BEIJING, Dec. 22, 2023 /PRNewswire/ — “This is my treasure!”
A yellowed newspaper has been carefully preserved in a ziplock bag by Lin Caizeng, a fisherman from Xiapu county, East China’s Fujian Province, for 22 years.
The six family photos in this newspaper briefly outline the first half of Lin’s life. In 1984, Lin, the third child in a family of six, lived on a small boat, subsisting on fishing. In 1998, with the support of the local government, Lin’s family moved from the sea into a new two-room house measuring 35 square meters. In 2001, Lin and his brother raised 1,000 yellow croakers offshore.
After bidding farewell to an unstable life on the boat and embracing a “down-to-earth” lifestyle, Lin’s family welcomed a newborn in 2017.
Three years later, following the local government’s policy of green development, Lin Caizeng replaced his sea farming nets with environmentally friendly materials.
“This is also my treasure!” said Lin excitedly, while holding the newly issued water and tidal flat aquaculture certificate for the year. He told the Global Times that with the government’s support for the industry, “I want to earn more money, raise more fish, and live a better life.”
In the Houyu village where Lin lives, the cement wall still retains the slogan “Love your hometown and pay attention to hygiene” written by fishermen shortly after they moved on land. This is Lin’s earliest memory of coming ashore.
What he remembers most vividly now is the phrase “Today’s China is a country where dreams become reality” declared by Chinese President Xi Jinping in his 2023 New Year Address. This sentence was neatly posted by the village committee.
In southern China, regions such as Guangdong and Fujian have had a long history of generational offshore dwelling communities engaged in fishing known as the Tanka people or boat dwellers.
Usually, families shared a small wooden vessel, and the boat served as a place of residence as well as a workplace. For the Tanka people, the boat served as a place of residence as well as a workplace, with fishing activities taking place on the deck while the cabin serves as the family bedroom and storage area. In the past, the community had no property, and harbored no hopes of a decent life on land.
In front of the house, at the dock, on the fish row, Lin listened to the villagers sharing many stories about boat dwellers like him who “move and get rich” on the shore. He knew that many people had shown great concern for their once-marginalized community. Within these stories and the aspirations, countless Chinese people expressed their determination to escape absolute poverty and their hope for rural revitalization, working tirelessly to transform the vision of a beautiful Chinese modernization into reality, step by step.
“Ending life adrift at sea and settling down on land… I want to chase a better life with my diligent working and persevering spirit,” Lin Caizeng made this New Year’s wish – simple, pure, and full of hope.
From sea to land
Despite having stepped ashore, the sea still plays an extremely important part in the life of the Lin family.
“In the past, drifting in the sea meant leaving everything to fate. Now, living off the sea means reaping what you sow,” Lin said.
Boarding the “Sea Taxi” speedboat at the Houyu village pier, bound for the aquaculture site, along the way, Global Times reporters saw the endless fish farms and neatly arranged fish cages, presenting a busy and orderly scene in the vast “sea fish fields.”
In the fields, Lin happily meets his elderly brother, Lin Fangcun.
At sea, Lin Fangcun and Lin Caizeng’s fish farms are only a 5-minute boat ride apart. Lin Fangcun is engaged in the cultivation of seaweed, earning a monthly income of over 4,000 yuan ($560). Lin Caizeng, on the other hand, specializes in breeding yellow croakers, with a family annual income exceeding 50,000 yuan.
When the Global Times reporters met them, the broad smiles on their tanned faces speak volumes.
Fujian rarely experiences harsh winters, and even at this time of the year one brother sports flip-flops, while the other wears rubber shoes. It’s part of a signature boat-era style that’s followed them ashore. “In the past, our whole family of six lived on a boat that was only eight or nine meters long. We ate, drank, slept on the boat. The children didn’t even have suitable clothes to wear,” recalled Lin Caizeng.
In 1997, as the then deputy secretary of the Fujian provincial committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC), Xi led the local government in initiating the overall relocation of the boat dwellers. Relevant departments made continuous efforts to address the issue, taking into account the tribe’s production and living habits, exempting various land taxes and fees, providing housing construction subsidies, and allowing the community to repay housing arrears in installments. By the early 21st century, the conundrum of the boat dwellers’ settlement on land had completely been resolved.
Since then, local authorities have shifted more attention to the shore. They have availed technical training to the community, solved funding issues in production and entrepreneurship, and gradually promoted targeted assistance, helping the fishermen ashore completely detach themselves from the label of absolute poverty that has lasted for thousands of years.
With the increase in income, most households in Houyu village have expanded their initial single-room houses into two or three-story buildings. Faced with the dilemma of insufficient living space due to the expanding families of some villagers, the town has invested about 1.1 million yuan to build a canteen especially designated for the elderly and a senior citizen’s residence on the site of a local school. The current project is in the final settlement phase, ensuring that the elderly who are willing to move in can celebrate the New Year in their bright new homes.
After settling down on land, Lin Fangcun and Lin Caizeng live in adjacent rooms on the second floor of a jointly built three-story building. Lin Caizeng hopes to get a good price for yellow croaker this year “to [help] renovate the three floors of the house and expand aquaculture with more capital.”
The four siblings of Lin’s family also plan to take another group photo during the Chinese New Year, adding the “new treasures” into the sealed bag.
From poverty to prosperity
Jiang Chengcai has had many wishes in his life, but he jokingly said that his current most urgent wish is to “lose weight successfully.” Though not a tall man, the 56-year-old retired volunteer guide from Xiaqi village, Fu’an, which is also a coastal city 15 minutes away from Xiapu county via high-speed rail, holds himself in a straight posture. It is hard to imagine that this straight frame endured 30 years of hunched boat living on a cramped vessel.
“In the past, when the weather was good, we would go out to catch fish. But when there was a typhoon, our whole family would go hungry. Our parents were afraid that the children would fall into the water, so they tied us tightly to the boat with ropes, and when the luck was bad, the boats would capsize and our home would be lost. We would lose everything,” Jiang told the Global Times.
“But now I have a carefree and comfortable life, eating more food and getting fatter and fatter,” he joked.
Since he can remember, Jiang has lived on a boat. The few moments of happiness he has from the period are of calm nights, when he would lie on the edge of the boat and gaze at the moon in the sky and admire the lights on the shore.
His parents named him Chengcai in Chinese, which literally means to achieve success and wealth, hoping that he would escape the hardships of his upbringing. But before the age of 30, Jiang’s only wish was to live like the people on the shore one day, and to have a house and a warm light in his home.
Jiang still remembers his first day of relocation ashore in 1999. A family of six carried their belongings, including old cotton wadding and iron pots, and moved them into Xiaqi village. Inside the house, there were spring beds and a liquefied gas stove provided by the government.
Nowadays, whenever Jiang has free time, he loves to take tourists for walks around his hometown. Here, rows of yellow-walled and red-tiled buildings are scattered, and nearby, fishing boats return fully loaded at the dock. Just a street away in the market, calls from the fishermen who have turned to seafood wholesale can be heard as they direct customers to scan QR codes to make payments.
On December 14, Jiang participated in a speech competition called “The Past in the Words of the People of That Year.” He shared his journey from being landless, penniless, and uneducated to making his first fortune in the aquaculture industry after coming ashore. He then led over 30 villagers in the construction of pile foundations, transforming from someone without a place to live to someone who builds houses for others.
“I want to tell more people that the boat dwellers also have dreams,” Jiang said.
Jiang wanted to express his gratitude to the village and town officials. “After coming ashore, villagers would ‘seek the Party chief’ when they had no money or no job, and even when naming their children.”
With the caring support of generations of local officials, the average annual income of fishermen in Xiaqi village increased from less than 1,000 yuan in 1997 to 30,360 yuan in 2022. The collective income of the village also grew from zero to 630,000 yuan.
They became wealthy both monetarily and mentally. Previously, 95 percent of the Tanka people in the village were illiterate, but now there are over 290 university students among them.
From struggling to thriving
Chen Ling, the 34-year-old Party chief of Xiaqi village, felt gratified that “villages that hail from the sea,” like Xiaqi and Houyu, are becoming increasingly famous.
Chen is also a descendant of the boat dwellers. In 2018, Chen, who was working in Beijing, heard his hometown needed talents in the cultural arena. He resolutely quit his well-paying job and returned to the village to contribute to rural revitalization.
As a first-generation college graduate returning to his hometown, he actively led the villagers in creating a seafood street and committing to building a prosperous countryside where local people can peacefully engage in farming, fishing, and aquaculture.
“I hope to truly drive everyone to achieve the leap from ‘settling down’ to ‘becoming prosperous,'” Chen told the Global Times.
Now, not only are young college students returning home to start their own businesses, but Xiaqi village has also attracted tourists and field research groups from all over the country. Some foreign heads of state have also paid visits to this small fishing village that was thought to be unremarkable in the past.
In September 2023, Zambian President Hakainde Hichilem visited China and went to Xiaqi village for an inspection.
“I believe this is another example of promoting national development, not serving specific groups, but for the well-being of all people, which is crucial,” Hichilema said in a media interview in September in Beijing.
Hichilema said he was deeply moved by the personal involvement of the Chinese leadership in improving the plight of disadvantaged populations, finding the root cause of the problem.
I told my colleagues that I hope you can carefully understand and connect with the situation in our country, Hichilema noted.
In various communication activities, Chen has become increasingly proud of his profession. He is well aware that the practical success of the transformation of the boat dwellers, in which he participated, exemplifies China’s unique path to modernization.
With this vision, the former sea of sorrow has long since been turned into a sea of prosperity and wealth. In front of this sea, the drifters who suffered from discrimination in the old era have realized a new life, shared the fruits of the country’s modernization equally, and now have their own internal motivation to pursue happiness and create wealth.
Boat dwellers are now ashore, out of poverty, and pursuing better life. Their inspirational stories and aspirational journeys are just beginning.
SOURCE Global Times