Village Visit I: Drums, Dancers, and Ancient Homes

15 06 2011

Ni Hao!  Chris Lam again, second year MSc-GH student interning at the George Institute China.  My project is on salt substitute to reduce hypertension in rural Chinese communities.

This all occurred about 2 weeks ago, so I apologize for being so behind.   This first village visit was a part of a series of events aimed at capacity building for research and health systems in rural China with 2 days of training in grant writing, manuscript writing, and human research medical ethics, 2 days of conferences on chronic disease in China, and 3 days of village visits and sightseeing.

One disclaimer a much more eloquent entry about this first village visit can be found below by Dr. Richard Smith; who is the former chief editor of the British Medical Journal and current director of the UnitedHealth Chronic Disease Initiative and UnitedHealth (both sponsoring the CRHI, China Rural Health Initiative).  See entry at  Dr. Smith was in Changzhi as a guest lecturer for the manuscript writing workshop and accompanied our site visit group with members from the George Institute, NIH, US CDC, China CDC, Duke University, University of Sydney, Peking University, Capital Medical University, Changzhi Medical College, among many other very partner institutions.

Terraced Farm Land in Changzhi County

 The village visit would take about a 1.5 hour long trip from the city of  Changzhi were the majority of the conference is being heldto  neighboring Gaoping County.  With the idle chatter of everyone aboard, the occasional impromptu jam poetry session by Drs. N and W, and karaoke (sans music).  I watched a somewhat familiar landscape of farmland flash by me.  Despite the oppressive late afternoon heat and the on-going drought that has gripped much of the region, farmers were out in force in the fields.  I tried to count bicycles and mopeds dotting the side of the road to pass the time; but the bus was moving too quickly to keep up.  I switched to watching the farmers dotting the neatly planted fields, tilling the soil by hand.  Interestingly, a lot of the farm land in Changzhi County and surrounding countries are terraced and not level.  Quite the contrast, to the farmland I’m more accustomed to in Ohio and the Midwest, especially the I-71 corridor north of Cincinnati.  I’ve made that drive many times and I don’t think I’ve ever remember seeing someone tilling the soil by hand; nor terraced / steppe rows of corn.  All I can recall are large tractors or combines and not the clusters of farmers in the wide brim hats working in the sun.

But as I’m trying to pass the time on the bus, there was some commotion at the front of the bus as people begin to ask why our tour bus was following a police car weaving through traffic with its’ flashing lights, pulling us through traffic.  It soon would become apparent this wasn’t going to be a typical village visit.  As the police escort and bus stopped just in front of the village, we begin to hear the distinct sound of drums and the sight of brightly dressed band members line either side of the path to the village .  I don’t think even the most seasoned traveler in our group was really prepared for what was about to happen next!


Click the link above for a short video of the village drum troupe!

Village Drum Troupe

Our group soon realize the whole village was so happy to be part of the CRHI study that they had put together a surprise welcoming party.  As we made our way to the village, the din from gathered townspeople grew louder as did the rhythmic percussion provided by the all female troupe. The townspeople had kindly had set a net section of chairs in the midst of the crowd and even handled out cold canned juice drinks  for all the visitors .  There was a brief introduction by the mayor of the city, followed by the health educator who went through the messages about reducing salt intake and the importance of using salt-substitute.  This village was receiving the salt substitute intervention and dietary education as one of the treatment arms.  The villagers responded back enthusiastically after being prompted by the health educator (who was trained by folks at the George Institute and collaborating local universities).


Click the link above for a short video of the youth troupe!

The next part was pretty awesome.  A group of young children waited anxiously for their turn to perform; like a flock of birds getting ready to take off.  The troupe performed several very energetic series of dances; while the dance and music form was more traditional the girls were all dressed in much more western clothes, not quite unlike dance teams that compete on MTV.  Even the drum troupe was able to take a break and come enjoy the festivities.  It was a great cap to the welcoming event and quite a different reception than what I had expected.  It made me appreciate how large an impact a population wide intervention could have.   Many of the folks in our group realized the fortuitous window for a health intervention that was available to change dietary habits in rural China.

After the conclusion of the performance, we began a walking tour of the village. As we walked along the cobblestone roads connecting the village, we can across health education posters designed by folks at the George Institute and other collaborators.  The mayor and head of the local CDC and ministry of health gave a tour of the village.  Luckily my friends from the George were there to help translate.  Though my Chinese is improving, I know almost 20 words now.

Pictures above are of the health education posters on the dangers of salt (left), the left most sign a cartoon figure indicating potential symptoms caused by eating too much salt and the bright red banner on the right reading roughly, “eating less salt is better for your health”.  On the right (the blue and white poster) is the salt-substitute advertisement; which cost about 2-3 RMB per 300 gram.  This is subsidized as the typical selling cost is between 1.5-3 times higher than normal table salt depending on location in China.  In Beijing is closer to1.5  times higher; while in the more remote rural areas it can become closer to 3 times the cost of normal salt (mostly from transportation fees).

Our other "guides" for the afternoon

This village in Gaoping County is very famous for the ancient homes that are still lived in by many of the townfolk.  Supposedly some of the homes are nearly 1000 years old and have survived until now.  Wherever we went a group of giggling children followed us; while the adult town folk lined the streets and tried to return to the regular routine. The architecture is quite beautiful, traditional brick masonry with the ceramic tile roof top very typical Chinese style homes.

While, the area has been in drought the deciduous trees are still green and in full foliage (left photo below).  In the right photo below, note the ornate stone carvings on the inner wall of one of the older houses in the village.  Though time has warn away some of the finer elements, the detail and craftsmanship is really second to none.

In the picture to the left, note the wood craftsmanship of the roof and embellishment above the windows. I’m pretty jealous of the quality as my parents and high school shop teacher can attest to with my crooked magazine rack (which is relegated to the guest bathroom).  In the picture (below), I hope my camera can catch the detail of the art on this ledge.  Supposedly, one of the oldest surviving designs in the village.  You might have to click to zoom / scroll to the side); but it depicts two warriors battles (might have to turn your head 90’s to see the hand and sword in the middle of the picture) 

On the left and right pictures (above) note the bright red banners outlining the door frame.  In traditional Chinese lore the doorway needs to be protected from bad luck and spirits, so in a custom that continues to this day this banners have special words to draw in good luck and keep out any mischievous spirits.

Home Visit (note the Satellite Dish in the middle of the picture).

This house (to the left) is quite unique, in that there are actually 2 sets of trap doors.  During the Second War World, this area saw combat against Axis troops, so the villagers built hiding spaces and escape routes during the resistance.  While it was still very warm in the early evening, the inside of the home was very cool and pleasant.  Though the owner mentioned it is quiet drafty due to all stone construction (i.e. no insulation), I imagine that’s what living in castles would be like.   So far my experience in China is one of a unique fusion of a very rich tradition / culture with modern technological advances.  I can’t wait for the next village visit!

Don’t forget if you want to read about not project related stuff (i.e. food) about my time in China check out my other blog at :




2 responses

15 06 2011

Chris, great post! and loved the photos and short videos!

16 06 2011

Hope you enjoyed it, sorry again for being so behind in posting stuff.

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