New Writing

A “Mythical” Water Town that Only Lives in the Memories

Xiaochen Su

Visiting my maternal grandparents during my childhood was always a drab affair. The endless chitchats between my mother and grandparents about the most trivial of daily matters bored me. To make matters worse, the experiences are always made drabber by the fact that my grandparents’ neighborhood was particularly unexciting and uninviting. Rows after rows of grey five-story concrete boxes filled the landscape, populating tens of thousands in near-identical apartments with standardized sizes and layouts.

And the environment itself did not make the Soviet-style apartment blocks any more attractive. The land in that part of northern China is flat and dry. Frequent winds blew dust straight off the barren lands. Fields of sorghum and millet cannot stop the topsoil from flying up in the air, clouding grey buildings in an equally grey haze. The fact that my grandparents lived in a satellite town surrounded by farms on all sides only made that grey haze more prominent in their daily lives.

Indeed, the foul air is often a topic of conversation between my grandparents and mother during their casual banters. In between complaints about persistent coughs and heavy mucus caused by substandard air quality, there is always a bit of nostalgia for the good old days when the land was not so barren and the air not so dusty.

Overhearing the conversations, I was surprised to learn that, decades ago when my mother was growing up in this very same neighborhood, the land was home to a completely different environment. The little hamlet of that time, still completely separate from the big city nearby, was supposedly a water town surrounded by clear little streams. My mother spoke of how she used to go swimming in those little streams with her friends after school, and catch fish in their pristine waters.

She mentioned that all those little streams were fed by a natural spring on the outskirts of the hamlet. The lake created by that spring was, in those days, surrounded by holiday villas of wealthy businessmen and government officials. Nestled in a sea of willow trees and green shrubs, they were supposedly picturesque enough to be on postcards.

As I listen more and more in detail about my mother’s childhood in this dusty neighborhood, this water town of the past has acquired almost a mythical status in my mind. I kept on trying to imagine the sights of the area decades ago, overlaying the places she describes from memory on different parts of the modern town.

But no matter how hard I squint, I cannot make out any vestiges of that spring-fed, streams-filled hamlet. Those holiday villas of the yesteryears are still there, but aside from one that was turned into a little-visited museum, all are in a decrepit state, falling part from decades of neglect. That central lake? It is now nothing but a parched patch of soil populated by a few hardy shrubs. Rumor has it that it would host another few apartment blocks in the near future.

Elsewhere in the modern town, there is not even the contour of the streams my mother describes. They are now all under newly paved asphalt roads connecting apartment blocks with the markets and the big city to the south. In the perfect rectangular grid formed by these roads and concrete blocks, there is no visible indication whatsoever that meandering streams could have ever existed at any point in the past.

Yet, I do not doubt the accuracy of my mother’s childhood stories. There are plenty of records illustrating how the climate of northern China has changed. History books write of how herds of elephants had roamed a land that today would hardly support a pack of squirrels. Plenty of fruit trees must have sustained populations of large animals. Pictures from just a few decades ago confirm presence of a lush landscape that my mother reminisces so fondly.

Sure, some of the climate change is not direct responsibility of the residents. Increasing aridity in the area was a trend that started centuries ago, way before significant number of humans and industries populated the area. The Gobi Desert to the north, for instance, has steadily expanded over the course of centuries, despite the fact that overgrazing, so often blamed on advance of the sands, is a relatively modern phenomenon driven by population explosion and consequent increase in demand for meat consumption.

But there is also little doubt that as the local climate changed for worse, humans have not adapted to the change particularly well. Their efforts to continue living in same areas by changing their living environments have only steadily worsened local conditions that were already worsening in the first place. In many instances, their active efforts to change the landscape in response to climate change have sacrificed long-term sustainability of the land in exchange for short-term material needs.

The satellite town where my grandparents reside is a glaring example of such shortsightedness. When the natural spring stopped pumping up underground water and the streams gradually dried out, the reaction of urban planners was too positive. Great, they may have thought, we now have more empty land to accommodate more people. In their enthusiasm for paving over those dry stream-beds, they spent too little time dwelling on the prospect of restoring the streams, even if the water had to be artificially drawn from another source.

Water flowing through the town is about much more than just aestheticism, or giving young residents a place to play or relax. It serves an important function in regulating the very climate of the town, supporting growth of vegetation that, along with the flowing water itself, together form a line of defense against extremities of weather patterns. In an arid climate, the presence of surface water is all the more pivotal in ensuring that the loss of humidity in the air is not entrenched as a permanent feature of the land.

Unfortunately, that entrenchment of aridity is exactly what had happened in my mother’s hometown. As roads and apartments were built on top of where streams and lakes used to be, wild vegetation that used to thrive in their vicinity quickly died out. While they were replaced by urban planners’ preferred choices of drought-tolerant trees, those trees were planted just numerous enough near buildings and roads to make the town feel “natural” while not incurring too much costs and labor to maintain. The trees’ presence is way too sparse, and their locations way too idiosyncratic, for them to act as effective barriers for the onslaught of dusty winds ravaging the town on a regular basis.

Moreover, intensification of agriculture on the town’s outskirts has only made the winds dustier and the town hazier. Decades ago when my mother was growing up, a small local population meant that self-sufficiency in food for the village was not a particularly difficult task. Backyard vegetable plots combined with a few plots of staple grains were enough to ensure all residents had enough to eat with little needs to import foods from elsewhere.

The reality of food provision has become steadily gloomier as the town population hit nearly 100,000 in the recent years. As more and more local loess-laden soils are converted into farmlands, the original wild vegetation cover holding down the fine loess particles was removed. With the vegetation stripped, frequent winds blowing through the town had less and less problems picking up soil particles. While the town is plagued by dusty air, local farmlands lost productivity as nutrient-rich loess topsoil is lost. A vicious cycle ensues, where nutrient loss in existing farmlands force more wild lands to be converted to farming, making the air even dustier and forcing more fallow lands to be put under cultivation.

Continued urbanization is not helping the situation. As the town experiences a population boom due to the university at its center undergoing a series of increases in student enrollments, existing apartment blocks can no longer satisfy residential needs. With bigger coffers from additional tuition money and state funding, the university bought more land to build classrooms and dormitories. Decades-old apartments, including the one my mother grew up in, are torn down to make way for bigger, more modern buildings. Residents of the torn-down buildings are relocated to the town’s periphery, where more and more farmlands are converted to construction sites for yet another apartment complex. The pressure to house and feed a constantly increasing number of people leads to a continued sprawl of both buildings and farmlands away from the center of the town.

In some ways, expansion of the town in recent years can be counted as a success. A sleepy rural backwater was turned into a relatively wealthy urban area offering all the conveniences of modern life. Many longtime residents like my mother would have never thought that the little hamlet of all those decades ago would turn into a regional education center attracting students from all over the country. The development of the hamlet is reflective of China’s widespread economic miracle in the last couple of decades. Stories just like that of this town are replicated thousands of times across the country, moving millions upon millions of rural residents into the urban middle class.

However, in that process of rapid urbanization and accumulation of wealth, so much was lost due to shortsighted planning. Modern infrastructure was constructed on top of natural habitats without concern for climatic consequences, while accommodating human needs of today was greatly prioritized at the expense of how these humans will live tomorrow. The result has been unrelenting environmental degradation that fundamentally affects people’s living standards in the long term.

This is not even mentioning direct damages done to the environment through toxic additives. To provide modern living standards to residents, more and better foods, products, and services need to be put in place. Increase in consumption undoubtedly leads to more alteration of local lands, all the while filling the same lands with more polluting byproducts. Even when well-treated and well-maintained, these altered lands add a degree of uncertainty to the future health of local communities and their residents.

Ultimately, that is the reason for my mother’s version of the childhood water town becoming a mythical presence in my mind. It is not simply the fact that there is such a massive incongruence between her stories of a water-filled village and the town’s dusty, urbanized present reality, but irreconcilable discrepancy between what we are told is comfortable, modern life and our vision of ideal living. Even though my grandparents’ brightly lit apartment, with its useful consumer electronics, high-speed Internet, and classy furniture, has all the trappings of luxurious living, their living standards may have actually declined from the days of my mother’s childhood. This is because, as people grow wealthier, they begin to realize that there are many luxuries that simply cannot be purchased with money. Getting an air conditioner is easy, but getting clean air is not; getting a high-definition TV is easy, but getting crystal clear views is not; getting water filters is easy, but getting a pristine natural spring in the neighborhood is not. In the drive to get all the material comforts in a short period of time, we have forgotten that it is the overall living environment, rather than what we put inside that environment, that truly decides the quality of life.

For some people, this realization has already come too late. When my mother talks nostalgically about the water town of her childhood, she never speaks of how she wants to go back to those days. After all, that was a time of economic difficulty, when just paying school fees and buying clothes were difficult. But deep down, I know that she would prefer to be poor and swim in those little streams flanked by wild vegetation, rather than be rich and breathe in foul dusty air. It is too bad that enjoyment of those simple pleasures can only live in her memories now.