Before watching the award-winning 2015 documentary "Under the Apple Trees," I thought my knowledge of apple cultivation was above average. This is perhaps not surprising for someone brought up in Xinjiang, an area known for the quality of its fruit. Apples used to be one of the fruits plentifully available to me as a child.
My mother used to work for a farm affiliated with a bingtuan (production and construction corps), which grew, among others things, apples.
In hindsight, those apples were modest in size, varied in shape, but gave off such a sweet smell that, walking into my home, I could tell at once there were apples stowed away somewhere.
The uniformly big, red apples we occasionally receive as gifts today are pleasing to the eye, picture-perfect; but to be honest, I would consume them more out of obligation than enjoyment.
I knew something about the pruning of fruit trees, had once successfully experimented with grafting, but did not realize the limits of my knowledge until watching this documentary about the Hu family, who live off about 300 apple trees in a village in Wafangdian, near Dalian, Liaoning Province.
It is quite a phenomenon today for cameras to train on the lives of rustic villagers, and for long periods of time — in this case, from winter to autumn.
The film chronicles the backbreaking toil of the family in their effort to extract a livelihood from the soil, and the admirable tenacity and optimism they show in the process.
When flowers emerge, they have to be thinned, and fertilized, artificially, as well as by colonies of bee billeted to the trees. After the flowers fructify, most of them have to be nipped to ensure that only those capable of growing to marketable size are left. Then the fruits have to be clad in paper pockets to avoid being chapped or bruised. One hundred days later these paper containers have to be removed, so that the apples can redden. Tinsel film is then spread under the trees to reflect sunlight, so that the apples will become red evenly on all sides.
In this endeavor, the complexion of the Hu couple, both 47, is heavily tanned. But their labor is not enough. They have to hire temporary helpers.
A strong gale just ten days before picking time dashes many villagers' hopes for a good harvest, but the Hu family is spared the worst. The Hus expects a production of 30,000 kilos, which, if prices are as good as the previous year, would earn them 90,000 yuan (US$12,981). Ironically, as a result of the harvest and overproduction, prices drop well below those of last year. The Hus work long and hard, but they are failures in economic terms — and we no longer know how to characterize persons otherwise in such circumstances.
Our ancestors used to have a strong respect for living off the land, with some observing that after grain taxes were paid, a farmer's care-free independence was the envy of all, even an emperor. But when prices become so unpredictably volatile, farming is more like a gamble.
In the film, Mr. Hu remains optimistic and earnest about his work. As he reflects, "If you eat off this tree-growing business, you cannot well afford to be perfunctory about it, otherwise the consequence would be serious."
In all rationality, the Hus should not continue this risky business, but they have two grown-up children — both mentally ill — to attend to. That's why they choose to rough it rather than mend their fortunes in cities as migrants.
Some of my friends, attracted to the dignity of the hand-to-mouth rural existence, occasionally dream of one day retreating to a tract of farmland and subsisting off the sweat of their own brows. Well, this is probably not impossible for a pensioner who can afford to ignore cost-efficiency considerations. But it is too risky to suggest to an aspiring rural young man standing on the threshold of life, in need of cash to build a house, attract a spouse, and start a family. It certainly makes more sense for him to go to the nearest city and work as a deliveryman.
Considerable accolades have been paid to the world of connections, trade and globalization. That's only fit for some who have mastered the game of steering money their way — but at whose expense? The plight of the Hus, those who try to make a living producing something real, is no trifle. It dramatizes the urgency of making the economy work for everyone, but especially for those who toil.
According to a recent interview published by The Paper, Zong Qinghou, a billionaire entrepreneur, cited three factors behind the country's lackluster economy: high taxes, runaway growth of the virtual economy, and the devastating effect of the soaring housing sector.
Zong made his fortune on children's snacks; but China's apple-growers are, by comparison, inarticulate and invisible. Their invisibility dramatizes the imperative of resuscitating our faith in honest work as a source of wealth, respect and happiness.