The temperature was over 30 Celsius on September 21st, 2010 in Bijie, Guizhou Province. As field workers for WRIC’s Rural girls assistance plan, my friend Mr. Han and I visited a local brick factory. We were looking for a couple who had spent 200,000 yuan (about $30,000) in medical expenses to cure their infertility. The Dings had a daughter recently after working very hard to pay the medical fees.
While Mr. Han was asking around for the Ding family, I saw by the brick factory’s temporary footbridge a man and a woman, both of slight stature, loading bricks onto a high truck bed. In the vicious heat, they would take a stack of five bricks weighing more than twenty pounds from the wheelbarrow and lift them to the high truck bed. It would be hard for an average man to use the specialized hook to pick up the brick stacks and lift them over his head. This woman, however, worked in the same manner as the man. Her red sweater was completely soaked with sweat.
I started photographing the woman. It wasn’t to honor or glorify her labor, but to record, with a heavy heart, that at this moment in China, there is such a hardscrabble way to make a living.
After I climbed off the footbridge, I took some pictures of the couple from some other angles. Although the woman’s face was caked with sweat and dust, it was still apparent that she was good looking. Had she not been born in a Chinese village, with some care and fashion, she would have looked like any attractive young woman in the cities.
Suddenly I saw a baby stroller under the bridge. A half-naked baby was sound asleep. I sensed that the man and woman were the parents of the child. I walked up to the stroller. The baby was only four or five months old. Around the stroller, on her body, head, even eyelids, flies circled and landed with impunity. The baby was oblivious, sleeping and sucking on her thumb as if from her mother’s breast. It was a sad scene and I choked up. It was a girl, exactly the kind of baby that the Rural girls assistance plan was supposed to help.
Forget all the talk of hard work and prosperity, the couple lifting bricks in this heat worked a hundred times harder than anyone sitting in an office or those talking to television cameras in dark studios. But they wouldn’t get rich working their whole lifetimes. I felt the injustice of the situation and began to videotape the family while explaining to them the goals of WRIC’s Rural girls assistance plan They fit all our requirements. I explained that I would work hard to get them assistance. But the woman did not believe me. She wouldn’t even answer whether the baby under the bridge was related to them. After she hurriedly loaded another wheelbarrow of bricks, she picked up the girl from the stroller and hid away from us. In this country crawling with scams, who could believe that pies would suddenly drop from the sky?
I understood that she didn’t trust us. I bore the responsibility from AGA, and I had to work hard to get them help through the Baby Shower Gift program. So I tried to strike up a conversation with the man, who was by now leaning on the wheelbarrow for a little rest. I showed him our cameras and opened our notebooks. I explained the entries we took that day of the girls we registered and the photos we took of girls we had already helped in prior months. We did not drop by the brick factory for no reason. We were looking for the Ding family. Mr. Yang, who worked in the factory and introduced us to the Dings, could vouch for us.
The man finally began to speak. Li Wanji was 25 years old; his wife, Yang Junhong, was 22. They moved here from about 25 miles away. He admitted that the baby in the stroller, Li Xiaoxue was theirs. A girl who looked on us from inside the factory was also theirs. Each month he and his wife could pull in at most 1000 yuan ($147). But the mother had no breast milk. Therefore, the money mostly went to four or five bottles of “milk” for the baby.
They wouldn’t tell me their telephone number. Maybe they really didn’t have any. But most probably they were reluctant to trust us. Perhaps when they receive assistance next month they would put more confidence in us. I was about to ask more about their work, the tons upon tons of bricks they had to lift every day…but then Mr. Ding arrived, and we left for Mr. Ding’s house.
From Mr. Ding, I learned more information about Li Wanji and his family. The couple earned about 900 yuan ($132) each month, which sometimes reached over 1000 yuan. A single brick weighed five pounds. A stack of five therefore weighed 25. Every eight hours, the couple needed to load 8000 bricks. That was eighteen tons!
I asked Mr. Yang why Li Wanji and Yang Junhong didn’t ask the children’s grandparents to take care of the children. Li’s father had passed away a long time ago. His mother and a teenage brother had to do all the farming work during the heavy farming season. They could not possibly take care of three children.
I had only seen two children in the brick factory. Where did the third come from? Mr. Yang explained that Li Wanji was suspicious of us. The third child, also a girl, was hidden from us completely. Yang Junhong was only 22, still only college age, yet she already had three children. It was hard to imagine how she could work this heavy load while raising three girls, including a baby. It was easy to see why Li Wanji’s confidence in us was so limited. It would be hard to blame them in this environment of Birth Planning squads, Birth Planning fines, forced sterilization and forced abortions.
I couldn’t help being moved by the plight of the Li Xiaoxue story when I looked over the materials we collected a day later. What I saw in the brick factory and under the bridge continued to drift across my mind. Why did the baby have to be born in such extreme poverty? How many mothers, how many children, in Bijie, in China, were like Li Xiaoxue and Yan Junhong? I resolved to write about them to tell the world that in a “nationally prosperous” China, there were still people like this family that lived, worked and survived in this way.