Across China's Countryside, 'Just Too Busy' for Olympics
Vaunted Games Barely Noticed by Farmers Focused on Harvest

By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 15, 2008

FAN SHEN, China -- Pausing to catch her breath, Yi Feng let the two nylon bags stuffed with fresh-picked tea leaves settle to the ground. She took off her straw hat and used it to fan away the perspiration dripping down her weather-lined face.

"The Olympic Games?" she asked, apparently perplexed that anyone would bring up such a subject at harvest time on these prime tea-growing slopes in coastal Zhejiang province. "With all I have to do these days, how could I pay attention to the Olympic Games?"

Yi, 54, has always spent her days in Fan Shen, part of a timeless China dominated by the seasons of the year, the rhythms of farm life and the joys and sorrows of raising a family. For her, and for many of her generation in the vast Chinese countryside, the Olympic Games have proved a distant echo, another propaganda theme from the central government that has little to do with getting in the crops on a hot August day.

About two-thirds of China's 1.3 billion people have remained tied to farming villages, despite the economic boom of the last 30 years. Focused on their land and their crops, many of them have felt little in common with the glitter of the Olympics, the $40 billion makeover of Beijing and the nationalist pride of their countrymen as China strides onto the international stage and take its place as a world power.

"It is tea-drying time," said Yi Song, 55, chuckling contentedly as fragrant green leaves were fluffed and warmed in a wheezing array of ovens that rotated ceaselessly behind him. "We don't have time for that."

Most foreigners in China, particularly those participating in or attending the Olympics, have come into contact with a recently emerged modern nation of skyscrapers, traffic-clogged streets and increasingly outward-looking people with money to spend. But most Chinese have yet to enter that world. Theirs still revolves around the land, leaving, as Yi said, little time for Olympics festivities promoted by the Communist Party.

Auditing firms announced that up to two-thirds of the Chinese viewing public watched the Olympics' Opening Ceremonies on Friday evening. The state-controlled Chinese television system sent the ceremonies out live across the country on multiple channels, leaving little choice. But the elderly farmers and tea merchants here apparently went to bed early that night. Most said they had skipped the extravagant pageantry that was beamed around the world and cited as a window on Chinese culture.

"This time of year, we're just too busy," said Wen Xing, 44, who was selling watermelons and squash from a truck bed alongside the main road running through the village.

Some Fan Shen residents, the eldest among its 600 families, did not recognize the Mandarin Chinese word for Olympics when asked about their interest in the goings-on in faraway Beijing. When it was translated into their Zhejiang dialect, they smiled and nodded but showed no particular sign of enthusiasm.

An elderly woman shearing leaves off a well-tended row of tea bushes on a hillside high above the village, for instance, smiled toothlessly but silently at repeated questions about the Olympics. Finally she cut off the attempt at conversation and turned back to her work, saying, "I don't understand you, and you don't understand me."

It is not that Fan Shen, surrounded by neatly terraced hillsides just inland from the East China Sea, has not enjoyed its share of benefits from China's meteoric economic progress. Previously known as one of Zhejiang's poorest and most remote backwaters, the hills around here have become more prosperous since the government built a concrete road connecting with the highway to the nearby port of Ningbo, allowing trucks to carry tea down to market more easily and buses to carry tourists up to scenic overlooks.

Since then, the green tea from Fan Shen has found more customers in Ningbo, Shanghai and beyond. The tea has gained a reputation as some of the finest in a country where people rank their teas and recognize their origins the way Frenchmen do wine or Yemenis do coffee.

Many houses here long ago installed running water and most now have electricity. Some tea plantations have been connected to the village by concrete steps, easing the climb from terrace to terrace. Although human waste is still used for fertilizer, stored in decorated cauldrons that are deployed at intervals around the terraces, a dam has backed up water in the deep ravine below Fan Shen, guaranteeing a supply of water for irrigation.

Reflecting the recent prosperity, several little grocery stores have opened up selling packaged foods to complement the melons, corn and mutton available locally. The merchants have even begun to stock store-bought tea -- red tea in plastic bottles with sweetener and lemon flavor already mixed in.

"Life here is good," said a man walking down the road wearing shorts.

Perhaps most important to the future of Fan Shen, the new road has meant children can easily take the bus down to the secondary school in a neighboring town, opening vistas for village children that their parents never imagined.

Among this younger generation, the call of the Beijing Olympics has been heard.

Xiu Lifen, 20, said the Communist Party, working through county, village and education officials, organized Olympics-related activities at local schools, including sports tournaments pitting the children of one village against those from another. As a result, he said, he has taken an interest in the Games, particularly basketball, and has been watching matches regularly on television.

Xiu, who graduated recently from the nearby secondary school, said he has plenty of time to devote to Olympics television broadcasts because he is unemployed. He was watching one such program shortly before noon on Wednesday, outfitted only in a pair of shorts to deal with temperatures in the 90s.

Xiu has made no plans to continue his education at the university level. "We are peasants and we don't have enough money for that," he explained.

So far, he said, he has made himself useful around the house while his parents tend the family tea plantation up the hillside. But the horizon of what might lie beyond Fan Shen has begun to beckon. For millions of young Chinese from villages like this one, it is a future in the assembly factories of the Pearl River Delta.

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