Yan Shaomei is working in the small orchard.
Across the narrow but paved country road is a two-story house of 300-400 sq m with a large front yard and, tucked to one side, a few fruit trees under which stand a stone table and a few stone benches.
Yan is shy; she is not used to talking to strangers. She is not rich, she explains. The house is actually two attached houses, one for her and the other for her older sister. And they happen to be married to a pair of brothers named Zhong.
Yang Shaomei talks about her worries in front of her spacious but sparsely populated new house.[China Daliy]
The Zhong brothers were originally from neighboring Sichuan. Their parents have four other sons. Life was hard and two of them left to seek employment in Zunyi, Guizhou province, in 1995. First, the older brother got to know the older Yan sister. They fell in love, got married and had a son, who is now in junior high. Later, the pair of younger siblings followed suit. Yan Shaomei, now 26, got married in 2006 and has a 1-year-old son.
To have two brothers settling in their wives' hometown is doubly dramatic in China. Usually, the women have a family fortune. But Shaomei says they are below average in this village of 1,300 households.
Qinle village, literally "Diligence and Happiness Village", about 15 minutes out of downtown Zunyi, started growing fruit in 1992, mostly grapes and strawberries. But the price of fruit fluctuates wildly. "The wholesale price for the lowest grade of grape is only 1.6 yuan ($23 cents) per kg," laments Shaomei. Her family makes just 3,000 to 4,000 yuan a year from growing fruits.
To make up the shortfall, both husbands work as migrant laborers in coastal cities. Yan Shaomei's husband currently toils in Fujian province. "He's been in the construction business for many years and now earns a daily wage of 110 yuan. But it's not realistic to get work every day. On average, he makes some 2,000 yuan a month," reveals Shaomei. Before pregnancy, Shaomei tried getting a job in the same city as her husband. Now she sees him only once a year - during Chinese New Year.
All this can't seem to explain the spacious and nicely painted house, where the two families often share meals but cook separately. Grandma lives with them, but is hard to tell exactly which of her daughters she is living with.
"We saved some. We borrowed from relatives. Since the land is ours, all we paid for was the building materials. And since our men are in construction, we knew how to get the best we could afford. Also, we didn't build everything at once. The first floor was done in 2005, and we added the second floor last year. Altogether, each house cost somewhere around 30,000 yuan," explains Shaomei.
There is a nice catch: The government chipped in 8,000 yuan on condition that they use the traditional architectural style of northern Guizhou, with dark brown wooden beams on the facade instead of the ubiquitous ceramic tiles.
Turning his home into a restaurant, Chen Liangbo says he welcomes compitition.
The local government, in a new policy to help rural residents and boost the economy, has instituted many subsidy programs. The housing program for this district has shelled out tens of millions of yuan, granting 8,000 to 10,000 for each new house built. Driving along the province's highways and byways, one can tell the impact of this policy simply from the ratio of new houses to dilapidated ones.
Yet, most villagers rate another rural policy as more helpful. Last year, the government paved the 5.1-km road that leads off the main street at a clip of 1.25 million yuan. "With the dirt road, fruits easily got bruised, and wholesalers were often reluctant to come into the village. Now they taste the fruit and do the haggling right inside the vineyards," says Xiao Dajun, chief of Qinle Village.
Asked about more measures to help the village, Xiao reveals that a brewery is in the planning and high-grade grapes ("A seedling alone costs dozens of yuan") are being imported on an experimental basis. That way, growers may better deal with the caprices of the market.
The villagers who make the best living tend to be entrepreneurs. Those who work in logistics or other small businesses can bring home 100,000 yuan in a good year. Of the 5,300 residents in the village, about 1,000 are migrants who work away from home.
Many of them may return if economic conditions in the home village keep improving. For a year, Chen Liangbo worked in a shoe factory in Guangdong, earning 1,000 yuan a month. His family was the first to grow grapes in the village, starting with his father. But three years ago, he turned his home into a restaurant, what the Chinese call "Rural Happiness", which is a bed-and-breakfast-style eatery-cum-lodging. The 33-year-old does not provide accommodation yet because most of his guests are from urban Zunyi who venture into the rustic environs for a day.
"Business did not take off until last year, when the road was paved," says Chen, as he waits on the table on a second-floor covered porch. And now he brings in 20,000 yuan a month and hires five to six workers during the busy season.
Chen's biggest hope is - surprise! - to have more competitors. "The more 'Rural Happiness' places we have here, the better the business." And if the government can help spread the word and attract more visitors, he'll be happier.
According to Xiao, the village chief, a farmer's priorities rank in this order: house, wife and offspring. Chen has a 7-year-old daughter and a 3-year-old son. He still cannot envision them taking over the family business. "They should go to college and do big things." With what he has now, he knows he can make it happen.
His immediate plan, though, is to expand and renovate his backyard into a miniature retreat, where guests can play mahjong in the woods. Already he has got offers to buy up his estate for 400,000 yuan, but he is not selling.
Shaomei, on the other end of the economic spectrum, wants to pay off the remainder of the housing debt. "Raising a child is so expensive now, with milk powder alone costing more than 100 yuan a month," she complains. But once her family is debt-free, her child is older and her husband can make more money at home than outside, her big house will not be sparsely populated. With a little more help from the government, the prospect of happiness seems within reach.