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(CHINA 9 - Southwest)






Farmer and weaver


Xuelin village, Lancang county, Yunnan


17 April 1997


This is a nice interview, with lots of personal history and detail. Yeai sits weaving as the interview is conducted and she explains how hers is becoming a lost art. Young people say the traditional Wa weaving work is “too troublesome” and they can just buy clothes, blankets, bags and sheets today. But, she says, “If I were them, I would learn even now - because it's the handicraft skill from our ancestors, and we should maintain it.” Yeai is a responsive narrator and from the beginning gives full and interesting answers. She remembers how poor her family were before “liberation”, when the Chinese Communist party gained control of China from the Nationalist party (the Guomingdang) and established the People’s Republic of China in 1949. They had to work for a landlord and she was so small she “used a special bench and stood on it so that I could reach up to pound the rice. Life was very difficult. Now when I recall it my tears are ready to fall.”

Two years after “liberation”, her husband was made head of the local militia and received a small stipend, but he fell out of favour during the Cultural Revolution and the payments stopped. “At that time, I thought that it was good that he was not the militia's head, so we could go to the mountain to work together every day. At that time, I wished to have two things: a tobacco pipe made of silver, and a bracelet. I wanted these two things very much.” They worked hard and achieved much, but then her father, who had left her mother when she was small because “we were poor”, suddenly turns up – destitute - with the children from his second marriage and she has to take them in. With the extra mouths to feed, her dream of buying the bracelet and the pipe is shattered forever. Indeed at one point, they are forced to “dig up tree roots to eat”.

Despite these setbacks, Yeai seems to have remained cheerful and positive. She has a good husband, and they continue to work hard together. “Who still wants to live the life of the past? It was not easy when we had the collectivised commune… some people worked slothfully, and the grain you worked hard for one year [to grow] was not sufficient to eat. Now, it's all up to you how hard you want to work and how much you want to eat. Grain is not in short supply.” Her son has learned how to repair tape-recorders and TV sets, which brings in extra cash, but she regrets not letting carry on with his schooling: “We were too pigheaded. We thought that by finishing the middle school, the knowledge would be sufficient to use.”

She is still scared of being as hungry as they were in the past: “We are afraid of living the kind of life we did in the collectivised commune period. At that time, we were often in debt. I'm scared to death even when I think about it now.” Yet, although life is better now, she fears a little for the future too: “Because I see that the trees on the mountain are disappearing. Our generation almost does not have firewood. If we don't manage the forest well, what firewood would the next generation use?” Ultimately, though, she and her husband like the self-reliance and independence of the present day: “…now we have the [household] responsibility system, we can decide how hard we want to work. It’s not like before. There is no landlord exploiting the ordinary people. Now, I think, we work for ourselves.”

detailed breakdown

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Section 1-2  Learned to weave by watching others. Father left them. Her mother couldn’t even afford to buy yarn for weaving. When she married, her husband’s family was poor, too; they had only a pot, a bamboo sheet and two bowls. Her mother gave them a worn-out blanket, which was all she and her husband had their first year. Asked her husband to learn to make bamboo sheets, which he could sell for 8 yuan each. Also grew corn and grain, selling the surplus. With that money, they bought cotton wadding. Her parents-in-law died and were wrapped in blankets she wove. Recalls “when Han people came” (liberation army) – up to then they had to work for the landlord in exchange for grain.
Section 2-3  Two years after Liberation, husband became militia head, receiving 20 yuan a month. But that income stopped at start of Cultural Revolution, and they began working the fields together. At that time, she wanted a silver tobacco pipe and a bracelet, and hoped to buy those with surplus from a good harvest. But her father appeared with his children from his second marriage and so there was to be no surplus grain. However, life is better now. Under commune system, not everyone worked equally hard and there was not enough grain; now it’s up to you how hard you work and what you eat. “We ordinary people like [the household responsibility system] more, but are just afraid that the policy will change in the future, and don't know what will happen then.” Son and daughter married now. Son taught himself how to repair tape-recorders and TVs, and has made some money. He failed high school entrance exams; could have done a make-up year and tried again, but parents decided against that: “So sometimes he blames us.” Partly a financial decision, but they also thought he had “sufficient” knowledge. Now deeply regrets it: “Now when I think about it, I'm really regretful. If we were not that stubborn and were willing to support him to study, he probably would be a university student now.”
Section 3-4  Eat more meat than before, though less than “people who receive a salary”, meaning the Oxfam interviewer! “Ordinary people” buy 2 jin (equals 1 kg)a week at most. Yet this is a huge improvement on the grain deficits of the past: “We had to dig up tree roots, cut edible wild plants and the stems of banana trees for food. Now I have persistent stomachache.” Life better now because no landlords to exploit them. But family has not been that successful - bought buffalo last year for 260 yuan, but it died after only four months: “I cried for three days.” Later bought pigs and chickens, but all died. Called vet - treatment cost several 10s of yuan, but they still died. “I don't know whether the vet had used expired medicine, or if God in Heaven doesn't want us to be rich?” Young people unwilling to wear traditional clothes; just manufactured clothing. And, like her daughter, they don’t want to learn to weave.
Section 4-5  Husband sells bamboo sheets for 30 or 40 yuan (later, says 50 or 60 yuan). He makes them in the morning and evening, plus goes to work during the day. Sometimes pool their money to buy a major item, such as a pig or buffalo. Husband helps with housework and field work: “…he is not like other men wandering around all day and just chatting with other families. He would rather work hard for the family.” We have a fear of experiencing hunger again.” In the past, had to go to Shangyu to buy salt, and had to work several days to afford it. There were “many bad people” in those days, and people feared being robbed on the way back. Eat rice every day now and no longer mill it by hand but by machine.
Section 6-7  Spends more than 100 yuan to buy wool (to make several blankets?) and sells each for 50-60 yuan. But is weaving now just for herself - a blanket to be wrapped in when she dies. “We, the older generations, are unwilling to use the red blanket made by the state (factory-made).” Young people are lazy and don’t want to learn traditional handicrafts. Have running water now, but must pay. Also have to pay to mill rice. In the past, people respected the seasons when you shouldn’t collect firewood - now they take it whenever they want. Wanted to go to school, but “my mum forcibly held me back”.
Section 7-8  Imperative to manage forests well or there will be no fuelwood left. “We would have no charcoal to burn either, nothing. And the cogon grass (used for thatching) cannot grow now. Without cogon grass, what can ordinary people use to build houses? Look at my house - if it was not for the fact that the country (state) gave me these tiles [under government poverty alleviation schemes], I really don't know what I could have used to build it.”