I grew up in a semi-tropical southern village, and that village grew up with me. We both underwent huge changes. I went from being a skinny, snot-nosed, lonely girl into an adolescent hungry for escape, while my village grew from a small agricultural town (Xian), into a bustling city (Shi) of 1.4 million inhabitants.
Today, Wenling is a typical medium-sized metropolis in Zhejiang province, southern China. Like many of the hundreds of Chinese towns that have grown into cities over the past 30 years, it is full of brand-new but cheaply constructed skyscrapers, casting shadows on rough-looking peasants, their root vegetables stuffed in shoulder bags as they trudge along newly paved highways.
Before the 1990s, the area was an agricultural valley, with nothing but tea bushes and bamboo forests on the horizon. I lived there from the age of seven to 19, when I left for Beijing. When I was a child, everyone took a nap in the afternoon, a daytime sleep I always dreaded. But now no one has any time to rest. They work even at night.
Wenling then was remote. These days it only takes a few hours in a high-speed train to get here from Shanghai. Back in the 70s and 80s, there was no tunnel through the mountains. And the highways were only built in the 90s. We never left the town, and within it we walked everywhere.
When I was still in primary school, I would walk from our house under a bamboo-bristling hill, arriving at the school located at the foot of Hushan, the Tiger Mountain. Often I’d be late for class because on the way I would lose myself in the brilliant bright blooms of rapeseed fields. The yellow flowers stretched beyond the reach of vision. My feet would get stuck in the mud, where buffalos soaked themselves in streams.
Wiping my wet shoes on the grass, I’d then turn on to a dirt road, and pass a plastic goods factory. The little creek in front of the factory was often tinged with purple, red and blue – the chemical materials they had used to colour the plastic wares. Ignorant as I was of its poisonous nature, the colourful water was a wondrous phenomenon to me and I would soak my hands in it. I also remember collecting bunches of plastic strings from the factory yard, which I’d take to school with me. During my excruciating maths class, I made plastic shrimp, bracelets and wallets from the glass-like strings. In the break, we girls would compare our handicrafts. Our palms and fingers would be inked in red and blue. But we didn’t know those words then – cancer, pollution. Those terms only entered our minds in the 90s.
At lunch, when students could either return home or eat in the canteen, sometimes I’d grab a few pork buns and climb Tiger Mountain, which rose behind our classrooms. I was usually alone – only brave kids would ever climb the back of the Tiger from the shadowy north side, which was infested by rats and snakes. For that reason, I wore plastic rain boots, even on sunny days. Far above my school, I’d sit on the hill chewing my buns, or venture to the Buddhist temple hidden halfway up under a cliff. My grandmother was a devoted Buddhist before she died, so it was like an act of nostalgia for me (even though I was still a kid) to visit any Buddhist temple. When I got to the temple, I’d look at the chanting monks kneeling before a Buddha statue, or just contemplate the burning candles trembling in the wind. My thoughts would float by, until the school bell rang for afternoon classes.
All that remains now of this world are a few black-and-white photos. The growth of my town obliterated almost everything. In the 90s, I left Wenling to study in Beijing; seven years after university, I became a film lecturer. When I finally returned to my hometown for a visit, I was lost.
I remember standing on a traffic island in the middle of a four-lane street, clustered with traffic lights. In my entire teenage life, Wenling never had a single traffic light. I saw peasants and old people still unused to the ways of traffic signs, just like the donkeys they led by grass ropes. Tricycle taxis had been replaced by buses, and the Town Hall had now expanded into an imposing communistic City Hall. The once blooming rapeseed fields had given way to massive construction sites. Only old Tiger Mountain remained, her proud head rising above the smog. When the sky was clear, I could see a new transmitter tower on top of the Tiger’s head. The monks all had mobile phones.
In 2000, my mother’s silk factory closed. As a child I had wandered among the throbbing machines, looking for her by an assembly line. I would eat skewers of roasted silk worms and felt thirsty in the factory’s stifling air. All this is now just fragments from the past. My mother had been relocated to the People’s Cultural Palace in Wenling, where she looked after worker’s theatre activities. Where had all the other women workers gone? Well, my mother replied, they had gone to the manufacturing private sector, or had become jobless.
In the early 2000s, though I had become a British resident, I nevertheless returned to my hometown for almost every spring festival. One thing that struck me was the change of language: the old Wenling dialect had now been mixed with dialects of nearby towns Ningbo and Wenzhou. Migrants from other provinces would speak Mandarin to us, which felt odd in a town where we normally never used to speak the official language.
My parents, however, seemed adjusted to their new world. Then cancer arrived. First my father ended up in a hospital cancer ward, where he died. Then it took my mother. Cancer had become the main cause of death in Wenling. Now, as I reflect on my parents’ deaths, I could see the ghost of cancer dancing in the little creek behind the plastics factory I used to play in as a young girl. I must have met the cancer ghost every day, in those brightly bloomed rapeseeds fields, in those shrimp-swimming creeks beside my school. I must have met him on the hills of Tiger Mountain where my Buddhist temple lay, lurking in the smoke of the burning candles, or in the breath of the sorrowfully chanting monks.
Despite these ghosts, the urbanisation of our society has had incalculable benefits. A sense of practical hopefulness is deep in the Chinese psyche, and I always felt hopefulness around me as my hometown grew. Most people have not found their hopes disappointed. Still, there is a melancholy trace left in me that we Chinese have lost our original landscape – the one our culture had reflected for thousands of years in art and poetry. And this loss is profound.
Xiaolu Guo is a London-based novelist and film-maker. Her memoir One Upon a time in the East is published by Chatto and Windus
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