SHANSHENMIAO VILLAGE, China - Until the day he really made it big, Shi Zhenguo always had the respect of his neighbors.
Since his years as a teen in the 1970s, when he showed movies to fellow villagers during the Cultural Revolution, Shi moved from job to job in search of a career more rewarding than farming. Shi's father, a former local Communist Party secretary, didn't always approve of his son's forays into capitalism, but through it all, Shi remained well-liked in this cloistered community.
Until, that is, the foreigners came to town: Eight years ago, Shi became the first man in the village to work for a foreign-run company. He was hired to maintain one of the company's properties - and he immediately lost his standing in this farming community of 800 people.
"A lot of people were critical, that I was sort of betraying my country and my village working for a foreign company," said Shi, 44, sitting with friends in his courtyard home, on a break from his job. "I felt if there was a new Cultural Revolution, I would have been the first guy that would have been purged."
But these anti-foreigner sentiments, hardened over a span of centuries, have begun to melt.
Shi's journey from insider to social outcast and back in this village in northeastern China would not draw much attention in Beijing or thriving coastal cities such as Shanghai and Shenzhen, where foreign companies have long been welcome. But the road toward social and economic change is much longer in the rural parts of the country, home to more than two-thirds of China's 1.3 billion people.
Shi may not appear wealthy when judged solely by his house. His three small rooms, a television, a telephone, an outdoor toilet, a courtyard of earth and stone, and a white bust of Mao Tse-tung on the mantel make for a decent but not extravagant home for a peasant in 2002.
But his other possessions and his plans hint at his success. He rides a motorcycle and recently bought a used car for $1,200. He expects to spend $12,000 on his 22-year-old son's impending wedding, including a $1,200 cash gift to the bride's family and the $5,000 he has already spent on building a home with indoor plumbing for the newlyweds.
Shi doesn't bear the marks of a life of farming hard, dry soil in the hot sun of north China: His youthful face is free of deep creases from worry, and his hands are not caked with grime.
10 times average salary
For the past eight years, he has overseen a roughly 9,000- square-foot property near the Great Wall of China for the IWNC Group, a human resources training company. He earns more than $3,000 a year, 10 times the average salary in this village. His is the smile of a man who knows he is fortunate.
"Life was very difficult," Shi said. "If I had not joined the company and remained on my own, I'm not sure how well I'd be doing now."
Years of drought have punished the countryside, drying up riverbeds and withering cornfields. On unpaved paths, farmers do the work of horses or oxen, pulling carts loaded with their harvest. On the paved road that passes in front of Shi's home, farmers may pull their loads by donkey, bicycle or scooter.
The farmers are able to grow enough to eat and to trade for goods and a few hundred dollars a year. It's too cold and dry to grow fruit or vegetables, and grain prices are expected to fall with increased foreign competition.
For nearly a quarter-century, villagers hoping to improve their lot have forgone farming. They travel to Beijing, 80 miles away, to find jobs, or work as traders in the villages, use connections to land decent jobs, or learn a skill and hawk their services.
Shi never left for Beijing from the village of Shanshenmiao, which translates as Mountain God Temple. As a teen-ager, Shi had that most valuable of Chinese commodities - an influential relationship, since his father was then the Shanshenmiao Communist Party secretary.
He landed a job showing movies outdoors on a projector and portable screen. As the young man who provided the entertainment, Shi was popular.
"That was a very good job," Shi said, grinning broadly. "It was looked upon as a very good, respected job."
He showed party-approved fare - anti-Japanese war movies, a film about Russia's Communist revolution - until a flood in 1976 washed away the projector. Shi moved on to another respected, insider's job of minding the checklist of duties for the community, which operated as a farming collective. He also worked a brief stint raising bees for the village.
Then, with the era of economic reforms launched by Deng Xiaoping in 1978, people gained freedom to move and find work.
Shi passed up work as a coal miner to learn carpentry, and then he branched out. He learned to drive, a rare skill in a village that had few paved roads. In the late 1980s, he drove a private tractor, earning about $60 a month - more than top county officials at the time.