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Chinese anti-poverty TV drama well-received overseas

Xinhua| Updated : July 12, 2021

YINCHUAN - A Chinese TV drama series about the country's poverty alleviation efforts has recently gained popularity overseas, garnering millions of views on YouTube.

"Shanhaiqing," also known by its English title "Minning Town," follows villagers in the 1990s in Xihaigu, Northwest China's Ningxia Hui autonomous region, as they are relocated from the deep mountains to a habitable region near the Yellow River. They build their new homes in Minning from scratch with assistance from East China's Fujian province, a relatively wealthy coastal province.

The Chinese title "Shanhaiqing" roughly translates to "Mountain and Sea Love," which implies the joining of hands by Ningxia and Fujian.

The real-life history behind the drama is even more touching. A total of 66,000 relocated villagers, groups of frontline officials and experts from Fujian are the stars fighting poverty in Xihaigu, a region that has suffered from barren land, drought and a fragile ecological environment. It was labeled the "most unfit place for human settlement" by the United Nations in 1972.

Out of the mountains

Xie Xingchang, the inspiration for lead character Ma Defu in the drama and former Party secretary in Funing village, Minning town, said the movie mirrors a large part of what happened in real life but the reality was much more bitter.

Xie's hometown was a small mountain village in Xihaigu, where extreme drought forced locals to rely on government food assistance.

In 1996, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China made a strategic decision to promote a pairing-up support scheme between eastern and western China. Affluent areas were tasked with helping less developed regions, and the coastal province of Fujian was paired with Ningxia. Relocating villagers living in arid mountain areas to habitable regions near the Yellow River was a key project back then.

July 15, 1997 is a day carved in Xie's memory. That was when construction began for Minning Village, jointly built by Fujian and Ningxia near Ningxia's regional capital of Yinchuan. As the area was still an undeveloped wasteland, only 13 households agreed to "emigrate" with Xie, even after two mobilization campaigns.

"Traveling more than 400 km from my hometown to Minning Village took us 12 hours on three-wheeled motorcycles. We had to sleep on the floor on the night we arrived. The next day, we moved bricks and bought wood to build a house," said Xie, 66.

He remembers a day when his wife was cooking inside a tent and a sandstorm suddenly hit. "The tent was blown away, leaving my wife with a pot in her arms and a quilt under her feet."

"That was all we had," he said.

Rough days continued through their first New Year's Eve after relocation. With no electricity in the new village, Xie's family of seven lit candles to eat noodles in their adobe-style house. "After putting our children to sleep, my wife and I sat in the wilderness and counted the trains passing nearby. My mind, however, was back in the daytime when the kids were crying for sugar but I had no money at all. I was more than sad."

The next day, Xie and his fellow villagers went out to deal with the land.

When it was spring, they planted corn and, luckily, abundant irrigation from the Yellow River gave them a bumper harvest that year.

The good news attracted more people to move out of the mountains. Now, Minning Village has developed into Minning Town, home to 66,000 residents. Xie's house has a television, a refrigerator and a flushing toilet, and has been decorated with traditional Chinese paintings and calligraphy works. "Twenty-four years after moving here, I still feel like it's a dream."

Out of poverty

As Xie and others were fighting against extreme weather to survive, Lin Zhanxi, a professor at Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University and the influence for Professor Ling Yinong in "Minning Town," led a team that traveled more than 2,000 km from humid Fujian to an abandoned cave in Xihaigu's Pengyang county. Carrying with them six boxes of fungus, they planned to figure out how to grow mushrooms in arid areas and begin a rich industry in Ningxia.

"Many relocated residents were concerned with bread-and-butter issues as there was no industry in the newly built village," said 78-year-old Lin. "Therefore we needed to develop an industry that could bring fortune quickly to reassure them as they settled down." Lin decided to plant Agaricus bisporus, a widely cultivated mushroom species with a short planting cycle and significant benefits.

After successful trial planting in Pengyang county, Lin and his team visited Minning in 1998 and designed a semi-cellar mushroom house for the Gobi Desert, which could ensure suitable temperatures and humidity. As the locals had never planted the mushroom, Lin and other team members took the time to teach them, with each team member responsible for 30 to 50 households.

"Under the guidance of experts, I earned more than 7,000 yuan (about $1,081) in the first year," said villager Liu Changfu. "I had never gotten so much money at once. I was very happy."

The Xihaigu people began to put down roots into the Gobi Desert. From grape planting and photovoltaic agriculture to cattle breeding, Minning town gradually welcomed more diversified industries with the deepening of cooperation between Fujian and Ningxia.

The town's annual per capita disposable income has increased from 500 yuan when relocation began to 14,900 yuan last year, when more than 7,000 poverty-stricken households bid farewell to absolute poverty.

New life

It took just two weeks for Bai Xiyan to progress from a blind date to marriage in Xihaigu. She said she had no choice. She had only met her future husband three times by the time she was 22, and all meetings had been arranged by her parents.

In 2014, Bai's family was relocated to Minning town's Yuanlong village. There, unlike in the original Minning, houses, schools and hospitals had been built in advance. Bai's life changed there in 2019 when she and more than 50 rural women began to work in a new e-commerce poverty alleviation workshop.

In just one year, she became a manager and joined a livestreaming team to promote Ningxia's special agricultural products to audiences across the country, earning more than 3,000 yuan a month.

"The job not only offers me a stable income, it also brings confidence and dignity. More importantly, my 9-year-old daughter can live a different life," she said.

After moving out of the mountains, the children of Xihaigu gained access to better education. Scenes of students from different grades crowded into one classroom, which can be seen in the TV series, have in reality been a thing of the past.

At the school Bai's daughter attends, the green football field is often full of children and the classrooms are spacious and bright. Intelligent electronic screens installed in blackboards can link students in the town with their counterparts in Yinchuan, and even those in Beijing.

"My biggest dream is that my daughter will go to university and choose her life according to her desires," she said.