Pastoral scenes of a complex China Along scenic Li River, Clinton to see a nation in throes of transition

July 01, 1998|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

GUILIN, China -- After nearly a week visiting the modern cities of Beijing and Shanghai, President Clinton will spend tomorrow in rural South China floating down the Li River past the lush, limestone mountains that comprise some of the nation's most spectacular scenery.

To many visitors, this stretch of river epitomizes the Chinese countryside where most of China's 1.2 billion people still live. Farmers wade through rice paddies in conical hats and fishermen on bamboo rafts use diving cormorants to catch carp as they have for a thousand years.

During Clinton's tightly scheduled, nine-day visit, he has not had much time to meet face to face with ordinary Chinese. On the voyage downstream, he is scheduled to stop briefly in a village to admire the Ming and Qing Dynasty architecture.

His time would be well spent chatting with villagers, who could paint a much richer and more complex portrait of rural China than the romantic images depicted in traditional ink-and-brush paintings sold here.

He might come across a fisherman like Huang Zhu, 55, who could tell Clinton that he makes more money -- $60 a month -- showing off his cormorants to thousands of foreign tourists in public fishing performances than from actually catching fish.

Or Clinton might encounter a woman like Yu Xiulan, 87, who could describe how she survives on about $12 a month collecting trash for a recycling center upstream -- a life much at odds with China's image as an increasingly wealthy, urbanizing nation.

As Clinton floats downriver, he will see a country in transition. In some villages, the poor live in hovels next to handsome, two- and three-story brick homes built by the newly rich, including entrepreneurial farmers and construction workers.

Some elderly women speak only the local dialect and have no idea the president of China is Jiang Zemin, while most young people speak the national language, Mandarin Chinese, and occasionally a little English.

Hundreds of water buffalo bathe in the shallows near giant stands of bamboo that resemble paint brushes. An occasional satellite dish sprouts from atop the peaks that rise from the valley like endless rows of shark's teeth.

Clinton's boat trip is to end in Yangshuo, a tourist town popular with backpackers, where outdoor cafes serve banana pancakes and show pirated video discs of such movies as "The Full Monty."

A few miles south of Yangshuo lies the town of Fuli, where elements of feudal and modern China come together. Step into Yu Xiulan's dimly lighted home and a few simple questions can inspire a living history lesson.

Yu crouches on the floor of the small stone building, which she shares, and smoothes pieces of newspaper with her wrinkled hands. Later, she will bind them with twine to send to the recycling center, which pays her as much as $6 a month. The local government gives her an additional $6 to help her get by.

Three elderly friends sit chatting with Yu on tiny wooden chairs. Asked who the president of China is, they struggle to answer. Most think it is still Deng Xiaoping, who died a year and a half ago, but whose economic reforms transformed millions of lives.

When asked why she doesn't know about Deng's death, Yu's neighbor, Qu Lanying, begins to sob and pour out her troubles. Qu, 71, who like the other women wears a blue Mao-era tunic, says her son and daughter-in-law refuse to let her watch television and treat her badly.

She traces her pain to an arranged marriage when she was 13. Echoing the sad tales of many women in a culture where they are not highly valued, Qu says her mother-in-law despised her and encouraged her husband to beat her.

"I'm still suffering," she says, wiping away tears.

As a visitor gets up to leave, another of Yu's friends, Mu Chun-ying, stops him.

"You haven't heard my story yet," says Mu, 70.

During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when Mao Tse-tung turned the nation against itself to rid China of capitalist influence, Mu's family was labeled "landlords." Red Guards, the foot soldiers of the Cultural Revolution, beat her husband and son to death, she says.

As Mu finishes her story, the new generation steps into the doorway in the form of Dong Jiwang. A jack of all trades, Dong, 26, earns more than a $170 a year farming rice, peanuts and water chestnuts, as well as working for the post office and running his own shop that sells paintings.

A sign in English on a village wall urges visitors to see Dong's paintings -- long, hanging scrolls depicting waterfalls, farmers and the surrounding mountains. On another wall, in faded red paint, reads another message in Chinese: "Long Live Mao Tse-tung Thought."

Dong, who wears gray slacks, loafers and a Tommy Hilfiger sport shirt, knows Deng is dead and Clinton is coming to the area because he has a television -- now common in rural China. Fuli, a town of about 7,000, also has about 200 telephones.

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