We were 16 bicyclists, a leader and two interpreters -- waiting for a ferry
boat in southeast China. A dozen big trucks and more than a hundred other
people also waited. It was 1981 and we were on an 11-day bike tour “behind
the fence” after a stop in boisterous Hong Kong. As we waited, we “visited”
with the others.
One of our young California men asked a woman if her two baskets of leeks were
a heavy load. She smiled. He stepped between the baskets, put the bamboo pole
across his shoulder and lifted. The baskets didn’t move! People laughed. He
tried again. No luck. Then strong Steve hurried to show him how. The baskets
didn’t budge! Instead of laughing, we stared in awe, at the smiling, frail
looking Chinese woman who had carried those loaded baskets from some far away
field. When the ferry docked I held my breath as she put the pole in place,
leaned forward and, with rapid shuffling steps, boarded the ferry with her
load! This was her job. She did it six days every week and was paid the
standard $55 a month!
In streets and roads we saw people pulling or carrying heavy loads: a man with
a similar pole arrangement ~carried two heavy pigs to market, each tightly
encased in a basket. “How did they get the pigs into the baskets?” I asked.
The interpreter answered, “The same way they formerly dealt with prostitutes.
They got them drunk, wove the basket around them and tossed them into the
Pearl River.” That helped end prostitution!
Big changes in China began in 1949, following the revolution and the end of
private ownership. Fences were taken out, roads were removed, irrigation
ditches~ dug to carry water to new farming areas. Few roads remain~ed and
repair was done by hand with pick, shovel and sledge. Water buffaloes with
wide spread horns cooled themselves in the drainage ditches between road and
cultivated land. We cycled past miles of unending green fields dotted with
crews of men and women seven days a week.
I’d often stop, lean on my bicycle and watch their primitive farming
operations. People worked bent from the hips, planting, weeding and harvesting
food. Rows were close together and people worked with long-handled hoes or
with their bare hands. They earned the same standard wage paid to cooks,
factory workers, doctors, waiters and even the director of a commune of 70,000
An interpreter and six of us visited a “show place” home that had no
plumbing, phone or radio. It had a speaker that blared a message and
occasional music; it could not be turned up, down or off. Our barefoot hostess
earned $55 per month at home by putting fuses in firecrackers. She and her
husband sleep in the kitchen behind a ragged, stained curtain. Her daughter,
son-in-law and two grandchildren live there and sleep upstairs.
I asked about the large portrait of an elderly man. It was her father who is
“cared for in some other place.” We heard that phrase often and saw few
people older than my 67 years.
One man was herding ducks, keeping more than a hundred in a tight bunch. They
grazed on roadsides and drank in the nearby drainage ditch. He carried a long
bamboo pole with a rag tied on it’s tip and would wet the rag often. When a
duck started to stray, he’d slap it in the face with the wet rag to make it
behave like the others.
These gentle Chinese people seldom got out of line. Like the ducks, they have
learned to toe the mark. Perhaps some “herder” taught them to behave -- with
a symbolic wet rag slap in the face or a woven basket?