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Chronicling the changes

Updated: 2012-11-05 08:45
By Peng Yining in Xiji, the Ningxia Hui autonomous region ( China Daily)

Living in a poverty-stricken village in Xiji county in the Ningxia Hui autonomous region, Yuan Zhixue, a 36-year-old farmer who dropped out of high school, wrote a novel describing the huge changes that have taken place in his life since 2002.

"We live in a less-developed area, but I have seen good things happening in our lives almost every day during the past decade," he said. "I am so thankful for all the changes, that I have lot of good things to say about our country."

Born in a mountainous area in the south of the region, whose extreme environment saw it listed as one of the world's most uninhabitable zones by the United Nations in the 1970s, Yuan said his most powerful childhood memories are mainly of poverty and hunger.

Chronicling the changes 

After years of eating potatoes, the only crop able to thrive in the dry, sandy fields, the most exciting moments came at Chinese New Year's Eve, when Yuan, his brother and three sisters were given their much anticipated once-a-year snacks: Sunflower seeds, peanuts, and even candies if it was a good year.

Planting potatoes brought the family of seven an annual income of no more than 2,000 yuan ($320), so Yuan's father couldn't afford to buy much more than a few small treats, he said.

Even the snacks were limited. Yuan's father measured out the sunflower seeds with teacups and the children would each receive a cupful each.

After high school, Yuan worked at a local starch factory and later ran his own business, a luggage store.

"There was only one grocery store in our county," he said. "There were no opportunities. Farming was the only choice."

By 2012, Xiji county's economic aggregate had risen to 3 billion yuan, from 4.6 million in 1942, and the number of people officially designated as living in poverty fell to 180,000 from 250,000. Fiscal revenue soared to 84.6 million yuan from 400,000 over the same period.

Yuan said he can now make more than 20,000 yuan per annum. "Of course, compared with people in big cities, we are not rich. But the change is obvious," he said. "My two sons won't have the same childhood I had."

In 2006, the literature-loving Yuan decided to write a novel based on his life story. "I didn't think about giving my novel to anyone or getting it published. I just took a piece of paper and started to write the first chapter," he said.

"I believe a person's fate is connected with the nation's fate, even a person living in a remote village," he said. He and his family cried when watching the news of the devastating earthquake that hit Sichuan province in 2008.

"When the nation is getting better, so is your life, and vice-versa," he said. "I want to tell people that with my book. I am not saying my life is perfect, but neither is the country," he said. In his novel, Passionate Years, published in 2012 with the help from the local literary association, Yuan detailed his bitter memories of poverty and the loss of family members. But he said he's grateful to see the country improving, and the book conveys his hopes that the trend will continue.

Writing is not easy for a farmer, he said. The novel took him years to conceive, six months to write, and another six to type, because of his lack of knowledge about computers and word processing.

In addition to his novel, Yuan has published dozens of short stories in local literary magazines. He said Mo Yan's Nobel Prize for Literature has encouraged him to keep writing.

"There is an old saying in my hometown, 'People won't listen to a poor man's words'," he said. "In the old times, nobody would bother to read a novel written by a farmer, but the rising standard of living makes me confident about my writing."