Song Duo has had his difficult moments. A peasant team leader, he resigned in disgust in 1974 over some front-office misbehavior. He and his commune supervisors are now sparring over his plan to build a new house.
Yet these days, at age 50, his close-cropped hair thinning back over a nut-brown scalp, the sometimes irascible comrade Song feels he has finally arrived. This is the year China's 800 million peasants are beginning to think about getting rich, and Song is way ahead of most of them.
He has four big rooms, a charming garden with fruit trees and fish pond and a $650 profit share coming at year's end.
"What I am thinking now, because we have so much more money than before, I am thinking of eating better, drinking better and dressing better," says Song. a"Why should I save so much more money in the bank?"
American images of the Chinese peasant may be forever warped by Pearl Buck's 1930s best seller, "The Good Earth." The book portrayed a breed of quiet men and women squeezing a bitter living from ancient, overworked soil. There is still some truth to that, but a few days spent in a vegetable commune of the Peking suburbs show a different kind of Chinese peasant -- pleasure-seeking, joking, squabbling and working now for a bigger portion of the national rice bowl.
Downing his customary shot of potent liquor before digging into a dish of beans and pork, Song says, "I don't raise pigs. It means a lot of chores and who wants to work that hard?" He has the equivalent of $1,380 in the bank, with his wife and three of his four children working full time.
Song plans to build six more rooms to house his sons' future families, and eventually catch up with many of his neighbors by buying a television set.
In the latter days of Communist Party chairman Mao Tse-tung, whose huge portrait stares down beningly from the wall of Song's neat, white wallpapered living room, such consumption would have brought official disapproval. But Mao is dead and his heirs have decided the only way to keep peasants working hard is to pay them better and let them use the money as they wish.
Song says he reveres chairman Mao, but the back of the portrait serves best now as a place to store the family registration papers. He has the first four volumes of Mao's selected works on the table, but the fifth -- and somewhat discredited -- volume has been conveniently misplaced.
It is a perfect evening in Song's garden, with a huge moon illuminating the cabbage rows in Song's private plot, just beyond his row of poplar, pear, persimmon, cherry and apple trees. Wang Xunying, 46, a veteran official from the commune office, swings her arms and walks back and forth. She is here mostly to keep an eye on me, the foreign visitor, but she has also been listening to Song's plans for the house he wants to build for his eldest son, Shengli, (Victory) soon to be married.
"It is not easy for you to build six rooms," she says.
"That all depends on whether you approve my plan or not," Song replies.
There was a day when communist officials disapproved of such free spirits as Song in leading roles. Song only resumed a job as team leader two years ago, but after a while it becomes clear why they tolerate him. He seems to be able to grow anything.Many of the fruit trees in his yard include branches skillfully grafted by Song onto trunks of a particularly sturdy variety of cherry tree.
He is good at humoring the 46 men and women of Team 13. In the field he makes quick, confident decisions about the timing of work on an incredible variety of crops -- eggplant, cucumber, tomato, spinach, garlic, green pepper, radish, scallion, onion, bamboo shoots, lettuce, potato, hot pepper, celery, parsley, fennel, string bean, cabbage and turnip.
But now the brigade health and welfare officer, a slim, chain-smoking women named Sun Meirong, has dropped by to ask Song for one of his team members to help dig a well for a new water tower. Song, poker-faced, bristles and says he can not spare anyone. They begin to trade mild insults, to a sparring match that I learn later goes on every time she visits and ends with Song giving in. For a while they drag Madame Wang in, telling her that she, as the senior commune official present, must decide.
Son Victory: "You served Madame Wang a cup of tea before you served me.
Therefore you are flattering her."
Song: "I am flattering Madame Wong so she will promote you!"
A shout from the gate interrupts: "Victory!"
Then number-one son, slouching in his undershirt after a hard day at the commune broiler factory, answers with a loud "Uh?" A short, pretty young women in a bright blue blouse, one of the several young peasant woman to don bright colors even in the fields -- walks in. Victory has a gleam in his eye. b"This is my . . . uh, wife!" he says. The premature title brings laugher and taunts.
"See how the young people are talking today!" says Song, in a mock disgust.
Then he says, loud enough for all to hear, "Victory had another girlfriend but she lived far away and was very talll, maybe 5 foot 9, taller than Victory. I don't know what happened to her because Victory didn't tell me." v
Song talks of his housing plans. "We have enough room for six rooms, two sets of rooms for two sons, but Victory just thinks of himself and doesn't care what we arrange for his brother. He thinks the old man can fix that up later."
Song is up the next morning at 5:30. He walks the quarter mile to the little house serving as his team's office in the middle of its fields.
Almost everyone is there at 6 a.m. sharp. The rule is, team members more than 20 minutes late lose credit for half a day. Shares in the profits of vegetable sales are paid just before the Chinese New Year holiday on the basis of the number of days worked, which jobs performed and how much experience and skill exhibited.
Zhang Qiuqi weeds a patch of tender fennel shoots with a small knife. He is squatting, the usual posture for vegetable peasants. They say the grain peasants, who make less money, have it easy because they do not have to weed so carefully. Zhang's wife is on the team and they have a small daughter. "I want to make a contribution to the motherland but I also want to save money for myself. I want to buy some more furniture, a desk, and a TV set. The cheaper ones are coming out in the fall, I hear."
Yu Qiuli, a lanky 21-year-old woman, weeds another field, occasionally scraping the mud off her long fingers with her knife. "I envy the eight-hour day the factory workers have." she says. Some days when I see the workers leaving their work and going home, and I am still in the fields, I feel jealous."
Most of the talk, however, is light-hearted. "Your wife really keeps you on a leash doesn't she?" a deputy team leader teases a quiet male team member.
A female member, eavesdropping on an interview, yells, "Xiuzhu has now informed all of America she has a boyfriend."
That afternoon, the peasants enjoy the luxury of standing up while they pick string beans from vines growing on trestles. Zhoa Yongquan, 50, the team clown, has his undershirt rolled up to his chest and is singing Peking Opera love songs:
"We know each other NOW, but we will know each other BETTER?"
Zhao is asked what he does in the evening -- read the paper, watch television? "I drink," he says, "I sing when I'm happy, but I like to drink first." Team leader Song, he notes, comsumes six bottles of liquor a month, while he, old Zhao, drinks 10. "He is my apprentice in the matter of drinking," Zhao says.
Song admits, "I have shortcomings because I speak too freely. If I had not spoken so freely at times, I would have been promoted to higher levels." He had been a team leader since 1965, but quit in 1974 when a brigade leader gave a relative a high pay share and easy work over Song's objections.
He also squabbled with much of the commune leadership over a plan to relocate all the commune members in a new two-story apartment buildings costing $30,000 each. They went ahead with one building "to educate me," Song says, but gave up the project "when they ran out of building materials and money."
They had already gotten his back up in the 1966, when the Cultural Revolution began and team members in search of people to criticize seemed to focut on "outsiders," like Song (he was born in Nanping, but his father had come from southern Hebei, and so in insular Chinese villiage life was not quite a native).
"I had intended to stop at two sons and a daughter," he says, "but when they started looking down on us, I decided to have one more, just to increase our numbers a bit in the villiage."
The result was Donzi (Winter), now a quick-witted, harmonica-playing 13-year-old son nicknamed because he was born the first day of winter.
Are the leaders with whom Song clashed so often still in power?
Well, one was transferred to another place, but the rest are still here. When they see me on the street, they get off their bicycles and greet me, even though they are higher than me, I think it shows they are apologetic, and a little embarrassed."