A scene from the TV drama. [Photo provided to China Daily]
A TV drama series about the country's poverty alleviation efforts has become popular 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.
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 front-line 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 a "most unfit place for human settlement "by the United Nations in 1972.
Xie Xingchang, the inspiration for lead character Ma Defu in the drama and former Party secretary in Funing village, Minning town, says the TV drama 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 East and West 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 kilometers 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," says 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 says.
A tourist has her photo taken in front of a poster for the popular TV drama Shanhaiqing at its film site in Minning town, Ningxia Hui autonomous region. [Photo by Yu Jing/CHINA NEWS SERVICE]
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 sweets, 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."
As Xie and others were fighting against extreme weather to survive, Lin Zhanxi, a professor at Fujian Agriculture and Forestry University and the inspiration 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," says 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 trials planting in Pengyang, 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 ($1,082) in the first year," says 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 impoverished households bid farewell to absolute poverty.
In 2014, Bai Xiyan'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 says.
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.