Most expats who live in China are concentrated in the country’s first-tier cities of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. There are famous international cities and ever-expanding oceans of concrete and metal home to millions. Sometime with their legendary traffic jams, hazardous levels of pollution, endemic overcrowding and open spaces.
Whether you are a first time traveller to China or a long-term expat, venturing outside the cities responds to a real need.
So, last summer when I decided to explore the outskirts of Guangzhou and ventured into Conghua (从化), I may have taken it too far. Indeed, I ended up visiting my first abandoned village.
Weird thing to do you might think. So did I. But it did offer a nice break from the overcrowded Guangzhou and the constant noise.
Sunset on Red China
So, at Conghua bus station, just one hour northeast of Guangzhou by bus, I hired a taxi driver for the day and asked him to drive me to a village I had heard of named Dajiangpu (大江浦) and possibly other places of interest he knew.
We pulled in the middle of nowhere. Master Zhang (you should always refer to your driver as ‘master’ or shifu 师傅) and I crossed a small bridge. Soon, we were stepping into what I still believe to be a ancient commune, the village of Fenghuang Guwei (凤凰古围).
As we were going passing by several rows of empty spartan houses, most of them empty, I could read ancient slogans like “Mao Zedong is the red sun that glows in people’s heart [毛泽东是我们心中的太阳]” on a wall.
On another wall, more slogans from the Mao-era read 毛主席万岁！”Long Life to Chairman Mao! 共产党万岁！ Long Life to the Communist Party!” 抓革命！促生产！”Grasp the Revolution! Produce quickly”
The Collectivisation Era
When I asked Master Zhang how old the village was, he said it was a couple of hundred years old … maybe. He did not quite know. Fenghuang Guwei did not seem that old to me. I had the feeling that I was walking in a commune set up during the collectivisation era.
Back 1949 when the Communist took over the leadership of China, all land became the property of the people of the newly founded (and glorious) socialist republic. Technically, it means that the land belong to the state. The property of the people is state property.
After the agrarian reforms of the 1953, the central leadership aimed at the rapid industrialisation of China. In the central view, production of grain would help finance China’s industrial development. Land was therefore collectivised, and peasants were organised into communes and production teams. They became labourers for the state. The collective period started in 1958 and ended in the early 1980s.
The Great Leap Forward
We arrived on a large empty square behind which I could see only more empty rows of small adobe houses. There was something eerie about this square and when I saw the white concrete gate with a washed-out red Communist stars in the middle of it, I started picturing in my mind all the farmers gathered there to listen to political discourses, mobilisation campaigns and sessions of self-criticism.
Nature was claiming its rights back.
And then I spotted a slogan I had never seen before :
Long Life to the Great Leap Forward!
Long Life to the Common Road!
Long Life to the People’s Commune!
The collectivisation was the premise to the Great Leap Forward (大跳进) which aimed at the rapid industrialisation of the country. In 1958, Mao called for the construction of furnace in communes and farmers were encouraged to produce steel from scrap metals. However, with farmers energy being diverted from the fields, changes in agriculture and economic mismanagement, the Great Leap Forward gave birth to the Great Famine (大饥荒), China’s worst human-made catastrophe in history.
The last villagers of Fenghuang Guwei
There are still a few people who live in the village. One old woman carrying a spade on her shoulder, stopped when she saw me.
“我们的村寨漂不漂亮?” – Isn’t our village beautiful?” She asked with a bright smile.
“很漂亮！不过，人家都到哪儿去了？” It is, but where have the people gone?
She explains that most households have move out of these houses made of mud bricks to go into concrete houses, just a few hundred meters away. She added that houses are very small and since people have more money now, they want to live in bigger more modern houses.