下大高 (Xià dà gāo) is a malnourished, immensely shrewd, female corn farmer living in the countryside of the Guizhou Province, the poorest province in all of China. Despite her intelligence, 下大高 is exceedingly poor. Guizhou is a wet, humid, and mountainous environment. In Guizhou, the people say there “aren’t three days without rain, three miles without a mountain or three coins in anybody’s pocket” (Guizhou).
下大高 is unable to cultivate rice because of her old age, the rice paddies are too hard on her untreated arthritis. Unlike 70% of the population in Guizhou, 下大高 is literate, and received her schooling throughout Mao’s regime. Along with two-thirds of the region, she lives on less than $1.25 daily (Guizhou). Fifteen years ago, while on a trek to trade goods with 10,000 other villagers in the local city of Guiyang, her husband was struck by a bus full of foreigners visiting the region. Despite the country’s fabrications, the roads in Guiyang are some of the worst in the world (Wright). So for the past fifteen years, while most women are enjoying retirement, 下大高 continues to cultivate the corn fields. Single-handedly she must produce enough corn for herself, and her two grandchildren, who are slowly becoming malnourished.
下大高 can’t afford to buy agricultural necessities, such as: plow animals, fertilizer, and electricity. As a result, her crop production is held to a minimum. 下大高 is barely able to feed her family, but as Chinese tradition states, surplus crop is expected to go to other villagers. Because of this she cannot produce a surplus of corn necessary to create any revenue for herself. Similar to many other Chinese rural villagers, 下大高’s largest source of income is from her children, who work in the nearby town of Guiyang.
Throughout the Chinese countryside, many families split apart to work in nearby cities. Young men and women, making pennies a day, slave away in factories to send most of their earnings back home. 下大高’s children embarked in the 1980s, traveling to Guiyang, a newly developed Economic Zone with a bright future, to go work in a textile factory. But the rapid development of the 1980s has recently slowed. It seems as if the Chinese government has forgotten about the development of the Guizhou Province and the rest of Western China. As in most of Western China, the economic reforms that had benefitted so many families on the eastern coast, elude many of the rural western families. 下大高 often wonders lying in her roofless hovel, why so many of Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms had not transformed her life in ways they had her eastern counterparts. She often thinks of the reoccurring droughts, and how food is scarcer than ever before. Under Chairmen Mao, she often thought, we had some source of food when times were tough. Today, she barely cultivates enough crops to feed her grandchildren, without having enough to sufficiently feed herself.
Along with feeding her grandchildren, the promise of their education constantly lingers in her mind. In Guizhou, only about half of the children go to school. This is because many parents in Guizhou can’t afford the twelve dollar fee for every school year (Wright). With the help of her children’s work in a textile factory in Guiyang, 下大高 has enough money to send one of her two grandchildren to school. She knows that education is the only way for them to leave the squalor in which her family has lived; but because of the bureaucratic policies of China, she has to decide which one will be given the opportunity.