Traditional skills in the Chinese countryside

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philaw

Settler
Nov 27, 2004
571
45
40
Hull, East Yorkshire, UK.
I'm staying with my girlfriend at her grandparents place a couple of hundred miles from Shanghai and I thought I'd post in here because I came across some stuff that no one but people on here would be interested in. Ha ha!

The grandparents are old school rural people, so they largely live off the land and are pretty self sufficient to a level that most bushcrafters would struggle with. We just had a traditional new year's eve dinner that was interesting in a number of ways. We (actually, everyone except me) cooked it on the old stove, which is a typical local DIY job made from bricks. It's been going about 40 years with little attention. It's got two fitted woks and a little bowl in the middle for heating water. Fuel is fed in from the back and there's a narrow chimney. Pushing fuel in drives ash off the back of that ledge to the bottom where it can be shoveled out. It's simple, but works perfectly. The bit that really struck me was the range of fuel used. People in Britain struggle to light a fire with big bits of hardwood, but people here use a bit of paper and a lighter to get it going immediately, then various fuels. Corn stalks light easily and burn quickly (because of corn sugar?). Bamboo lights a little slower and burns a little slower, but still faster than wood. Both give off a decent flame. A bit of hardwood (an old plank) was used afterwards for simmering. The families in this area all have several patches of farmland around the village and a little area of bamboo grove. Grandpa also brought in a bundle of sesame stalks and another bundle of dried reeds from the river bank. This stuff is all prepared in advance and stored in bundles to dry. I'm curious to see how the other things burn. People here don't really bother with heating, so they can cook every day of the year without cutting down a tree with just this fuel that most westerners wouldn't even notice. I remember seeing somewhere a reference table on how different woods burned and thinking that whoever wrote it was on a different level from the one I operate on. These guys really know their environment in the same way.

The food itself was delicious and interesting. There was a stewed pork leg joint, a fish fried in sauce that was bought alive in the market, a hen from the coop that made a wonderful soup, beans and spinach from the garden, shrimp with celery, a local vegetable related to chrysanthemum that was fried with strips of tofu, and homemade pork sausage. And I got a beer. Chinese people know how to eat. The stream behind the property is a bit of a mess because everyone along the banks has chickens and ducks in it and the water gets a bit spoiled by uneaten food and whatnot. This kind of lifestyle isn't all idyllic, but there's a free supply of little fish and crayfish in there.They had two goats until today when the fat one gave birth to two more. I can confirm that baby goats don't like new year's fireworks.

As far as tools go, the grandpa is very unfussy. He just gets stuff done. He'd probably find hundred quid knives ludicrous. He's got cheap hatchets for dealing with firewood and there will be a local billhook somewhere for bamboo. These things cost 2 or 3 quid each.

If anyone has any questions, ask away. I could take photos if there's a way to upload them - and anyone is interested.
 

SCOMAN

Full Member
Dec 31, 2005
2,333
327
51
Perthshire
The billhook comment is interesting and I remember hankering, and buying, a Kukhri. On the website at the time they spoke of 'this is the farmers kukhri' that he uses to get things done. Prices were not exorbitant but I daresay the farmer pays a damn site less than I paid.
Really interesting experiences, I'm quite jealous.
 
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Toddy

Mod
Mod
Jan 21, 2005
36,681
2,609
S. Lanarkshire
I've been watching a Chinese lady's youtube channel in lockdown.
I really wish I had the space she has to grow her own food, etc., but it's been fascinating seeing the daily tools, pots, dishes, etc., that she uses.

Her family are often involved in the whole process too.
Having watched too many re-enactors give a goat or a pig a suntan as they tried to roast it over a fire, it was refreshing to see how to do it properly :)

 

SaraR

Full Member
Mar 25, 2017
775
476
Ceredigion
I'm staying with my girlfriend at her grandparents place a couple of hundred miles from Shanghai and I thought I'd post in here because I came across some stuff that no one but people on here would be interested in. Ha ha!

The grandparents are old school rural people, so they largely live off the land and are pretty self sufficient to a level that most bushcrafters would struggle with. We just had a traditional new year's eve dinner that was interesting in a number of ways. We (actually, everyone except me) cooked it on the old stove, which is a typical local DIY job made from bricks. It's been going about 40 years with little attention. It's got two fitted woks and a little bowl in the middle for heating water. Fuel is fed in from the back and there's a narrow chimney. Pushing fuel in drives ash off the back of that ledge to the bottom where it can be shoveled out. It's simple, but works perfectly. The bit that really struck me was the range of fuel used. People in Britain struggle to light a fire with big bits of hardwood, but people here use a bit of paper and a lighter to get it going immediately, then various fuels. Corn stalks light easily and burn quickly (because of corn sugar?). Bamboo lights a little slower and burns a little slower, but still faster than wood. Both give off a decent flame. A bit of hardwood (an old plank) was used afterwards for simmering. The families in this area all have several patches of farmland around the village and a little area of bamboo grove. Grandpa also brought in a bundle of sesame stalks and another bundle of dried reeds from the river bank. This stuff is all prepared in advance and stored in bundles to dry. I'm curious to see how the other things burn. People here don't really bother with heating, so they can cook every day of the year without cutting down a tree with just this fuel that most westerners wouldn't even notice. I remember seeing somewhere a reference table on how different woods burned and thinking that whoever wrote it was on a different level from the one I operate on. These guys really know their environment in the same way.

The food itself was delicious and interesting. There was a stewed pork leg joint, a fish fried in sauce that was bought alive in the market, a hen from the coop that made a wonderful soup, beans and spinach from the garden, shrimp with celery, a local vegetable related to chrysanthemum that was fried with strips of tofu, and homemade pork sausage. And I got a beer. Chinese people know how to eat. The stream behind the property is a bit of a mess because everyone along the banks has chickens and ducks in it and the water gets a bit spoiled by uneaten food and whatnot. This kind of lifestyle isn't all idyllic, but there's a free supply of little fish and crayfish in there.They had two goats until today when the fat one gave birth to two more. I can confirm that baby goats don't like new year's fireworks.

As far as tools go, the grandpa is very unfussy. He just gets stuff done. He'd probably find hundred quid knives ludicrous. He's got cheap hatchets for dealing with firewood and there will be a local billhook somewhere for bamboo. These things cost 2 or 3 quid each.

If anyone has any questions, ask away. I could take photos if there's a way to upload them - and anyone is interested.
Would also love to see some photos!

What is the area like where they live - hilly, flat etc?

Oh and 新年快乐 to you and the family! :)
 
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philaw

Settler
Nov 27, 2004
571
45
40
Hull, East Yorkshire, UK.
Happy new year Sara and everyone else! It's midnight and the fireworks are going crazy. Do you know much Chinese, Sara? I'm fairly fluent, but it sure didn't come fast or easy.

Broch - I'll see what else is worth noting.

Scoman There are several Chinese terms for something like a billhook, but the most common is maybe chaidao/柴刀. Hopefully this link will show you what they look like or you could paste the characters in google. The two characters mean firewood and knife, which couldn't be clearer. https://mq.mbd.baidu.com/r/hCqvTwtZgQ?f=cp&u=fd9f232efcc3e652

Rob - I'll get a couple of photos

Toddy - I'll check out that channel. To be honest, I turned down the chance to live here because I thought it was too isolated and there weren't many jobs in the area, but we might move here in a couple of years. The house here is definitely a blank canvas in both senses, because it needs a lot of work and you also really could do almost anything with it in a way that would be hard in any British property I could afford. Large fish pond to raise all your own food? Easy. Grow your own vegetables? Tons of space. Fit a wood stove? Cheap and easy. There are downsides of course, but there's huge potential. The house fits the typical local style in that the grandparents had a simple cottage at the back and then built a new house in front of it. Before recent planning changes this was normal, so there's a concrete house at the front and a brick/wood one at the back with a vegetable patch in the middle. Not much like suburban Yorkshire! Lol
 

SaraR

Full Member
Mar 25, 2017
775
476
Ceredigion
Happy new year Sara and everyone else! It's midnight and the fireworks are going crazy. Do you know much Chinese, Sara? I'm fairly fluent, but it sure didn't come fast or easy.
I've been learning mandarin for about 6 years now, but I'm a long long way from being fluent. I'm trying to just enjoy the journey as I'm plodding along. :) It doesn't help that there usually is a 5 month long gap in the classes every year, even if I'm trying to use other resources, like ChinesePod and WeChat, as well.
 
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philaw

Settler
Nov 27, 2004
571
45
40
Hull, East Yorkshire, UK.
I've been learning mandarin for about 6 years now, but I'm a long long way from being fluent. I'm trying to just enjoy the journey as I'm plodding along. :) It doesn't help that there usually is a 5 month long gap in the classes every year, even if I'm trying to use other resources, like ChinesePod and WeChat, as well.
I started learning in 2001 and never dreamed that I'd be able to have a normal conversation, but it just kept getting gradually easier. The key with Chinese is not to get get disheartened by how hard a task it looks and just keep plodding along. Sounds like you're doing well with that!
 
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SaraR

Full Member
Mar 25, 2017
775
476
Ceredigion
Maybe they're fans? I haven't met any bushcrafters here but there's seemingly a small community. Ray Mear's Chinese name is Fatty Ray: 雷胖子
Probably haven't been much cause for BCUK to come to their attention yet...

Certainly more to the point than 'survival physique'... :) Considering the culture, probably the most ringing endorsement he could get.
 
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Toddy

Mod
Mod
Jan 21, 2005
36,681
2,609
S. Lanarkshire
Probably haven't been much cause for BCUK to come to their attention yet...

Certainly more to the point than 'survival physique'... :) Considering the culture, probably the most ringing endorsement he could get.

Son1 has friends in HK and in China.
To say to someone that they're looking well/fat is a compliment apparently. It implies that they're 'doing' well for themselves too.
J's a classic stockily built Brit, even when he's very lean he looks sturdy, iimmc ? Rugby player rather than a marathon runner kind of thing.
It seems that's a good look.
 

SaraR

Full Member
Mar 25, 2017
775
476
Ceredigion
Son1 has friends in HK and in China.
To say to someone that they're looking well/fat is a compliment apparently. It implies that they're 'doing' well for themselves too.
J's a classic stockily built Brit, even when he's very lean he looks sturdy, iimmc ? Rugby player rather than a marathon runner kind of thing.
It seems that's a good look.
Yes, for men I think it’s a sign of prosperity, at least within reason. I guess it depends on the age as well, with younger men wanting to look lean and muscular and older men perhaps taking a bit of excess as a sign of being successful. For younger women, stick thin is still the desired look as far as I could tell.

Not very surprising as they experienced horrendous food shortages within living memory and for the older generation ”Have you eaten?” is a common phrase for greeting friends.
 

Toddy

Mod
Mod
Jan 21, 2005
36,681
2,609
S. Lanarkshire
I have Chinese friends, two are back in Uni, the amount of food that parents send is amazing :)
F. bought a chest freezer to stash away what she couldn't put into the ordinary fridge/freezer :)
 
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philaw

Settler
Nov 27, 2004
571
45
40
Hull, East Yorkshire, UK.
I took a couple of photos before leaving and this way of linking them seemed the easiest. Let me know if it doesn't work. We're back home in Hangzhou now, but will likely be there again in the summer as covid will almost certainly stop us taking a holiday in Britain. We might even renovate the cottage then, but we'll see.

Goats - the little ones were a day old.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/9y14gw5GXjpugDsAA
Old door - one of the horizontal struts slides side to side and functions as a bolt to lock the door.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/CEzQEZmw14jTVhb8A
Hearth - fuel goes in the top and the flame directly touches the wok above. Ash is shoveled out from below. There are a couple of boards for covering the hearth when simmering. It's intentionally set with space behind it to stack a little fuel and sit while tending the fire.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/FddhF1zcnG4xaEAQ7
Fuel - from the left: reeds from the river bank, corn stalks, sesame stalks. There's also dried bamboo in 40cm lengths. That was chopped through when green and now splits easily by hand.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/Pp84fzkZNaqpgdEx5
Stove - you can see the two woks with lids and a couple of offerings. Older people here don't seem especially religious, but retain the culture of lighting incense for family members and various Buddhist deities.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/JEEVGiESu234asgH9
Old houses - half of the old cottage and the neighbours place. Both have new concrete houses in front of them and a vegetable patch in the middle. Loose planning rules up until recently meant that it made more sense to add a new house than replace the old one (and make yourself homeless in the mean time).
https://photos.app.goo.gl/K982AQxZhbSt7Zqu8
A meal being cooked.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/V2wYpa3LYAkPVH737
View from out front. The fields around the village are broken up so that each family has a number of patches. Back in the day, middle men used to come and buy crops, but stopped as there are now big farms producing at scale supplying supermarkets. Rice is not grown here, but people would traditionally grow corn and exchange it for rice. Corn is also used to feed various animals.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/YBN6fupSYJwwDV4E8
Field behind the village. Various people's patches of land adjoin each other and that bamboo grove might be the grandparents' one. It's near there.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/tFJC42qctm6kBeKw6
Probably the same reeds that are by the hearth.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/YHXW2U8yoZitc2Us7

We took a day trip today to an isolated rural area south of Hangzhou. The massive house is 18th century and still occupied. A shop on the same street was selling the same kind of fitted wok that the grandparents use. There was split firewood outside pretty much every house, so they were all cooking on similar stoves. This area is mountainous and has a lot of pine and bamboo. It will have begun developing much later than the cities.

Massive and unusual old rich guy's house.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/ucAQTVRcn3u2YUpp9
Inside the house. It's broken up into a hundred small rooms and has almost that many family units in it. This is categorically not what China is like any more outside of isolated mountain villages. It's a bit like time travel.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/U5XrQ3yGU9drxPcX8
Architectural details. The whole place is like this and whoever built it had serious money.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/qXs8WYowujRSiybt9
https://photos.app.goo.gl/H7w3H1nKobX438o59
Wok shop
https://photos.app.goo.gl/SfpV31XBAiFF5AYF8
 

SaraR

Full Member
Mar 25, 2017
775
476
Ceredigion
I took a couple of photos before leaving and this way of linking them seemed the easiest. Let me know if it doesn't work. We're back home in Hangzhou now, but will likely be there again in the summer as covid will almost certainly stop us taking a holiday in Britain. We might even renovate the cottage then, but we'll see.

Goats - the little ones were a day old.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/9y14gw5GXjpugDsAA
Old door - one of the horizontal struts slides side to side and functions as a bolt to lock the door.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/CEzQEZmw14jTVhb8A
Hearth - fuel goes in the top and the flame directly touches the wok above. Ash is shoveled out from below. There are a couple of boards for covering the hearth when simmering. It's intentionally set with space behind it to stack a little fuel and sit while tending the fire.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/FddhF1zcnG4xaEAQ7
Fuel - from the left: reeds from the river bank, corn stalks, sesame stalks. There's also dried bamboo in 40cm lengths. That was chopped through when green and now splits easily by hand.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/Pp84fzkZNaqpgdEx5
Stove - you can see the two woks with lids and a couple of offerings. Older people here don't seem especially religious, but retain the culture of lighting incense for family members and various Buddhist deities.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/JEEVGiESu234asgH9
Old houses - half of the old cottage and the neighbours place. Both have new concrete houses in front of them and a vegetable patch in the middle. Loose planning rules up until recently meant that it made more sense to add a new house than replace the old one (and make yourself homeless in the mean time).
https://photos.app.goo.gl/K982AQxZhbSt7Zqu8
A meal being cooked.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/V2wYpa3LYAkPVH737
View from out front. The fields around the village are broken up so that each family has a number of patches. Back in the day, middle men used to come and buy crops, but stopped as there are now big farms producing at scale supplying supermarkets. Rice is not grown here, but people would traditionally grow corn and exchange it for rice. Corn is also used to feed various animals.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/YBN6fupSYJwwDV4E8
Field behind the village. Various people's patches of land adjoin each other and that bamboo grove might be the grandparents' one. It's near there.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/tFJC42qctm6kBeKw6
Probably the same reeds that are by the hearth.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/YHXW2U8yoZitc2Us7

We took a day trip today to an isolated rural area south of Hangzhou. The massive house is 18th century and still occupied. A shop on the same street was selling the same kind of fitted wok that the grandparents use. There was split firewood outside pretty much every house, so they were all cooking on similar stoves. This area is mountainous and has a lot of pine and bamboo. It will have begun developing much later than the cities.

Massive and unusual old rich guy's house.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/ucAQTVRcn3u2YUpp9
Inside the house. It's broken up into a hundred small rooms and has almost that many family units in it. This is categorically not what China is like any more outside of isolated mountain villages. It's a bit like time travel.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/U5XrQ3yGU9drxPcX8
Architectural details. The whole place is like this and whoever built it had serious money.
https://photos.app.goo.gl/qXs8WYowujRSiybt9
https://photos.app.goo.gl/H7w3H1nKobX438o59
Wok shop
https://photos.app.goo.gl/SfpV31XBAiFF5AYF8
Nice photos! Must be hot work cooking on those stoves in summer, or is the village perhaps high up enough for it to be slightly cooler there?

Do they help each other out a lot with the harvesting etc or do they mainly grow crops that can be managed by individual households?
 

philaw

Settler
Nov 27, 2004
571
45
40
Hull, East Yorkshire, UK.
Nice photos! Must be hot work cooking on those stoves in summer, or is the village perhaps high up enough for it to be slightly cooler there?

Do they help each other out a lot with the harvesting etc or do they mainly grow crops that can be managed by individual households?
Thanks! It's not the hottest part of China, but doing most things is still pretty hot in the summer there. The nearby city is called Nantong and the geography is a bit like my home town, Hull, in that it's on the bank of an estuary, so the altitude will be just a few metres. In the evenings it cools down noticeably more in the countryside than in the city, where all the concrete is a huge heat sink.

If you went back a few decades the village probably farmed collectively, but now anything at scale would be commercial and would mean renting land from other villagers and employing paid staff. One person there had big netting tunnels and was likely growing fruit for sale, but for the rest it's probably a case of growing food to eat and giving the surplus to a couple of goats.
 

Robson Valley

Full Member
Nov 24, 2014
9,243
2,056
McBride, BC
How I covet the notion of a kitchen and a stove designed for wok cooking.
That's getting close to a bushcraft base camp.
I use 3, my best oldest is nearing 50 yrs. +40C or hotter in the kitchen, what's another degree or two?
 

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