Rice Paddy People

Villagers work together to transplant rice into the paddy in late spring. (Photo: Jenna Tilt)
Villagers work together to transplant rice into the paddy in late spring. (Photo: Jenna Tilt)

The young Chinese laborer was desperate. Like millions of other migrant workers in China’s dash to industrialize, he had left his home and family to work in a factory in the rural interior. Now, environmental officials had closed the zinc smelter in Futian where he worked, and without a job, nearly out of money and separated from his support community, he knocked on the door of the inquisitive American who had been conducting interviews in the village. He asked the foreigner if he could help him with another job or a bus ticket back home. Then he broke down in tears.

“I suspected that he was just looking for money,” writes Bryan Tilt in his 2010 book, The Struggle for Sustainability in Rural China. Tilt, who was a University of Washington graduate student at the time, told the man to come back later and consulted with his landlord, Li Jiejie. She had an extensive family network throughout the region, the arid foothills of southern Sichuan Province. Eventually, Jiejie helped Tilt find the man a job carrying mortar at a construction project. The pay was less than half of what he had made at the smelter.

The laborer’s problems were not unusual. Workers like him, China’s so-called “floating population,” have transformed the Chinese countryside by operating make-shift mines and factories, often living with their families in industrial compounds fouled by coal smoke, polluted water and other wastes. In the 1980s, more than 100 million people moved from agriculture to industry — the largest employment shift ever recorded.

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When Tilt, now an Oregon State University anthropologist and a Fulbright scholar, first visited Futian in 2001, it was a poor isolated village of rice farmers. Most residents call themselves Shuitan zu, literally “rice paddy people.”

The local government had built an industrial compound that housed facilities for smelting zinc, washing coal and producing coke for a steel mill in Panzhihua, the region’s largest city. Flush with revenues from the factories, the town had constructed new cement buildings with storefronts and a six-story high-rise office building faced with white tiles to house municipal offices. On a small stream, it erected a dam to produce electricity.

This prosperity came at a price. Acrid coal smoke choked the industrial compound and wafted over homes and farm fields. The stream, a tributary to the Yangtze, ran black with effluents. Children played in slag heaps and other refuse from the factories.

“Piles of coal and ore-slag lay strewn about the factory compound,” writes Tilt. “When it rained, pools of black industrial sludge collected in ruts and potholes in the road and in villagers’ courtyards and gardens.”

Interviews in the Smoke

Tilt had come to Futian to talk with villagers, workers and government officials about their attitudes toward development and pollution. His goal was to reach a deeper understanding about environmental values in China and to learn how people responded to problems and sought redress for damages.

Bryan Tilt interviewed workers in this zinc smelter. It was closed in 2001. (Photo: Bryan Tilt)
Bryan Tilt interviewed workers in this zinc smelter. It was closed in 2001. (Photo: Bryan Tilt)

For anthropologists, fieldwork means interviews, so Tilt visited people in their homes and offices, scribbling hurried notes in English and Mandarin, which he speaks fluently. (“As an anthropologist, you really can’t understand people except through their language,” he says.) He created questionnaires and asked villagers to fill them out. Enveloped in coal smoke with a handkerchief over his mouth, he interviewed workers in the factory compound.

Although he would have preferred to use a tape recorder to document his discussions, he found quickly that people were reluctant. “People don’t want to talk into tape recorders,” he says. “Recent political history has told them that doing things on the record can be dangerous.”

At times, the conversations were casual and relaxed. Residents honored their guest with refreshments before talking about more serious matters. “In China, you don’t just show up and start doing your work and start pushing your agenda. You eat and you drink. There’s an expectation that you socialize together,” Tilt says. In Futian, Tilt was often served a homemade liquor called bai-jiu, a drink that challenged his palette. “It was like gasoline, only less tasty,” he says.

Conventional wisdom about a society’s attitude toward the environment holds that in the early stages of development, nature takes a back seat to more pressing needs, such as food, warmth and shelter. And yet what Tilt found during his fieldwork was that local farmers and townspeople, most of whom lived in houses with dirt floors and made the equivalent of less than $500 a year, put a high priority on clean air and water.

It wasn’t just a matter of treating nature as sacred. Although traditional Chinese religions (Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism) regard humans as intimately linked to the environment, farmers told Tilt that pollution reduced their crop yields and made the stream unusable for irrigation and livestock. Other residents complained that the coal smoke and black water made them and their children sick.

“These are people who rely on the land to make a living. If their crops fail, they’re done for. That’s a very pragmatic basis for an environmental value,” says Tilt.

Out of Compliance

In fact, it was pollution of agricultural water that broke the back of Futian’s industrial enterprises. In 2000, a group of farmers appealed to local government and to regional environmental officials to have the factories closed.

Two years later, as the pollution continued to spew from the industrial compound, the farmers took a page from environmental activists in the West and called in the media. A TV reporter used a hidden camera to record the owner of the zinc smelter saying that his factory was too profitable — to himself and to the village — to be closed. A month later, environmental officials issued a written order closing the factories for noncompliance with emissions standards.

During the dry season, farmers carry fodder home for livestock to eat. (Photo: Jenna Tilt)
During the dry season, farmers carry fodder home for livestock to eat. (Photo: Jenna Tilt)

“It’s often the case that wealth and privilege are a way of buffering yourself against some of those risks,” says Tilt. “These people were on the front lines. They didn’t have those buffers.” To underscore the point, he notes that he and his wife Jenna bought bottled water to drink during their visits to Futian. Most residents did not have that luxury.

“So a lot of what I found ran completely counter to that idea that you need to reach a certain level of economic development before you even care about environmental issues,” he adds. “I think the reason is that these are people who, precisely because of their low socioeconomic position, were directly experiencing the impacts of a local pollution problem.”

In fact, Futian had only recently solved what the Chinese call wenbao wenti, the “warmth and fullness problem,” says Tilt. Many older residents remembered the famine during the Cultural Revolution, when people ate grass from steep, dusty hillsides above the town alongside their livestock (a time some sardonically referred to as “the era of green shit”).

Time for the Opera

Today, they don’t go hungry. They grow more than enough food — rice, vegetables, pork, chicken, beef — to feed themselves and to supply markets downriver in Panzhihua. Satellite TV dishes have even appeared outside some of the ubiquitous mud-walled houses (“I like to watch the Beijing Opera,” one woman told Tilt). In the busy morning market, villagers shop, chat with each other and play mahjong.

Tilt’s interviews show an unexpected divide among people based on where they lived and worked. Whereas many farmers and townspeople objected to the pollution, most factory workers like the young man who had knocked on his door thought that it was harmless or, at worst, easily remedied. They constantly downplayed the health risks, says Tilt. “They had been doing this work for years with no problems. They didn’t worry about it,” he adds.

Nevertheless, a woman who worked in a local health clinic told Tilt that factory workers often came to her complaining of respiratory problems and difficulties breathing. “There is nothing really that we can do for them,” she said.

While closing the factories may have cleared the air in Futian, it also left workers without jobs and the owners deep in debt. Tilt got to know some of the workers and spent his free time with the owner of the zinc smelter, Mr. Zhang, a retired college-educated school teacher who had sunk his life savings into the enterprise. The local government had attracted him to the area with promises of rich natural resources and tax breaks. Now he felt betrayed.

Before he went to China, Tilt considered the factories to be “faceless entities plotting to destroy the environment. They weren’t like that,” he says. “They were people like you and me who were trying to do right by their families. They were trying to make a living. They were doing it under tremendous uncertainty. The political and economic climate in China can change, turn on a dime. If the Party comes out with a new policy and it affects you, you’re out of luck. So there’s a Wild West mentality where, you gotta get what you can get now and move on.”

The factory closures in Futian have been repeated across the country, evidence that environmental protection is being taken more seriously in China. Tilt expects to see continued progress as the government invests in pollution control and alternative energy technologies.

“China is kicking our butts on renewable energy technology,” he says. “It’s because the central government has decided to do that. They have a plan to spend $800 billion on wind, wave, solar and hydroelectric. They are putting a lot of energy, initiative and money behind developing these technologies. And we are sitting around going, ‘Who should take the lead on this?’ Guess what, 10 years from now, they’re going to have all the capacity, and we are not.”


OSU anthropologists work in Oregon and around the world. Every summer, the Archaeology Field School offers opportunities to literally dig into Pacific Northwest history. See more about faculty research and educational programs in the Department of Anthropology.