Friday, February 26, 2010

Yizhou- the Mulberry Capital of the World.

Even at the end of October Yizhou retains the heat of summer. It is intensely, visibly humid; after a few paces it seemed impossible to contemplate doing much more of anything else at all except maybe take a drink and a rest.

My guide had brought a local guide called Lou. She was wide-eyed, eager, smiling, and I suspect, part of the Zhuang ethnic minority, the largest minority in China.

Yizhou is in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region of China, a province to the extreme southwest, immediately adjacent to Thailand. Some of the Zhuang migrated out of China when they were persecuted by the Han Chinese hundred of years ago. They have a distinctive traditional dress with head-dresses local to a particular area, and their written as well as their spoken language is different, and so my questions had to be translated twice - from English to Mandarin and then from Mandarin to Zhuang. Yizhou, I was told, (which was only made a city in 1993) has a total population of 'only' about 600,000, but of these 60% is Zhuang.

During the cultural revolution individual families did not own the land. About 5 or 6 villages were grouped together into communes (half in the city, and half in the country). The people were fed collectively in food halls, the crops were dictated by the government and there was very little reward for producing more than the allocated quota. All this changed for one village called Fengyang in Xiaogang in 1978. They secretly agreed to allocate land to the individual farmers, and any food grown above a much reduced quota was sold on the free market for profit. This 'responsibility system' was adopted nationwide once Deng Xiaoping praised the experiment in 1980.

Until then the farmers grew mainly sugar cane with some rice, sweet corn and sweet potato, but now that the crops are dictated by profit rather than the government, the farmers have switched to lucrative mulberry, and they have become more affluent in consequence. The evidence of this affluence, Lou told me, through the other guide, were the concrete drive-ways to houses we passed. And certainly the farmer of this land, Wang Zhong Lin (on the left below), seemed happy. There is still a crop quota of sugar-cane and cassava, but he can now afford to employ other people to grow it.

Around Yizhou there are about 5-6000 mulberry farms. There are three seasons of silkworms a year, when the mulberry is green. The farms produce so many leaves that they are exported to feed silkworms around the rest of the country. October is the end of the season and the plants, on closer inspection looked bedraggled. Wang Zhong Lin pointed out where the leaves had been eaten by something that relished the mulberry as much as the silkworm,

and soon they would be cut down to grown again from the root the following spring.

But just then the mulberry bushes were still just in leaf. The plantation seemed to go on indefinitely to each horizon until submerged in distant fog. How many people devote their lives to raising the silkworm I asked. Everyone, said the guide, maybe half a million people. 500,000 people - all devoting part of their lives to the business of producing silk. I had certainly come to the right place.


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