We drove about eight hours from Dali to Lushi (鲁史), a market town (镇) in the Lincang Mountains (临沧山). The last 80 kilometers covered a narrow road, which twisted through dramatic slopes and was, in places, covered in thick mud and rocks from a rainstorm the night before. The trip and the unreliability of the roads created a sense of distance from my everyday life; lack of access to internet reinforced this sense that I was far from the modern world. Moreover, I found it difficult to understand local Mandarin, let alone the local language.
The layout and size of the old city area remind us that Lushi was once a vibrant center of mountain life. Peasants packed mules with tea, walnuts, and palm leaves and then set out on narrow trails to sell their goods in seasonal markets in Fengqing (凤庆), Nanjian (南涧), and Weishan (巍山). Old Mr. Zhang told us that during WWII, national forces from Guangdong and Hunan stationed at Lushi. In the not so distant past, Lushi was more prosperous than Fengqing, which only rose to local prominence as a county seat during the Mao era.
Moreover, this was not a trip that placed me beyond the reach of gaokao results (all 42 members of the graduating class of 2012 found places at university), Olympic broadcasts, and packaged snacks. We stayed at a clean motel and ate regional specialities, including jizong mushrooms in spicy oil (油鸡枞) and broad beans stir fried with local pickles. There were telephones and high heels, motorcycles and cigarettes, angry bird balloons and electronic toys scattered through out the crumbling buildings and old stone walkways.
The restructuring of the relationship between Chinese cities and their hinterlands that began during Maoist collectivization and intensified with post Mao industrialization not only favored coastal cites, but also disenfranchised rural China. Today, Lushi is a painful contemporary to Shenzhen precisely because the mountain town has been so obviously positioned at the underdeveloped edge of the modern world and not because that’s what it once was.
Impressions of a rainy day in Lushi, below: