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Monday, January 01, 2001, updated at 11:12(GMT+8)

Dazhai at the Turn of the Century

The winter night in Dazhai is silent. Villagers seldom stay out even though the outdoor temperatures are not too cold. Lights in each house gleam like fireflies.

After a day's work, villagers relax by listening to the radio or watching TV at home while children play outdoors. Dazhai once was the most famous Chinese village, as it was praised by late Chairman Mao Zedong for its hardwork in grain growing, and for its

calmness and peacefulness.

Located in a mountainous area in north China's Shanxi Province, Dazhai shot to fame in the 1960s from transforming the rocky hills into terraced grain fields through self-reliance. The maize output per hectare reached 9,000 kilograms, a record for the drought-prone village at that time.

The history of Dazhai in the 1960s and 1970s was full of glorious achievements. During this period, the small village received about 9.6 million visitors, of which over 25,000 people came from 134 countries and regions. Many heads of state of other countries visited the village.

Today, people in the village are hesitant in detailing the past. The 1980s was an inactive decade for Dazhai while China was promoting reform and opening-up drive nationwide. Villagers of Dazhai introduced in 1983 the household contract system which linked production with income.

Guo Fenglian, known as "Iron Lady" for her perseverance during the difficult period of time at the beginning of the reform and opening up drive, returned to Dazhai in 1991 as the Party secretary of the village and general manager of Dazhai Economic Development Company.

Villagers of Dazhai shifted to the market economy under the leadership of Guo, who believed that the idea of solely relying on grain production was out of date.

"We have found a new way out," said Guo, 53. "Economic forests bring us not only cash but also a better climate and more tourists."

Grain production on the terraced land gave place to afforestation. Dazhai has invested 100,000 yuan (12,048 U.S. dollars) annually in planting trees and farmland transformation since 1995. Cypress, pines, peach, date and apricot trees can be seen on hills surrounding the village.

The maize output of Dazhai last year was less than 50,000 kilograms, or 20 percent of the yearly average output, due to drought. But Dazhai turned in three million yuan (361,000 U.S. dollars) in taxation the same year due to its diverse economic framework.

Dazhai is no longer a farming village. It is engaged in coal mining, cement, garment and liquor manufacturing, tourism and trading. The average income per capita has surpassed 3,000 yuan (407 U.S. dollars).

On top of the Hutoushan Hill, where Dazhai people started terracing the barren decades ago, the daughter-in-law of former farmer Liang Bianliang is running a souvenir shop. The woman, who speaks standard Chinese as well as basic English, is both a tourist guide and a photographer and also sells souvenirs bearing the name Dazhai to Chinese and foreign visitors.

Guo was calm when talking about the new century. "We'll continue developing the economy to help villagers live a better life," she said.

The iron lady is planning to invite agricultural experts from at home and abroad to inspect Dazhai and help map out a blueprint for the former model commune.

"We'll pass on the prestige of Dazhai from generation to generation," she said. Dazhai was prepared to establish a think tank for its future development. It also plans to get involved in other enterprises by buying shares.

Li Jiangtao, 23, who works at the general office of Dazhai Economic Development Co., said that the spirit of Dazhai is and will always be the heirloom of younger generations.

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The winter night in Dazhai is silent. Villagers seldom stay out even though the outdoor temperatures are not too cold. Lights in each house gleam like fireflies.

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