Thursday, May 15, 2008

About Gansu Province and Pingliang

China is the land of contradiction, a graceful chaos that one out of every five people on the planet calls home yet a mystery for almost everyone else. Because we have scurried through China a few times already, we're careful to avoid generalized descriptions of the place. But undoubtedly the country is massive both in scale and in its human potential for success or sorrow.

Gansu Province is in China's northwest. Inner Mongolia and Ningxia Province are to the north. Xinjiang is to the west. Qinghai, Tibet, and Sichuan are to south. Shaanxi lies to the east. Approximately 26 million people live within Gansu Province's borders. The Yellow River passes through the south central part of the province, in the area near the provincial capital of Lanzhou. Like many Chinese cities, Lanzhou is rapidly growing economically and otherwise. It is also said to be among the most polluted cities in the world. While the skies over Langzhou are less hazy than in larger Chinese cities to the east, its water supply is badly fouled by waste and other contaminates.

The snaking oblong shape of Gansu was settled in ancient times alongside the first leg of the Silk Road, which led out of the old city of Xi’an and served as the primary trade route from China to the west starting around 7500 B.C and ending about 400 years ago. As a result it is still inhabited by a varied mix of cultures, notably those shared with people to the southwest on the plains of Tibet and Qinghai, and Inner Mongolia just to the north. Even among its majority Han Chinese are many who long ago converted to Islam and are called Hui.

As a frontier region Gansu became increasingly isolated from outside contact in the later imperial era. The region was also somewhat on the periphery during the later nationalist and communist periods, even though many people in Gansu supported the early communist revolutionary movement, which based itself in neighboring Shaanxi when Red armies converged there at the end of the famous Long March northwest from Jiangxi Province in 1935.  As in Tibet, many minorities in Gansu preferred independence.

Today in Lanzhou there is said to be a new sense of optimism linked to China’s overall economic development and a new industrial emphasis locally on mining, but Gansu is still among the poorest of China’s provinces. Per capita average annual income for its urban population is 6,657.24 yuan ($952 USD). Per capita net income in rural areas is 1,673 yuan ($239 USD).

Earthquakes are unusually common in Gansu; indeed the entire lower third of the province has apparently suffered greatly from a massive quake reported just a few days ago on May 12 and centered across its southern border in Wenchuan, Sichuan Province. Pingliang is located within the reported quake zone and we are checking now through several reliable sources on the status of conditions at the orphanage there.

At any rate, earthquakes along with periodic drought and famine have often helped to hold back the province economically. One earthquake in Gansu in 1920 measuring about 8.6 on the Richter scale killed around 250,000 people and another with a magnitude of 7.6 killed 70,000 in 1932.

Reports in the China Daily say the area around Pingliang and Jingchuan County, normally arid anyway, is in the midst of a drought, the area's worst in more than 60 years. Still, Pingliang lies in a broad valley next to a forested mountain range called Kongtong Shan. Tree stands are somewhat rare in this region and these dry mountain forests are home to an ancient Taoist temple built on the mythical site of meetings between Huangdi the Yellow Emperor (2697 BC to 2598 BC) and a legendary immortal hermit and master.

Jingchuan County, where Henry was found, is southeast of the city of Pingliang although part of its prefecture administrative district. The land there is typically hilly with steep, often terraced gullies. Its climate is very dry and cool, with only about 170 frost-free days each year. Within Jingchuan are 1,465 sub-villages, 215 administrative villages and 18 townships. Its population in 2002 was 335,447 (311,078 rural). The area is known locally for its harvested fruit, especially a Fuji apple (Jinglong brand) that is labeled “famous fruit in China," and also for several hot springs and some ancient religious sites. Annual per capita income for the county's rural wage earners is Y1,551 ($221 USD or about 60 cents per day).

For more information about Pingliang see the later post A Very Humble Beginning. It describes a visit to Pingliang, its orphanage, and the area further south around Jingchuan where Henry was found. See also A Lesson from Crows.
Jingchuan was one of four Gansu counties closely examined in a 2003 study concluding that Gansu Province had the highest rate of birth defects of any province in China. It also had the highest infant mortality rate with more than half its infant deaths due to birth defects. Causes could range from general nutritional issues, to natural radon found in soils and wells, to pollution routinely dumped onto the ground or drained into a very limited number of rivers and aquifers.