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Loyal son of the soil

By Xing Wen/Mao Weihua | China Daily | Updated: 2021-05-18 08:41
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Wang walks in a willow wood he cultivated in Korla.[Photo provided to China Daily]

Former soldier defies age to continue serving the people by combating desertification, Xing Wen and Mao Weihua report.

A summer breeze gently blows through the woods, ruffling the tree branches along the banks of the Kongque River in Korla, the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region.

This is how the favorite season for Wang Chengbang, 85, announces itself. Those green, lush trees that serve as a shelter to check sandstorms which used to hit the area, prevent soil erosion, purify the air and shade passersby from the hot sun, are glowing with vitality.

Korla, the capital of the Bayingolin Mongol autonomous prefecture, sits just 70 kilometers away from the Taklimakan Desert. It is an arid place once surrounded by deserts, the Gobi Desert and barren mountains. However, an incredible gardening and afforestation drive has been made to control desertification in and around Korla over the past few decades, and now it is among the country's model cities in environmental protection.

"Trees are the region's lifeblood," says Wang, who has volunteered to plant more than 1.5 million trees including poplars, willows and elms in the city over the past 30 years, creating large leafy expanses on both banks of the Kongque River.

Although his sunburnt face and hands are wrinkled, the old man, wearing a faded green army uniform, is still ramrod straight and radiates optimism.

Before he retired from the army and settled in Korla in 1988, Wang was a deputy chief of staff of a PLA division in Kuqa of the Aksu prefecture.

Instead of enjoying the relaxed life of retirement like many others in their 50s, Wang applied to be a volunteer with Korla's gardening and greening bureau, helping with afforestation efforts via cultivating seedlings and planting trees day after day.

"We'd study how to cultivate saplings with a high survival rate on our own to save the cost of buying saplings from outside the city," says Wang.

He also worked out water-efficient irrigation systems to help save water and endeavored to diversify the types of tree species in the city.

He who plants a tree plants hope, he believes. His dedication to afforestation has not only brought hope to the city, but also, to some extent, worked miracles for himself.

In 2005, he was diagnosed with lung cancer and was told that he only had six months to live. However, he insisted on taking care of his beloved trees till the last minute of life rather than lying on the hospital bed.

Six months passed, and he was still alive. He felt that the pain in his lung gradually eased. After a physical examination, he found that the cancer cells had miraculously disappeared.

"I often occupy myself with weeding the fields, trimming the branches and forking over the soil without noticing the time or thinking about the pain. Then, they've all gone," Wang says.

Recently, he has been working at a sapling cultivation site in the suburbs of Korla from 9 am to dusk every day. His lunch is usually oven-baked bread and a few bottles of water.

Why does Wang live such an ascetic life? A stage play, titled I'm Wang Chengbang, has been produced by the Bayingolin Mongol autonomous prefecture's culture center to explore the spiritual world of the heroic ex-soldier who takes "serving the people" as his life motto.

More than 40 cast members, mainly from the Xinjiang Theatrical Troupe, are undergoing intensive practice and rehearsals to prepare for its debut in June.

Playwright Chen Siqing and some other members from the play's production unit have visited places Wang once lived in or worked at and interviewed many people around him.

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