrain, he found fields plentiful only in mud. Drenched constantly by rain and snow, Ma and more than 8,000 other gold farmers wallowed on land that had thawed in the fickle spring weather from hard tundra to deep mire.
For days, Ma and other prospectors pulled more than 1,000 trucks in a ragged convoy through the icy downpour and sucking sump. At an altitude of 16,500 feet and several miles east of the ``Gold Platform'' at Hoh Xil Lake, the shivering, mud-soused gold farmers ran out of food.
Army pilots tried twice to drop bales of wheat flour from airplanes but failed to find the hungry miners beneath the gray clouds. More than 70 prospectors died while marooned in the thin air and frigid slop.
Eventually, pilots flying helicopters just above the muck arrived with food. Following the orders of the army, Ma and the other would-be tycoons abandoned their trucks and dreams of El Dorado and made the long slog back to hard ground on foot.
``We had a bit of a hard time,'' Ma says with a laugh, showing the reputed ruggedness of his fellow Tu, a Moslem minority.
Back at his village, Ma today can find riches in the gold leaves of poplars shimmering in the autumn wind against a deep, blue sky. ``I'll never go west for gold again - actually, my life here is good,'' he says, holding a mining pan filled with bits of yellow straw.