Zhang Guobao: interview transcript

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Zhang Guobao: interview transcript

Zhang Guobao is a farmer living in Donghao village, Qinglong Man autonomous county, Hebei province, China. He was aged 43 at the time he was interviewed on the 21st of November 2009 for the IFAD Rural Poverty Report.  The interview was recorded in Mandarin and carried out by a staff member from the Beijing Cultural Centre for Rural Women.  The interviewer had an existing relationship with the community but was not a professional researcher.

Introduction by interviewer: The interview was conducted at Zhang Guobao's home. We saw several big, fat hens and cocks seeking fodder in the courtyard, which does not look tidy at all. Zhang was going to boil some water but stopped when we arrived. His younger son was fetching water from the well in the courtyard. Zhang invited us into his house. We found it in a mess, dust covering everything and shabby clothes scattered on the big kang (a heatable brick bed used in rural areas in Northern China).

From the focus group interview, we learned about some of your difficulties. We have come here to learn what causes reduced you to poverty, and we also want to know your thoughts on your family's future.
We didn't have much land. I had to leave home to find a job outside the village. After the accident*, if my wife had not been dead, we could have had a so-so life, and life could have had some interest for me. But since I had the accident, my wife found her enthusiasm for work had cooled. She didn't have the mood to work. Otherwise, how could she suffer so much from disease and disaster? When I was fit, our life was not too bad, although we were not rich in the village. That's it.

That means everything has changed after you were injured?
Yes, just as you said, that's an earth-shattering change. The earth shattered, and then I was finished.

When did you build this house?
[Pauses to think] The old house was pulled down…on the 7th and 8th of the Chinese lunar year of 2003. Everybody said I shouldn't live in it. I got more than 20 thousand yuan from the accident. But over 2000 yuan (292 US$)** was spent to cure my elder son's colic and 5000 to 6000 spent when my younger son broke his arm. The remaining money went on building this house, for tiles were already falling off from the old one. Folks helped us to build it. I borrowed money here and there and managed to make it.

You managed to build it with the compensation money?
Yes, we didn't have savings before.

So it means you built it after your injury. I thought it was built before you were injured.
I was injured in 2002 and the house was built in 2003.

Oh. You got injured in 2002?
I remember it was in 2002 and we built it in 2003. Seven… eight years have passed in a flash.

Your wife died in…?
She went in 2006.

She died suddenly? Did she say something?
She died suddenly. I was not at home then. It seemed she was watching television and suddenly was [just] lying there. My third uncle came and found she was lying there. He then called people. My wife's illness had recurred all at once. She always talked about heart pain. She had said [she needed] to go to the hospital, but we had no money. She was lying there at this time.

Was it her heart disease that recurred?
Yes, she didn't go to see a doctor and had no money to go. She was so young, she was so beautiful. Now, she's gone. She was an activist of the group (the Women Health Support Group in Donghao Village). She was a core member since the project [to prevent rural women's suicide] started.

I was injured, then she was in a depressed mood and felt life was hopeless. She had the idea to do away with herself (commit suicide). She participated in the training in Zhengding (the workshop on Creative Modes for Rural Women's Work, held in 2005). She was then in a very good mood. In a good mood; and we had the new house. But she was excessively tired. She worked in the field to fertilize crops one day and died the next day.

Will you tell me in more detail?
She worked putting manure in the field all day long on the 12th day of the sixth month of the lunar year. She had her breakfast the next day and died after 7 o'clock. Her body turned stiff.

What is the result of her death?
Whoosh! Who said that, there's too much misfortune. If she was alive, I would be concerned about nothing. She is gone and I have to take care of everything.

What's your plan for your future?
Oh! The plan for my future? I don't want to think ahead a lot, just live one day at a time. When my sons grow up, I hope they can manage to live on and…have a better life. If they can manage, they live on. If not… that's to say I could do nothing to help them.

But you have two sons.
Yeah, you're right. I can only place my hope in them, now.

You should not lose confidence. At least you are alive. Though you're injured, your sons can turn to you for ideas.
No, I cannot offer any good ideas. Just to get by, to dawdle away [the time]. But I know at least my younger son can call me "Dad" when he returns home. He calls me "Daddy! Daddy!" as soon as he enters the house. He has to call me since he has no mother.

You're his support in spirit. You shouldn't lose heart for life. It's no good for your sons.
Umm…You see I don't have a good mood for life. I should have died earlier. If I was dead, that would be it. That's it when one dies.

We've heard that you son studied well.
Yes, we couldn't afford to pay for his school costs. He wanted to study fine arts. [The senior high school] is expensive and I was unable to afford the cost. At that time, my younger son was studying at the school in Tumenzi, and he had lunch in the school. How could I manage that? It required three yuan for a lunch and eight yuan for [tuition for] a day. I couldn't even pay that three yuan lunch for him. Now, he has dropped out of school and stays at home.

When did your wife Miao Xiaodong die?
Umm…it's the fourth year of her death.

Then you rely mainly on your elder son's work outside the village?
He's only 18 this year. It's said he works in a hotel. He hasn't returned since he left home.

How much can he earn every month?
He says 500 to 600 yuan. But I haven't seen the money. He's not returned yet.

That means your son went to work outside the village after his graduation from junior high school, but you haven't seen the money since he left home last year?
Yeah, he's young. Surely, he cannot earn much.

Where does he work?
Well, I cannot tell you. He says in Shanhaiguan (in Liaoning Province).

Lost connection?
Sometimes, I borrowed a cell phone to call him and talked with him over the phone for a few minutes. That's e fine.

Does he have a cell phone?
No. He hasn't. How can he have one? He just borrows others'.

Have you experienced suffering from hunger?
If I have the mood, I cook something to eat. If not, I just suffer from hunger.

Have your children suffered from hunger?
No, if there's nothing to eat at home, he'll go to his grandpa. He can find something to eat there.

I've noticed the hens and cocks you raised are good. How many have you raised?
Seven. I bought them and raised them from chicks. I fumble to feed them and touch them. When I feed them, they always stay around my feet. I've also got two ducks.

Any others? How many pigs?
Umm, I raise two pigs.

[Li Guimin, who accompanied us to Zhang Guobao's house added: "He's well known here for his skills in raising pigs." His pigs have affection for him and grunted to greet him when he entered the yard.]

Do you chat with the pigs? What do you say to your pigs?
What can I say to them!? They come to me for feed. That's it.

What do you do every day?
What can I do? I make a fire to cook; feed the pigs, hens and cocks.

How do you feed the pigs? Find the slot (container for pig feed)?
Yeah, and fumble to cut some firewood.

You're really great. I heard you and your wife fell in love [after meeting] by yourselves. Not introduced by others?
You're right. We fell in love with one another. That's freestyle love, the villagers said. She was beautiful. Oh, well, we didn't have good fortune. She did not have a good fate, neither do I.

Can you tell us something about your life before the accident? The house was built with the compensation money. Then how did your life look before?
At first, because both our sons were young, I couldn't work outside the village for long. And it's not easy to find a good job. We don't have much land, either. So, we had a hard life in the early years after we married.

How much land did you have then?
Before the readjustment of land, we only had land for one person. Because my wife hadn't reached the marriageable age when we got married, and the children were too young to get land, we had only land for one person. At that time, we mainly relied on land to support ourselves. We had the label of poor from that time on, since we didn't have much land. We had nothing at home.

Soon after [our situation] turned better, I had the accident.

How long had you worked outside the village?
At most, on and off, for about one year.

How much could you earn?
That was a piecework wage, added up by day. [Pauses to think.]About 40 to 50 yuan a day for working in the pit, and you had to work hard. Otherwise, you couldn't earn so much.

What sort of work did you do?
Transporting ores out of the mine pit. After blasting [of the rock in the mine] l would fill a tub with the mined ore. The tub would then be pulled out of the pit using a handcart.

That means you were filling the tub with the ore when it blew up?
Umm… it blew up ahead of the scheduled time. I was doomed to have the accident. The person who was blasting [the rock in the mine pit] is a person from Shaanxi. He asked me to hold the light for him. I had got to know some of the fellow workers. As soon as l walked in the mine pit it blew up. I had been standing a little bit away from the blasting site. Had l been closer, l would have been blown to death. In fact, l should not blame others, but myself. I had worked for a long time in the pit and had good relationships with the other workers. I offered to help and suffered the accident as a result.

You should have been up on the ground, not in the pit when it blasted?
I should have kept away [from the blast site] for a while, inside the pit.

Were you conscious after the blast?
I was not very clear. I realized I could breathe and had not died.

Where were you sent for treatment?
The people from the mine sent me to a hospital in Zunhua, and then to Tangshan.

How long did you stay in the hospital for treatment?
I was treated in the hospital for two or three months, at least more than two months. The doctors failed to cure my eyes.

Do you have some eyesight now?
Almost none - just a bit of dim light.

Not the whole picture?
No. I can see nothing. When going outside, I have to have my son to lead me. But if the road is even, I can go by myself.

You returned home after more than two months? Your elder son was in middle school then?
No, he wasn't. He's in primary school, maybe the fifth grade. He studied well before, [was] among the top students in his class. [Pause.]But his score dropped sharply, with the worsening of our family conditions.

Will you tell us more about it?
You see, if children from other families want to buy something, they have pocket money. But my son had no money even to buy some books or pens…because of our family conditions. Later he (the elder son) wanted to go to attend the school in Xiaoyinzi township to study fine arts. I said, "You'd better not go. You're 17 now. Your dad can do nothing. Where's the money? Even if we were not required to pay the tuition fee, how could we manage the living expenses at school? One year requires at least 2000 to 3000 [yuan]." I didn't let him go. I told him, "No, you can't go. We can't manage."

In fact, he was then 16 years old, right? Did your son understand you? Did he not blame you?
How do I know? That's our family condition. I had no means, even if he complained. He wanted to study fine arts, and we had to pay more for that. The younger one wanted to continue his junior high study. But I don't have the money to support him. He had to go to Tumenzi township.

Should you pay boarding [fees] for him? Couldn't he enjoy the exemption of tuition, miscellaneous fees as well as free textbooks?
We didn't have to pay for the boarding, but had to pay for food. The canteen has been contracted to an individual. And I cannot afford the food for him.

If he lived at home, could you manage?
When he was in the middle school, in Xihao village (the one next to Donghao village) he lived at home. He could return home to eat and I could manage to cook something for him. But in Tumenzi, it's too far away from home and it's expensive for me to pay for his food.

So he stopped going to school? After he had finished junior high school?
No, he quit after the school moved to Tumenzi. If the school hadn't moved, he could have gone on with his school education and was about to graduate from the junior high school.

Do you have hens laying eggs?
Yes, there are some.

Do you eat the eggs or go to sell them?
Oh, well, we get two or three a day. We'll cook them when we have no vegetables to go with our food.

What about your pigs? Do you sell them for money?
There's not much money to earn by raising pigs. We farmers are all like this. We like to raise pigs. My father said he would buy one for me. "You can try to raise it," he said. But I didn't have great interest…you see, we don't have much grain for ourselves and have to buy more for the pigs.

Do you sell them when they grow up?
Yeah, I sell one and a half and leave the rest for ourselves, as well as all the lard… for cooking. Sometimes, maybe just a quarter if I don't have much money to spend.

How much can you get by selling the pigs?
Umm, on average, 1700 to 1800 yuan for one pig. So [pauses to calculate] about 3,000 yuan a year.

Do you have any other income?
Yes, I can get some from the county (Civil Affairs Bureau for families with the poorest standard of living)…umm…started from 2006, 120 yuan for four persons every month. 30 yuan for each. Now it is increased to 50 yuan for each,  from this year.

How do you get the money?
They (the County Civil Affairs Bureau) save it to my account book every three months.

You still have land for one person?
We have land for two persons now. I have more…in total about one and a half mu (15 mu = 1 hectare).

[Li Guimin added:  "Actually he has 2 mu of land now. Later, after his accident, the village allocated him another piece of land, about 1.7 mu of poor hilly land, out of their sympathy. He sold it to a mine owner and got 17,000 to pay his debt for the house."]

Right, I don't have any debt now.

Who plants your land?
My father and my second elder brother help me. I don't have much land. How much grain can we get from this land?

You farmers are relying on heaven?
Yeah, totally relying on heaven.

Are there any irrigation facilities in your village?
No irrigation now. But we did have it before… in 1995 and 1996. People from the county helped us to instal the facilities, and most land could be watered. But later because of the poor management, all the facilities were ruined. The person in charge demanded too much money for watering. We could plant wheat and maize at that time. But now, planting wheat is impossible for us.

Do you think your poverty is directly related to your injury?
Yeah, physical strength is our capital and can support the family. But I cannot [do this] because of my present situation. If my wife was alive, she could earn some income and we could cope.

What do you think of your childhood compared to your children's?
In my childhood, there were many children in my family, so ours was not as good as theirs. But compared to children from other families, theirs is not as good as others.

Because of our family conditions, you can see. Children of other families can wander about, but my son cannot. My family – I mean, we don't have many relatives. He doesn't go anywhere. His father is like this, he doesn't like to go anywhere. He feels shame wherever he goes. So he doesn't go, except to his grandpa's house. He sometimes goes there and stays for a while.

Does he (the younger son) play with other children?
He's still young and plays for a while with other kids. Our family condition is like this, he can decide when he grows up.

Who takes care of your parents?
I have a good-for-nothing brother… my second elder brother.

He's a bit of a fool.

Oh, mentally disabled.
Yes, both my parents are over 70. They have their own house in the northern part of the village. They live by themselves. My second elder brother lives together with them. My third brother lives near my house. He's got lung… disease…maybe pneumonoultramicroscopicsilicovolcanokoniosis (lung disease caused by the inhalation of very fine silica dust, causing inflammation in the lungs).

Has he worked in a mine?
Yes. It's an occupational disease. He cannot work now.

How many brothers do you have?
I have four. I'm the youngest. My eldest brother died in the 90s…now, it's the 18th year since his death. He died in 1996, maybe. He died of TB (tuberculosis). He was then 43 or 44.

Was he married?
No. Neither is my second elder brother.

Is it difficult for men to set up families?
It's still hard. They have to spend money for marriage.

You're lucky then, and you found your wife by yourself.
Well, I was old enough. I was 25 then. My wife was about six years younger than me.

So, you had some happy days?
Yes. You're right.

What about your third elder brother? Is he married?
Yes, he is.

Do your parents still work in the field? They're over 70.
My father is 78 and my mother is ??? [inaudible] Usually, it is my second elder brother who farms the land. If he is busy, my father goes to the field to have a look.

To give him a hand?
Yes, he'd do something to help when he went, pick something in the field in autumn. But it's hard for him to manage the whole plot, for he's old. Anyway, we don't have much land in the village. One has less than one mu of land… He can manage it.

Do you go when there is yangge (a sort of folk dance in the locality) performance?
Yes, I do. I cannot see, only listen. But just for a while. I usually do not go out in the evening. It's not convenient. You see, young kids would be frightened when they see me.

Do you turn on the TV?
Usually I just listen to the news, listen to the sound since I cannot see.

Do you have a radio? Do you listen to radio broadcast?
No, I haven't. I just listen to the TV.

Can you wash your clothes?
I fumble to wash. All the clothes[pointing to those on the kang]were given to me by my nextdoor neighbour, [they are] old ones, not clean. I just leave them like that. Sometimes when I am in the right mood, I scrub some. If not, I just keep on wearing them. Not caring whether they are dirty or not.

Do you have anything to add? For your future?
For my future?... Just to drag my two sons up. That's it. Now, they are still young. If I were dead now, they would be without a father and mother. What will become of their life then? So, I have to go on living.

It's about noon time. It's time for you to cook your lunch. Thank you. We think you're great. You can do so many things though you cannot see. You can cook, raise pigs, hens and cocks. Thank you very much.

* Zhang lost his sight in a mining accident.  He describes the accident on p5-6 of this interview

** Average exchange rate November 2009 (6.84 yuan = 1 US$), Interbank rate, source: www.oanda.com