Travel tales

The richest and the poorest

Guizhou has always been the poorest province in China. Accounts by 19th and early 20th century missionaries paint an appalling picture of an entire population indebted to their landlords and addicted to opium.

 Mothers would blow opium smoke across their babies’ faces because they thought it would make them stronger. It clearly didn’t work – in 1934, infant mortality was fifty percent. People were so poor they would sell their children for a pittance – the girls as a matter of course, but even precious boys were sold as slave labour.

It being still the poorest province in China, famed for having no three li of land without a mountain, no three days without rain, and no man with three silver dollars in his pocket, as a masochist of course I decided to go there.

How does a history of exploitation and degradation make for the kindest, most generous and smiling people I’ve met in China?

How can a people so materially poor have developed such incredibly rich and varied folk customs – costume and music, architecture and celebrations?

How can people who regularly sold their children have carried them on their backs (and still carry them – no pushchairs in Guizhou) in beautifully embroidered baby carriers; works of art, these painstaking labours of love?

27th November 2010