What Kind of a Place Is Zhaoyuan?

A slice of China.

By Shun Ni, published: June 20, 2014


Zhaoyuan is my hometown. The Baidu Encyclopedia tells us that Zhaoyuan (招远) is one of the top one hundred counties in China. It was established as Zhaoyuan County in the year 1131. As of the end of 2013, the population was 565,900, and the county was comprised of four thoroughfares and nine townships. When I was a kid I was a villager in one of the townships.

I’ve always introduced my hometown as “China’s Gold Capital.” On Beijing’s Wangfujing Pedestrian Street (王府井步行街), there’s a huge chunk of gold ore displayed in a glass case for tourists to see. Every time I take a friend for a walk on Wangfujing, I always point proudly to it and say, “Look, from my hometown.” The presence of this rock sometimes gives me the illusion that Zhaoyuan is really close to the capital, merely a simple, straight line.

But, the May 28 homicide that shocked the nation has made it impossible for me to be proud. As Cui Yongyuan has said, this incident has brought shame on the whole nation. Zhaoyuan, the erstwhile glittering golden capital, has in one night become the shame of China.

I can’t sleep at night, not just because of this one incident— there is a lot more. I left Zhaoyuan 14 years ago, and I have been wanting to go back in recently years, dreaming up ideas for returning home and starting a business. But every time I visited, I was beset by profound disappointment.

The last time I had business in Zhaoyuan was when I had a relative go to the neighborhood police station to fill in my marriage status in my household registration (hukou) booklet from blank to “unmarried,”so that I could get some paperwork done in Beijing. My relative went to the police station and,there, he found that the police’s computer records showed that, in 2011, my marriage status was updated as “married!” My relative was dumbfounded:  the hukou booklet had been sitting in a drawer at home for years without being touched, when and who altered it?

Before I left home more than a decade ago to go to college, I had the status of a farmer. For all these years my hukou followed me wherever I went to school. But after I finished up my graduate studies in 2008 and had a job in Beijing, my work unit wouldn’t give me a Beijing hukou, so I had to move it back to Zhaoyuan.

I became a Zhaoyuan resident again, in theory, but I’m no longer in the category of farmer. I no longer have the land that a farmer was entitled to. I became a mere symbol in a hukou booklet. Working and living in Beijing without Beijing hukou, I cannot receive any of the benefits of being a legal resident of Beijing – I can’t buy an apartment or a car. So I’ve become amember of the “sandwiched class”: neither urban nor rural. In China, people like me who became members of the non-urban, non-rural “sandwiched  class,” as a result of leaving home for college, number in the tens of thousands.

I once sought out a representative of the National Political Consultative Conference and asked him to submit a proposal to address the issue during the annual Two Sessions. But the issue remains.

Now I’ve “been married” without my knowledge. My relative spent a whole afternoon trying to straighten it out. The police wouldn’t admit that this was the result of their poor management, and denied that they had recklessly tampered with my personal information. Furthermore, they told my relative brazen-faced: Yintai Prefecture stipulates that, in the hukou booklet, the marriage status for unmarried persons must be left blank instead of being marked as “unmarried.”

So enraged finally my relative slapped the table. But it did no good. My family then scrambled to find connections, made one call after another, and again underwent a whole afternoon of wrangling before eventually settling it. When it was all over, I felt repelled by my hometown, now a far place that I couldn’t work up my energy to love anymore. In Beijing, I fell into a fever for two days with a sore throat because of anxiety over the episode.

In the last couple of years though, I have been contemplating, increasingly so, returning to hometown as my parents are aging.

George N. Kates, The Year that Were Fat, Peking, 1933-1940. p. 215.

George N. Kates, The Years that Were Fat, Peking, 1933-1940. p. 215. Click to enlarge.

During the 2013 Spring Festival, I had a reunion with my primary school classmates. I told them I was thinking about moving back home to work the land. They sighed and said, “Work the land? What land?” They told me that all the land had been forcefully requisitioned. With farmers who did not want to give up their land, their vegetable greenhouses and tractors were set on fire in the night and they themselves were beaten up and handicapped – property destroyed and family broken.

In my essay “China Has Its Own ‘Deep Springs College’ of Which You’ve Never Heard,”I mentioned the primary school where I learned so much, and the farm land and orchard around it. Today those places have been seized by a rich man. The new owner has put up iron fences and attack dogs guard the premise. My schoolmates told me that the owner is half gang-boss, half government official.

Who would dare to report him? If you try, before you even get out of Zhaoyuan, you’d be dragged back and beaten.The Chen Baocheng (陈宝成) case in Qingdao is a classic example. I know very well that, for Chen Baocheng, who had studied law in Beijing, using the law to struggle against injustice was useless, so in the end he put up a fight using his own life. And he’s still locked up in prison today.

And I still feel I’ve let down my primary schoolteacher. Once, she called me to ask for my help. A family member of hers was suffering from some injustice, and had tried every possible means to petition for justice, but it was no use. “You’re in Beijing. Do you think you could help?” she asked. Every time I received that kind of phone call, I hated myself for my own uselessness. For the people in my hometownthe law that I believe inis useless. The law only protects those who have money.

My primary school classmates told me: you are better off staying in Beijing where there are laws at least. If you come back here and try to stand up for yourself, you could be thrown into one of those bottomless, deserted mines without a trace —Zhaoyuan has so many of them.

To convince me, they told me a joke:

First Lady Peng Liyuan’s little brother once went fishing at the Longkou beach, and some young thugs showed up and broke his fishing rod. China’s First Lady’s brother said, “Do you know who I am? President Xi is my brother-in-law.” The thugs laughed and said, “President Xi is also my brother-in-law!”

My friends pressed their point further by telling me the complete history of all the successions of gang leaders in Zhaoyuan. It’s all because of the gold mines. The most aggressive of the gang bosses had buried a huge stockpile of gold ore under his villa, and he also had stockpiled firearms. Nobody in the province dared to move against himuntil his case alarmed the central government, which sent people to Shandong and took him out.

Still, my friends were afraid I wasn’t convinced, so they said to me, “Your village’s communal forest has all been taken away by force. Go home and ask your parents.”

It so happened that at noon that day, before I had time to ask my parents about the communal forest, the village’s loudspeakers announced that there was afire on the mountain: “Help to extinguish it, everyone!”We had just started lunch, and my father put down his chopsticks, grabbed his shovel, and ran up the mountain.I waited with my mother for more than an hour, until he finally came back.

The food was cold. He didn’t want to eat anymore. He sat at the table and sighed: all of the volunteer firefighters were over 60 years old. The mountain fire they had just put out was the communal forest that had been sold.

“After putting out the fire, we old men sat down exhausted. Then someone said, ‘The forest doesn’t even belong to the village anymore. It belongs to that thug. Why are we putting out fires for him?’ Then my father said, that forest had been there since he was a child, he had feelings for it and there was no way he could watch it burn down before his eyes.

I also have memories of that forest. When I was a kid, in the summer after it rained, I would carry a basket into the woods to pick matsutake mushrooms. The gold-colored matsutakes had the smell of pine needles that I can still recall.

But now the forest is surrounded by barbed wire fence, and it’s been cut off from the villagers.

It is n0t that I didn’t believe what my classmates had told me. It’s just that I still have wonderful memories of my hometown —catching fish in the river in the summer and hunting for rabbits in the mountains in the winter. When I was three or four, I once walked three li (about a mile) by myself into the mountains to visit my grandmother. On the way I ran into strangers who saw I was tiny and by myself and asked where I was going. Then they biked me straight to my grandmother’s door.

That is the Zhaoyuan I cannot forget and that I dream to return to.

My father’s running out to put out the fire made me cry. The feeling they have for their home is still so pure and honest. My parents used to tell me, “There’s no placeon earth where the people are easier to manage than us. We’re so honest.”

But the law does not protect these honest, kind villagers.

The May 28 incident was another staggering blow. It hit me so hard that I couldn’t breathe. And when I look at the polluted water in our river, our emptied  mountains, and all the mining zones, I felt a sense of insecurity shared by everyone. Zhaoyuan is no longer the Zhaoyuan I knew.

As the book China in Liang Village (《中国在粱庄》)  showed, villages, in some ways, are the womb of the people. Their warmth, nutrients, and the health of their metabolism, decide the health of the child along with his or her emotional wellbeing and intelligence. The disintegration of China’s villages has turned villagers into people with no hometowns, no roots, no memories, no spiritual direction and no sense of belonging. That means that the “child” of this “womb”has lost its first primer on culture, lost the opportunity to learn from words and examples, and lost the chance to experience a warm, healthy life.

It also means that those people who once possessed, and embodied, the fundamental character of a people, are now disappearing, because they have lost their most basic necessity: a place to exist.

So there’s no more Liang Village, no more Zhaoyuan, no more hometown for me to return to.


Shunni (顺妮), according to this verified  Sina blog, is a journalist for China Entrepreneur magazine. 



Farewell to Xia Junfeng, by Ji Ye


(Translated by Will Shoemaker who blogs at China Commons.)

Chinese original

One response to “What Kind of a Place Is Zhaoyuan?”

  1. […] China Change, journalist Shun Ni describes the negative changes she has experienced firsthand in her hometown of Zhaoyuan (招远), China’s “Gold […]

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