Yan’an, a city in Northwest China’s Shaanxi province viewed as the sacred cradle of the Chinese revolution, has earned a new identity in recent years — a place with a “can do” attitude where optimism, diligence and human ingenuity are found throughout its mountains and plateaus.
On the side of the highway near Baicaotai village in Shunning township, there is a field of several strange hills, each around 10 meters long and 5 meters tall. Each hill has a steep, muddy slope on one side, but on the other side is a plastic greenhouse supported by harnesses nailed from the muddy slope.
After entering the greenhouse, visitors can find strawberries, watermelons and other fruit that are supposedly impossible to grow on the sandy and barren Loess Plateau. “These are our gardens of prosperity,” said Hao Bin, the township mayor.
In the past, Yan’an would suffer heavy soil losses every year, and farmers’ yearly harvests were at the mercy of nature, he said. “We had experts design the shelters according to our situation. They concluded that using mud walls can significantly reduce the cost of the greenhouse, so every family can own one and grow high-value produce,” Hao said.
Each greenhouse cost around 80,000 yuan ($12,650) to make. The local government covered about 30,000 yuan and provided seeds, fertilizer and training, he said. To cut the cost even further, farmers eliminate the use of pesticide by planting green onions and crown daisies along with the fruit to drive away pests.
“We might not have the most fertile soil, but we’re willing to overcome anything and make the most out of our available resources for the most benefit of the people,” he said.
This idea of overcoming natural limitation with human ingenuity worked. In 2017, each greenhouse earned 30,000 to 50,000 yuan, and the average income of 810 Baicaotai villagers rose to 13,600 yuan per year, much higher than the provincial poverty line, Hao said.
Baicaotai embodies Yan’an people’s new drive toward prosperity after the 2015 visit of President Xi Jinping to Liangjiahe, a small village in northeastern Yan’an where he began his career.
In 1969, Xi, along with 14 other teenagers from Beijing, arrived at the village. For the next seven years, Xi created marsh wells for methane gas, dug wells for irrigation, created the village’s first gender-divided restrooms and built roads and river banks while standing waist deep in icy waters.
In 1974, Xi was elected Party chief of the village committee — the start of his public career. In February 2015, he returned to Liangjiahe to visit families living in caves — the same caves he lived in decades ago.
“I took the first step of my life learning here in Liangjiahe. Don’t underestimate this small village, everything here has great knowledge,” he said. “I left Liangjiahe then, but I left my heart here.”
That visit put Yan’an back into the national spotlight. Soon, skilled workers and businesses with new ideas and opportunities poured into the city to help in its development.
Shi Xu, 25, returned to her hometown of Yan’an last year and now is a narrator at a museum dedicated to Xi’s ideas and visions in Yan’an’s new city zone.
“Yan’an used to have trouble attracting young people because the city was less developed and there weren’t many opportunities,” she said. “Now, Yan’an is experiencing a complete transformation, and I’m very proud to witness it firsthand.”
Yan’an has a vast history and a bright future that might be hard to comprehend. However, much of its spirit can be better understood by tracing the history of a cup of huangjiu.
Around 5,000 years ago, legend has it that locals brewed the yellow spirit using common millet to honor the gods for good harvests and to send soldiers into battle.
About 80 years ago, the same drink was used to welcome the Chinese Red Army, which finished the 12,500-kilometer Long March led by the Communist Party of China forming the basis of the Communist victory.
“Although the crop used was ordinary, and the earliest version of the drink tasted unrefined, it encapsulated the generosity, optimism, diligence and innovative spirits of the Yan’an people even to this day,” said Wang Pengju, chairman of Pengxiang Food Manufacturing Co.
“We Yan’an people have a ‘can-do’ and ‘never give up’ attitude. Where there is a will, there is a way,” he said.