The Soil

From the beginning of fieldwork, I was keen to learn all that I could about local ideas of soil erosion and if people thought erosion was a growing problem. I could not have picked a better place to study the topic: soil erosion is a dramatic part of life in this region. Large mud flows are continually washing down the steep mountains, making erosion an obvious topic for local reflection. The mud flows are so severe that for a long time it appeared to me that local people could only see soil degradation in this extreme form, and had no notion of a slow, steady and more subtle process of land degradation. Then I came to realize that local categories separate the idea of soil erosion from the question of soil quality, reflecting underlying differences in the way locals understand the interactions of historical process in the landscape. For these people, soil erosion is by general definition the dramatic aspect of change-- that is, the mud and rock slides, while the improvement and degradation of soil quality is a reflection of the more subtle relations between land and people over time.

This essay will focus on the local perceptions regarding soil quality and agricultural practice as they relate to historical change. Discussions in the field revealed a concept of soil quality different from that commonly encountered in the West--rich soil was not categorized so much as a natural endowment but rather emphasized the result of labor inputs. Good agricultural land was the result of human endeavor in the same way as soil impoverishment was the result of human abuse. Here there was an even more definite opinion among those old enough to have a longer-range historical memory: while some land had become better due to individual diligence, on the whole land was not as rich as it had been in the past. Here the point is that soil is not becoming poorer as a result of erosion, so much as it is as a result of the failure of people to invest in it. In this chapter I will review the way in which locals describe the land and its productive capacity. I will describe specific developments of the past fifty years which are thought to have effected soil quality, and connect those events to the broader themes of the historical periods to which they belong. Most importantly, I will focus on the deep changes that have occurred as part of the post-reform package of trends. Traditional agriculture has changed dramatically with the adoption of new seed varieties, chemical fertilizer, new labor patterns and changing attitudes that are all part of the post-reform economy. These changes are fundamental to understanding the uncertain feelings with which farmers regard their future relationship to their land.

In the local language, land is described as "fat" ( fei ) or "thin" ( shou ). Fat land is what we might call "rich soil," capable of producing an abundant harvest without extensive inputs of fertilizer. Thin land, land on which it is hard to grow crops, requires more fertilizer to obtain a yield. Thin land is particularly characteristic of higher mountain fields. Fertilizer can improve thin land and it comes in several basic types. Household fertilizer ( nongjia fei ) is a mix of pig and human manure and is carried in watery buckets up the mountain where a dipper is used to place it directly on the growing crops. It is hard work and one of the few agricultural tasks which is intended to be exclusively men's work. Goat and chicken manure may also be used, although the goat manure is less favored. Chemical fertilizer is purchased from the state, and farmers like it because it is more concentrated and thus more convenient to carry up to higher slopes. Lands closer to the home will thus have more household fertilizer and land further away will have more chemical fertilizer applied. Chemical fertilizer differs from organic fertilizer in that once applied, it quickly dissipates. As a result it has a unique relationship to the categories of fat and thin which will be elaborated further on. Ash is also an important fertilizer used particularly when seeds are placed in the ground. Crop residues may also be burned in the fields. Rapeseed cake was an important fertilizer in the Old Society but now that the government manages the processing of rape oil, the byproduct is no longer commonly available. When people wish to grow a crop but do not have abundant access to other fertilizers, they may "open" uncultivated land. Brush is cut and burned to provide adequate nutrition, reducing the need for other fertilizers for the first year or two. While rotation and fallowing are important strategies for productivity, they are obviously inadequate to meet the nutrition needs of their crop plants. Fat land is land which has been well worked with lots of fertilizer added to it.

Good agricultural soil is also said to be "porous" ( pao ), what we would call good tilth or soil structure. When land becomes "tight" or "exhausted," 1  the opposite of porous, it is harder to cultivate, both in terms of ease of working the soil and quality of results. Again porous soil is known to result from plenty of organic matter, while tight soil comes from a lack of organic manure and from growing certain crops. Also, tight soil is firmly associated with chemical fertilizer, and is thought to be a major negative side effect of its use. Thus people will acknowledge that the soil has become generally tighter in recent decades, but fat or thin is more likely assessed on a plot by plot basis and is more definitely associated with recent investments in the soil. Young people often acknowledge no change in soil quality as a general trend, while some older people will speak nostalgically of formerly deep topsoil that was so porous you would sink up to your ankle in it.

The idea that land can be abused and then worn out is a prevalent notion. Land pushed to produce beyond its means during production team times now is left fallow and exhausted. One man said that if they were to recollectivize holdings he would want more compensation for his land than other people, because while other's had "milked" the land for quick profit, he had invested in his land, carrying manure and building terraces to improve it's quality. Exhausted mountain land is said to become dry, as in the saying "poor mountain, exhausted water" ( shan qiong, shui jin ). Wu Guangliang, looking at the mountain across from Xiakou, said it had become "like a dry old man."

Dryness is firmly associated with deforestation. Many people told me of increasing problems with the water supply that they believed to be a direct result of deforestation. I asked a man at Qian Jia mountain if all the deforestation had contributed to problems with soil erosion. He said it had not, but that now his well was going dry which had not happened before. Yang Yong explained that the great trees that once graced the hillsides conserved water in their trunk, roots and branches, so that there was always lots of running water available even when there was less rainfall. More significantly, farmers consistently said that rainfall itself and the broader pattern of weather are changing; they considered these developments ominous not only for the soil, but for their agricultural livelihood as well.

In the field I had always assumed when speaking of land that was " jin " farmers were saying that it was "tight" like a fist. The word " jin " however can also mean "exhausted" as in soil which is exhausted. The two words are homophones (two different written characters) and I tend to believe that in these farmers' usage the two meanings have been conflated.


In China , there is a famous tale familiar to the people of Ya'an: Once the thunder god fought with the fire god and their feud very nearly destroyed the world. As a result of their battle, the sky was broken and splintered, and so it rained without stop. Finally, the earth goddess decided to save the world and humankind with it, so she patched the sky with blocks of earth. Local myth adds the detail that a small gap in her patchwork remained, and that gap is over Ya'an, also known as the "rainy city" ( Yu Cheng ). Today, a statue of this godess doing her repair work stands in one of Ya'an's central intersections where it has replaced the figure of Mao Ze Dong that occupied the square in the 1960s and 1970s.

Older people in Xiakou say that when they were younger there was never a week without rain; it rained nearly every night a soft gentle rain. Days, however, were and are often sunny. During the period of my fieldwork, complaints about odd weather were an almost continuous feature of daily life. As one man commented,

This past year was particularly bad. Up until now, we have applied chemical fertilizer twice a year to the corn. This year we had to do it three times. The rain was so fierce it washed away the fertilizer very quickly. Never in my life have we seen weather like this year. When it rained, it rained with a vengeance. When it was dry it went weeks without rain. This is something new and it makes things very difficult.

The traditional agricultural calendar in Ya'an is very finely tuned, based on centuries of experience with a particular environment. The annual agricultural calendar is divided into twenty-four seasons, and knowledge is passed down locally about what tasks should be done in each season. Planting is done at very exact times within these basic seasons, which follow the phases of the moon. For example, they say corn cannot be planted earlier because it would grow too leggy, or later because it would be too wet when the crop needs to be dried out for storage.

In recent years, however, it has rained heavily during the time when the corn and rice flowers are open and need dry days to pollinate. While a few rainy days during this narrow window of fertility might not strike the non-farmer as worthy of comment, to the farmers it was a cause for great anxiety. I saw the local corn crop reduced by one-third in 1992 due to inappropriate weather, which, had I not been talking to farmers, I would not have noticed as problematic and not have described as severe. It rained again when the corn was laid out to dry for winter storage, when the days are normally sunny. As a result, the corn turned soft and was of inferior quality. The planting season was also affected, as hard rain not only washed away fertilizer just after it was applied, but also covered young seedlings in mud, killing them. Later in the season, the intensity of the rain caused big mud and rock slides which ruined growing crops and even buildings, as well as silting up the canals effecting electric supplies. In 1992 rain fell during the period when rapeseed is harvested, driving down the price which farmers could get for the poor quality product that resulted. The winter of 1992/93 turned dry after the wheat was sown making for very poor germination of that crop. The summer of 1993 saw severe droughts all over Sichuan and, although Ya'an fared relatively well in this period, well-springs went dry and water had to be carried to many of the houses, adding to farmers' already extensive demands on labor. Like farmers everywhere, the villagers of Xiakou like their weather predictable and consistent; they wonder why it is neither.

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The Recent History of Agricultural Changes

In addition to erratic rainfall, deforestation and the use of chemical fertilizer, agriculture is said to have changed as a result of infrastructure development. The canals, the roads, and the quarrying of rock in the river have directly and indirectly resulted in less land available for cropping. They have both taken up acreage that was once used for crops and, according to locals, contributed to the loosening of soils and so increased erosion (to be discussed in more depth in the next chapter). In addition, when they were built, explosives were liberally used. I heard several individuals complain about the way in which the blasting had spread small rocks all across the hillsides below, making cultivation more difficult. The decrease in cultivated land has been offset since decollectivization by the use of new hybrid variety corn, which can produce more grain per mu of land cultivated.

New variety corn, like chemical fertilizer, has been around since the 1950s and 1960s, but it was not widely adopted until after the decollectivization of 1981. Investigations of people's memories of agricultural practice and how it has changed reveals three broad periods of the past sixty-odd years: Old Society, production team times, and decollectivization. In the Old Society people labored intensively to produce average yields per family on a par with those of today-- the difference being that it took more land and more labor to achieve those yields. During production team times, poor yields were the result of half-hearted labor and inefficient resource allocation, as the state assumed ultimate responsibility for providing subsistence. On the other hand, the production team period saw the state subsidizing a series of public works projects and experiments with new methods that have helped to change the shape of agriculture then and in the post reform economy. Decollectivization

The research method whose findings are presented here were inspired by a reading of Paul Richards' Indigenous Agricultural Revolution (1985).

helped to change the shape of agriculture then and in the post reform economy. Decollectivization brought deep changes to agricultural practice. Young men and young women have increasingly pursued opportunities for cash income from sidelines and wage labor. Less labor is dedicated to crop production but yields are sustained and increased over production team times through cash inputs and the efficiency of labor allocation under the family labor system. The rest of this chapter will focus on the changes in practice that came with reform and, through a close examination of those practices, reveal the general pattern of changes that emerged over the course of the three periods. After decollectivization, as people once again turned their efforts to agriculture, it became increasingly obvious that the new agricultural economy was very different from the traditional methods and modes of the Old Society.

People say that with reform came the widespread adoption of new variety corn, significantly greater use of chemical fertilizer, and a doubling of crop yields over the preceding period. The connections among the range of innovations that came with reform are subtle and complex. Reform brought a willingness to work by rewarding those who worked harder. Willingness to work made the use of improved hybrid varieties of grain viable. People also emphasize that old native variety corn has a better taste and until the reform, corn was the staple food. At the time of reform, people's diet began to switch toward greater consumption of rice instead of corn, so they were more willing to grow the relatively tasteless new hybrid corn. The advent of improved varieties of grain, along with expanding opportunities for off-farm income increased reliance on chemical fertilizer. Increased use of chemical fertilizer and hybrid corn, in turn, generated its own cycle of increasing dependence on the cash economy, because greater and greater amounts of money were needed to sustain yields based on its use and this cash came from off-farm labors. To understand these connections and how they have changed farmers' lives, it is necessary to look more closely at what farmers say about the differences between old variety versus new variety corn, and about the nature of chemical versus organic fertilizer.

In 1992 Wu Wenxue planted all native corn. Other families said that they planted more native corn that year because they did not have the money to buy hybrid corn seed. Native corn can be propagated from the seed of last year's harvest, while hybrid seed must be purchased each year from the state as the kernels it produces are sterile. The price of hybrid seed is significant enough to deter some farmers. Since his is one of the poorer families, I suspected Wu Wenxue did not have money for the seed. This is not the answer he gave, but his answer threw light on properties of the two corns. First he said that the new variety corn requires strict and prompt management. If the leaves go a little brown indicating it needs fertilizer, it needs it immediately, and if it does not get chemical fertilizer at that moment, the yield will be next to nothing. The same principle applies to weeding. Native corn has several weeks leeway in which one can weed, whereas for hybrid corn there are only several days. Furthermore, with native corn one can wait until it is fully ripe to harvest, while hybrid corn must be harvested when it is only 80% ripe. If one is not prompt with the new variety corn, worms come and the cobs fall down and you get nothing. Therefore, he says, many people call native corn a "lazy" crop.

Wu Guangxing said that Xiakou experimented with new variety corn and rice from the 1960s through the 1970s, but they did not begin planting it in earnest until the time of the reforms because its labor requirements are so strict. Before no one wanted to bother about it. Between 1979 and 1981, however, land was given to families to manage and calculate, and they quickly figured that where one could get 100 jin of old variety corn, one would get 120-150 jin of the new variety.

Since no one went off-farm to labor and there were no days off during production team times, more time was spent at agricultural labor in the village. Nevertheless, because people wasted a lot of time, they could not manage the extra work required for hybrid varieties. "People took a lot of rest breaks and did not work hard. At that time, if one person worked hard, the person next to him might be half as fast, and so they would see there was no advantage to their speed and they, too, would begin to slow down." At the crux of the problem was the work point system through which farmers were paid. The system allocated 70% of a family's ration based on need (the size of the family), 10 % for class background (rewarding "those who knew how to use their mouth") and only 20% based on ability. Wu Guangxing explained that the attitude toward work that the production team engendered was disastrous for production, "you asked about our twenty four seasons--that is why we have them.

No matter the crop, whoever is faster is better for production because everything has to be done on time. Corn, for example, can only be planted during two short periods if it is to do well.

If these conditions were bad for the old native corn, they were impossible for the more unforgiving hybrid corn, but the story does not end there.

Perhaps connected to the fact that native corn grows more slowly and is allowed to ripen more fully, the common perception is that the old variety corn is better tasting and more nutritious than new corn. It is said to be drier and stickier and sweeter. Old variety also has a more porous texture, while new corn becomes too fine when it is milled. Poorer households eat more corn, since rice is mostly purchased, so poorer households are likely to prefer old variety corn. Wu Wenxue planted old variety corn because he felt he was unprepared to meet the labor requirements of new variety corn, and because he said he liked the flavor of the old corn. Before decollectivization eating corn cakes was standard. As incomes expanded at the time of reform, the result of the introduction of dairy goat farming and increased income from wage labor, people were increasingly able to buy rice, the preferred grain and an important local symbol of affluence. Some people say they "eat milk" when they eat rice because it is often the milk money that is used to buy it. People now eat more rice because they can afford it, but they also eat less corn cake because the old stone mills are no longer in service and people do not like the texture of corn milled in the new electric mills. Now corn is rarely consumed by humans, but rather it is fed to dairy goats and pigs. People use the cash from the dairy goats to buy rice and at the same time have more pork to eat than before.

Not only did the advent of new variety corn depend on a motivated and timely labor force, and less human consumption of corn cakes, it was also favored by increased availability of chemical over organic fertilizer, or in other words, a greater availability of disposable income. It is not that hybrid corn cannot be grown with only organic fertilizer; it can and is in the vegetable gardens. This requires much more labor invested in carrying buckets of manure, however, and farmers are unlikely to be willing to do this for the more distant and extensive corn fields. Since they have grown different crops of corn next to each other-- one crop using only organic and one crop using chemical fertilizer--they are clear about the differences between chemical and organic fertilizer as they relate to the cultivation of corn 2 . Chemical fertilizer has a quick result, while household fertilizer, they say, is more slow acting. With chemical fertilizer you can see the good effect within seven days, while organic fertilizer the quickest is ten days. New variety corn has more rigorous cultivation

requirements so favors using fertilizer with a fast effect. Hybrid corn grown in the vegetable garden is more work but they get acceptable results. This experience has taught them that growing hybrid corn using only household fertilizer in the outlying fields would be significantly more difficult than growing native corn with household fertilizer.

In a connected point, farmers frequently point out that where the soil is poor, old variety corn will produce better results than new corn. New corn is rigorous in its requirements because it is short and fast developing. The old variety is more forgiving in poorer soil and copes better with the slower effect of household fertilizer because it grows taller and more slowly, taking an additional month to reach maturity. Thus as land becomes poorer, one can expect more and more old variety corn to be grown.

There are still other factors that influence the choice of old or new variety corn. Wu Guangxing explained that the slower growth of old variety corn has disadvantages as well as advantages; the old variety corn is very susceptible to wind. There is a tradition that after the 6th day of the 6th lunar month of each year, the wind will blow and rain will fall heavily. The pattern of development in the corn plant must be such that the point of equilibrium is lowered (strengthened) by that time, and it is best if the flowers have already opened so that it has been fertilized. The new fast-growing variety easily meets this requirement but the old variety sometimes has trouble. If wind blows the corn early in the season, the corn has a high point of balance and so it is easily knocked down. At that time leaves higher on the plant are bigger and lower leaves are smaller, but as the plant grows the lower leaves become the bigger leaves, the stalk thickens at the bottom, and the cob emerges so the plant is more stable. If the wind blows at this later time, it is not a problem. If the wind does knock plants down, the new corn will only grow corn on one side of the cob; the old variety will correct the cob to an upright position and still grow corn on all sides, although the cob will be a smaller size. This is a benefit of the old variety, but if the weather is good, the new variety is really good and produces much more than the old variety. 3 

Xiakou's second team has the biggest problem with wind, while those who live up the mountain in first team have better conditions. That, Wu Guangxing says, is one reason team 1 plants more old variety corn than team 2, but they also do so because their land is closer to their houses, and so it is easier for them to carry their household fertilizer to their crops. A woman who lived higher on the mountain in team 1 pointed out that she liked old variety corn for a different reason. She likes the old variety corn because last year when the weather was bad it did better than the new variety. She plants both kinds, but feels that in the future she will use more old variety. Farmers feel that the weather, like their economy, has been changing for the worse in recent years and so many increasingly appreciate the additional security that old variety corn offers.

The choice of old or new corn is thus based on a complex set of considerations, with the general effect that a more wealthy household is more likely to plant more new corn, while a household with less cash and/or less labor will favor old corn. The general trend since decollectivization has favored new variety corn. The increased cultivation of new variety corn, along with the increasing off-farm demands on young men's labor and rising expectations of a life more free from drudgery, has meant that there is now a greater reliance on chemical fertilizer over household manure, which in turn has further consolidated farmers' reliance on having an available supply of cash in order to buy seeds and fertilizer.

To fully understand the dynamic of this cycle of increasing dependence on the cash economy, it is necessary to take a closer look at what farmers say about the nature of chemical fertilizer. Today farmers view chemical fertilizer paradoxically as both indispensable to their well-being and as an insidious development the full implications of which they have only slowly became aware. While happy and enthusiastic about the greater yields that are now possible with less effort, people are wary of the rising costs of chemical fertilizer that make earning a living from agriculture increasingly less viable. Fertilizer is a major item in the budgets of local households 4 , and people say that each year they must use more and more to achieve the same results. Not only must they use more, but the price has risen significantly, recently there have been interruptions in the supply, and many people suspect the quality of fertilizer is becoming worse.

Yao Mingao explained that some years they use more and some years less of the organic fertilizer-- depending on the price and availability of chemical fertilizer. That year, 1993, they were using more household manure because inflation had been severe. Just after decollectivization they used more chemical fertilizer; it was cheap and good quality then. Fertilizer used to be imported and now it is made domestically. The quality of domestic fertilizer is not as good, but they can understand the reasoning of the policy to manufacture it in China . Before they could use just a little and get great results. Thus part of the problem is believed to be the decline in the quality of the fertilizer, but it is also believed that, as time passes, more chemical fertilizer will be required for the same effect, just like an addictive drug. They continue to mix household manure with chemical fertilizer because if they did not, the next year the land would be worse still and production would go down. Since chemical fertilizer quickly dissipates once it is placed in the soil, most locals treat it as basically irrelevant to the categories of fat and thin land. Nevertheless, because it allows land to sustain higher yields without investments in improving its fatness, it is known to be a contributing factor to the tightening/exhaustion of soil. Organic fertilizer is thus seen to be essential to maintaining production and the proliferation of chemical fertilizer is therefore at the heart of a trend that is undermining the quality of their soil, both in terms of its richness and its porousness.

Using chemical fertilizer is explicitly likened to a bad addiction. Once you begin, you must use more and more and you cannot stop, since using chemical fertilizer alters the nutrition in the soil. If one were to stop, farmers estimate that it would take the land three years of regular applications of organic fertilizer before one could once again get a decent crop from the land. Since one year's bad harvest, they say, effects a family's finances for four years (the bad harvest strikes in the fall, the second year their supplies actually run out and they must borrow, the third year they will be paying back the loan, and so it is not until the fourth year that things may return to normal), such a venture would be more than anyone would wish to take on. Also, leaving off chemical fertilizer would require more labor dedicated to carrying manure, whereas the young people today have expectations of becoming increasingly free of agricultural labor and the families rely on their cash incomes for improving their economic status. Thus while doing without chemical fertilizer would rarely be considered a realistic option, older villagers are often resentful of the double bind chemical fertilizer has put them in, and will frequently draw an analogy between using chemical fertilizer and being addicted to opium. They cannot not use it.

One old and educated peasant became quite distressed as he described the direction of political events in recent years. Focusing on increasing corruption and worsening conditions for the farmers, his analysis incorporated the changes in agriculture as part of the trend of social decay:

Now the leadership is talking about 'lightening the burden on the peasants'-- ha! It sounds nice, but it means nothing. How are they going to lighten the burden ? There's no way! The best thing they can do is get rid of all these worthless cadres... These people call themselves the Communist party, what a joke! What Communist party is there today ? Peasants always get the worst of it. They have to pay more and more for fertilizer, and they have to use more and more. This is a big problem because our earnings stay about the same, but the price of fertilizer keeps going up. In the Old Society agriculture was good. We did not grow this soft spongy corn you have now, but like the white corn you can still find in Xiakou it was tasty and strong. We used to use household fertilizer ( nongjia fei ) to fertilize the rice and it tasted much better and grew well. Today the ammonia ( tang an ) actually contains poison-- one part in ten thousand. Fertilizer is addictive; you have to use more and more. When fertilizer was first imported from Japan , you only needed a little pinch and waaah, what results! Big green leaves and good growth. Now you have to use a big handful. England addicted us to opium; Japan addicted us to fertilizer!

Ambivalence about modern chemical inputs was widespread in the village. The most prosaic example is the use of two standards for food: grain and vegetables produced for their own consumption-- always using organic fertilizer-- and chemically fertilized produce ("tasteless") rendered to the state or sold on the market. People also remark on the negative impact of chemical fertilizers and pesticides on other aspects of the local ecology, for example, the disappearance of frogs and `paddy eels' from their rice fields and dinner tables. While the negative impact of chemical fertilizer is an obvious fact of daily life in the village, its conceptual connection to a sense of social decay is more subtle, though nearly as prevalent. The old man quoted above connected the use of fertilizer to historical memories and the break-up of the old order which he felt was more just and caring. While his conclusions were harsh, they were not unique. When I asked Wu Guangxing about the possibility of returning to traditional methods of agriculture, including more use of organic fertilizer, he responded with a quotation from Deng Xiaoping, "It doesn't matter if the cat is a black or white; if it catches the mouse, it's a good cat." It does not matter what the methods are, as long as they raise production levels, they are correct. Then he added a bitter commentary that "now it is not the relations between people that are important, it is money." The source of this seemingly non sequitur observation is the seamless association of political policy, relations with the land, and moral order. Planting old variety corn runs counter to the value placed on increasing production. While he identifies with the aim of increasing production, he also sees a problem with it --he connects it to a changing moral order that values money over human relations.

The complex feelings surrounding organic/traditional versus `modern' farming, and the connections between farming methods and political trends, are well illustrated by a story told by a woman visiting her relative in Xiakou. The woman came from a flatland rice-growing area where there was a bad problem with a rice virus called dao wenbing . In her village there has "always" been dab wenbing and they have "always" used a particular vaccine to counter the problem, but in 1992 and 1993 the disease became more severe than in the past. To cope with the growing problem the farmers have been given targets and guidelines by the government for the use of the vaccine, and are told they now must apply it at each stage of growth. Failure to use the vaccine, it is assumed, would lead to an outbreak of the disease which might then spread to their neighbors' plots. There is a fair amount of tension in the village as rumors get started over who has or has not made the necessary applications. The chemical is expensive and they currently are spending 40 yuan 5  a mu (one mu per person) on the chemical, so there is plenty of reason why a family might try to skimp on applications. This woman, however, pointed out that, there is a poor family who live near us and they do not use chemical fertilizer or the vaccine, yet they do not have the virus at all. We use so much of the chemicals that the people say the rice is not as good to eat as before. Also we must be ingesting some of these chemicals which is not good, but what can we do? Everyone is using it. Maybe because we eat a little bit at a time our bodies can cope, but we can only hope. Now we are also using prepared feeds for our pigs with lots of additives. Certainly the chemicals in these feeds are being absorbed by the animals and we are getting some when we eat the meat. It does seem that people today are more likely to develop evil sicknesses ( gui bing ). 6 

A friend from one of the government agricultural bureaus elaborated on the story. Dao wenbing is connected to certain soil conditions and micro environments, and old farmers know which plots are more likely to be plagued by the disease. The best prevention is to frequently develop new strains of rice, as the disease learns how to attack the older varieties. Since farmers are always somewhat reluctant to try out new strains, this prevention method requires diligent government effort. In recent years the problem has been that the responsible authorities, in keeping with general trends, have been neglectful in developing and popularizing the new strains. From the prefecture to the county to the township, targets are passed along on how much dab wenbing can be tolerated and how much of the vaccine should be used. The townships give the counties money to guarantee they will do their work. If the virus is above quota they will lose their money; if they do a good job, they get a reward. The worst part is that some people in the agricultural bureau say there is no proof that the vaccine actually works, but since the agricultural bureau sells the vaccine for profit, they continue to support its heavy use.

In a political system increasingly tolerant of corruption and lax in carrying out official duties, it is easy to see how the current problem with the rice virus could arise. The story further demonstrates why farmers so instinctively associate agricultural practice with the styling of government policy. Furthermore, if we can accept as true the suggestions that the organic farmer is less affected by the disease, the story graphically illustrates how modern farming methods have helped to consolidate officials' power over family-based agriculture by increasing dependence on inputs purchased from the state. Also of interest is the way in which the story demonstrates farmers' appreciation for holistic benefits of organic methods, at the same time that it reveals the problematic association between low-input farming and poverty. That organic methods are intrinsically associated with a cycle of poverty is at the crux of the modernization dilemma for the farmers: a return to traditional methods is unthinkable, but moving forward with high-input techniques is increasingly both ecologically and economically untenable.

In Xiakou farming became more organic-- that is, people planted more old variety corn, bought less chemical fertilizer, and opened more fallow land-- in 1993 when they became increasingly strapped for cash. Opening fallow land and greater reliance on household manure mean more work for the returns, and thus represent a less than ideal situation. While most older farmers have a deep respect for their old organic system, they do not wish to return to it, since that would signify a backward step to a cash-poor, labor intensive agriculture over the forward march to less drudgery and greater wealth which the ideal of development implies. The phenomenon of rising expectations of upward mobility is even greater among the youth. It is not just a mode of fertilizing but a whole range traditional agricultural practices that are being cast aside with the new attitudes and inflated expectations of the younger generation.

After one family had a labor exchange to do their spring planting, the host complained that in one plot the corn and beans had not sprouted at all. There had been many people in the labor team and they had been sloppy. They had not covered the seeds well and the birds came and ate them all. She and the local vet poured derision on young people and their careless ways. At a neighbor's house a woman told me how she had often tried to get the young folks to be more careful in their agricultural habits, but they laughed at her practices and said, "No wonder you all ate so poorly in the Old Society. So much effort for such a small thing." I learned from this woman and others that there was a range of cultivation methods that the young people were abandoning. Traditionally one would cultivate land from where the soil was thicker toward where it was thinner. This effectively meant that farmers were moving soil uphill as they worked and this would have helped to counter natural processes of erosion. In former times, land was first turned ( chao ), then it was broken ( wa ) and finally it was finely evened ( pei xi ) before seeds were planted. Nowadays farmers frequently skip the process of turning the soil and they never bother with evening it any more. More significantly, in former times farmers went out to their fields after heavy rains and pulled back up any soil that had washed down, and they spent more effort at building terraces to protect the soils. These practices have all but ceased.

One day I helped plant corn and beans, and the haphazard way the young people handled the planting appeared obvious even to me. I admired their speed but they seemed to lack care. When some of the young people smoothed the soil after planting you could still see some of the beans, whereas the sole representative of the older generation, Wu Guangxing, was always very careful to cover the bean seeds and even paused to pull out remaining weeds. In another task, Wu Guangxing's twenty year old daughter first showed John how to transplant young corn shoots, but a few minutes later Wu Guangxing had to give another lesson-- this time with much more care. Another young woman showed me how it was done and I felt she did a good job. She carefully brought the soil around the seedling and firmed it. As she tucked in the little plant she made me laugh by commenting "how cozy!" At the time I wondered if it was significant that the young woman giving me a demonstration was one who had also told me she really enjoyed listening to the stories the older folks tell, while the daughter who taught John was one who said she felt such stories had no interest.

Conflict between young and old over the care one should take in agricultural tasks was a recurring theme. The only time I heard Wu Guangxing and his hard-working daughter argue was over the way she had planted some peas without covering them with soil at all. She said she had seen someone else's plot where the peas had not been covered, but that, too, turned out to have been planted by one of the young folks of the village. During that day I helped with the planting I noticed the obvious pride with which Wu Guangxing shared his vast knowledge of different conditions and methods for cropping. I thought that the system of trading labor actually provided a valuable chance for young people to get around and learn from different masters in the village. Wu Guangxing was proud of his knowledge and refused to be gainsaid by the youth. His niece tried to argue with him on a point of method which he consistently refused to accept. "Oh" a young man listening quipped between swings of his hoe, "if it's so much trouble, in the future we won't plant the land." I think an alarm went off in Wu Guangxing's mind when he heard that and he verbally responded "danger, danger." Agriculture is the backbone of the old timer's strategic outlook.

Chemical fertilizer has been a major factor behind a pincer-like movement of increasing costs and stable incomes that has made farmers increasingly dubious of the future of local agriculture. It just does not pay to grow corn. The end result has been a dramatic out-migration of the young people from the region, especially in the more remote villages. One man gave Qian Jia mountain as an example of this migratory trend:

The daughters marry out. The sons go to live with their wives families ( shangmen ). Mostly it is now old people left. They have lots of land and yet the contradiction is that it is hard for them to make a living. So many people have left the remote villages that if you want to borrow a little salt you have to walk three li to get to a neighbor and chances are they do not have any salt either because it so hard to carry everything up there. This is odd because crops grow well up there. A family can grow 3000 jin of wheat. The land is good. People do not want to farm it, though, because you have to carry so many supplies up the mountain. They have to hire people to carry their purchased fertilizer.

One spring day as we descended from Qian Jia mountain, we noticed a man on the other side of a draw working alone at the strenuous task of clearing a plot of very steep mountain land. Occasionally he would toss an odd stone that would tumble 200 hundred feet before finding its resting place. We were amazed that he was cultivating such a steep and rocky bit of earth. Our friend Chen Naxin started a conversation with him, and the man, leaning on his hoe in the rocky fire-blackened landscape, shouted his responses.

Chen: Why do you plant such a steep slope? Certainly there won't be much corn to harvest!

Man: It grows okay. I will get 1000 jin of corn from this plot. Besides, I have to plant it. What else would I do?

Chen: 1,000 jin of corn, let's see, at today's price that is worth about 500 yuan. Your seed will be 70 or 80 yuan and fertilizer another 200 yuan; that is only 200 yuan for all your work. Forget it. Save your money and buy corn!

Man: Huh. That's about it! I figure for this hard work I get about 5 jiao a day. But what else can I do? (laughs)

Chen: Why do you plant such a steep slope? Don't you have other land?

Man: Our mountains are steep but I have lots of land. Such a big mountain, the land is plenty. I got a lot at decollectivization and all of our young people are leaving. The women marry out and the young men leave to find work or marry out, too. They won't do work like this. They won't open land like this. I guess in another generation there won't be anyone up here. They don't like to climb this steep path. But I plant here because the production is good. My other land I have planted these several years is tired and thin...On this plot I won't use chemical fertilizer but just this ash from the burnt grass. I will save that money. The problem is that up here we don't have anything to sell. In mountain regions we just buy; we don't sell.

his farmer feels that his existence is marginal. Like so many other farmers in the mountain regions around Ya'an, he would probably use the word `backward' to describe his condition. Despite improvement in his living standard over the past ten years largely due to chemical fertilizer and new crop varieties, he feels caught in a squeeze between dependence on high-input farming and inflation, and he sees, in the soil, only limited opportunities for future advancement. 7 

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The act of physical labor is of great social significance in Xiakou. The old person who is able to labor to the moment of their death is regarded with approval by all. The Potters have written on the importance of (cooperative) labor for the definition and affirmation of positive social relationships in south China (1990, p.180-195) and their point hold true here. The categories of "fat" and "thin" land demonstrate that the significance of labor in defining relationships is extended to people's relationship to the land. The quality of soil thus bears record of the status of people's relationship with the land. Since to work hard is a moral imperative, declining quality of soil can be interpreted as a reflection of moral decline. People in other villages near Xiakou will point to the people of Xiakou and call them lazy because they do not use all of their household fertilizer; they sometimes give it away or even let it run into the river. In the same vein, they are condemned for growing more native corn than what is grown in some other nearby villages.

In and around Xiakou, the young people, like the soil, are involved in a steady flow downstream toward the towns and toward the coast. The outlook for local agriculture looks grim and as a result people are increasingly looking for shortcuts and reluctant to invest in the land. This is not a natural process but a political one and these people have a finely developed sensitivity to interconnections between natural and political phenomena. People are now caught between a system that values the land and investments in it and the desire for upward mobility. Changes in agricultural practice and soil degradation are linked to historical changes which the farmers have experience and of which they are fully aware. The process has been a slow one, like the degradation of the soil itself, but the landscape is also subject to more dramatic change--the mud and rock slides that are the subject of the next chapter.

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No chemical fertilizer is used in their vegetable gardens, see discussion below.

I heard people say there was much more cancer around today than before. When one man in Xiakou who was only in his forties died of cancer, some said it was from contact with chemical fertilizer.

The average gross per capita income in that area is probably 700 yuan.

See Scott (1976).

See page.52

Blaikie has asserted that soil erosion is an important factor in generating class differentiation among rural populations (Blaikie 1985); the marginalization of mountain peoples he describes is reflected in local ideas concerning chemical fertilizer.

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About This Essay


This essay focuses on local perceptions regarding soil quality and agricultural practice as they relate to historical change. It explores local views on the advent of chemical fertilizer and new hybrid seeds over older organic practices. This essay originally appeared in Pam Leonard's 1994 thesis, "The Political Landscape of a Sichuan Village ". It also formed the basis of a book chapter "Old Corn, New Corn" in Leonard and Kaneff's 2001 book, Post Socialist Peasant. The post-socialist book chapter contained less agricultural detail, but rather used this material to elucidate the relationship between the urban and rural sectors in China .