Liam Leslie '15: Rural: From 3,000 to 300,000 People

Liam Leslie was one of the 2015-2017 Shansi Fellows at Shanxi Agricultural University. This is his first year narrative. 

When I found out that Shansi had chosen me to go to rural China, I thought, “Wow! What a great experience to enjoy myself outside in a natural setting.” Natural and agricultural areas have always been a big part of my life, and I was excited to see what “natural” meant in a civilization that is thousands of years old. My family lives in Bloomfield, Indiana, a small town with a population just shy of 2,500. Camping was a staple of my youth, and I picked my major, Geology, because of my love of natural areas.

China has been developing quickly to say the least, and, with this, its natural areas are changing as well. My first encounter with “hiking” in rural China was a trip to Phoenix Mountain (凤凰山feng4 huang2 shan1). When I arrived at the base of the mountain, I was met with a wide road that snaked its way to the top and a long staircase that ran from the base to the peak. At the top were three old towers. Lights dotted the trail, and more and more lights and renovations were underway. I couldn’t help but contrast this experience with my trip to the Bell Mountain Wilderness Area in Missouri, where the only signs of human intervention were the occasional tree marked purple – a common “No Trespassing” sign, and a faint trail guiding us along. For many of my students, a hike up a mountain is really a long staircase leading to historical structures and a beautiful view, or if you really wanted, a quicker drive to the top.

Taigu is considered a small town by Chinese standards with a population of about 280,000, but is enormous relative to the small town where my parents live. What this means is that natural areas are not places to be alone and to reflect, but places to photograph and take in as a group. Few places are not considered public; even our house is seen as public. One day last fall, a group of visiting corn farmers invited themselves into our house to have a look around. Each day, around fifty people take pictures among the tulips in our front yard. As much as this can be frustrating for introverts like me, I am always impressed with how space is utilized by so many people. Next to our house is a small track, which at any given time has people playing basketball, playing soccer, running, chatting with friends, playing with children, riding bicycles, dancing, and couples meeting on their weekly dates. Space is not fought over, but is often shared without question. “Rural” in China is simply not the same as “rural” in America, where private space is often the number one priority.

This shows a group of usually middle-aged women dancing on the track next to our house. People who dance like this are called dama, and it’s a pretty common sight all over China, but not always with umbrellas.

There are other differences as well. Walking around downtown Taigu, one can hear blaring horns, loud music, and even see western-style restaurants. My hometown has one wholesale store, an Italian restaurant, a bar, a library, and more Bible stores than you can count. Taigu has at least three grocery stores, innumerable clothing stores and vegetable markets, a handful of bars, and many other things that would not be necessary in the small town of Bloomfield, but are necessary in the “small” town of Taigu.

I saw a different side of rural China when I went with Geology Professor Amanda Schmidt to Southwestern China to do field work along the Jinsha River. Amanda had rented a car to zigzag across the Jinsha River, which marks the border between Yunnan and Sichuan. During our journey, we encountered pothole-filled dirt roads on which we spent hours driving mere miles, turnaround points where the road didn’t exist anymore, and, my favorite, road delays, not because of traffic, but because the road was being built in front of us. This area in China is undergoing massive change as dams are being built, and rural towns are being relocated. It gave me a glimpse into the transition that rural areas are undergoing in China. Depending on where we drove, we saw rural China before, during, and after it transitioned from landscapes seemingly untouched by big industries to relatively urban areas.

When I was told that I would spend two years in rural China, I thought, naively, that rural China and rural America would be the same. I thought about dirt trails leading to tree covered peaks, rivers shaping and carving a changing landscape, and large expanses where one could reflect and be alone. What I have seen is something altogether different, but amazing nonetheless. I have found people cooperating in how they use shared rural space at the same time that I am observing rapid changes in infrastructure.

The roads were prone to giving way on the steep slopes.

I would be lying to say that I have liked everything I have seen in rural China, but I am interested to see how a country with a huge population and a rich, long history of navigating space will continue to shape its rural areas, especially as these places become more and more “urban.”