One of our young men from California approached a frail-looking Chinese woman who had big baskets of leeks she had brought from a field. With pantomime, he asked, "May I lift your baskets of leeks to see how heavy they are?" She smiled and nodded approval. He stepped between the baskets, put the bamboo pole across his shoulders and strained to lift. Nothing happened. The baskets seemed to be bolted down! We all clapped and laughed, and the woman grinned.
Up stepped big strong Steve to show off in front of the crowd, but nothing happened! Nobody laughed! We just stared in awe at that tiny woman. When the ferry docked, we stared, not breathing, as she stepped between the baskets, put the pole in place and leaned forward. Then, with tiny, rapid shuffle steps, she boarded the ferry with her load! This was her job for life. She did it six days a week, and she was paid the standard wage! When they learn to do one thing, they donít train for easier jobs in old age. As we pedaled along the roads, we saw people pulling two-wheeled carts loaded with sand, bricks or rocks. We saw dozens of men and women building a new road by hand with mauls, picks and shovels!
In 1949, major changes came to China after the bloody revolution and the end of private ownership. Fences were destroyed; roads were plowed up; telephone and electric lines and small farms were gone. We saw no homes, barns, churches or other buildings. We saw no farm machinery, no livestock. Irrigation ditches lined the few blacktop roads on which we bicycled. Miles of fields were disturbed only by narrow paths where men and women walked to work to produce food, hops for beer and tobacco.
I often stopped, leaned on my bicycle and photographed their primitive farming operations. People worked bent over all day, setting out started plants, pulling weeds, cultivating with long hoes - in sun and rain - most with bare feet. Some fields were double-planted; peanuts and melons grew together because melon vines required space and peanuts developed below. Huge water buffaloes with wide horns rested and cooled themselves in the drainage ditches until needed, but there was no resting for workers. They worked six days a week for the standard wage, the equivalent of our $55 per month!
This was 20 years ago, and it was in the farming country. We pedaled through ghost cities where vacant buildings spoke of a long-ago wealth; that wealth was accompanied by poverty and starvation. Although the communist revolution destroyed homes and roads and so much more, we saw extreme poverty but no starving people. They had one bicycle per family and no cars. Buses and open trucks took people to factories and fields. They laughed at a jumping mouse I made with my handkerchief - the only joy I saw in those quiet, obedient people.