A Visit To Gansu Province is a travel diary covering two and half weeks during the Chinese New Year of 2003 spent in a rural community. Author Helen Walliman was given the opportunity to visit the family of a fellow teacher that she met while teaching in a Chinese university. Walliman had mentioned her interest in the notorious cave dwellings of the area and her friend invited her for the holidays.
Yang Tao’s parents still lived in one of the cave homes known as yaodongs, and the whole family made Helen feel very welcome. Although there was much poverty, Helen was treated as a special guest and she experienced many traditions and learnt about their beliefs, whilst meeting many of the extended family and friends.
I quite like cultural books about places that I know nothing about. The insights into the schools in the area and the travel options were very eye-opening. Although I don’t know much about the vibrant cities in China, I could easily imagine how different life in this province was from the cities.
Written in an informative style with photographs to break up the narrative, this was an easy and enjoyable read. I think that anyone who is interested in the history of rural China might enjoy this book.
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In 2003 about sixty percent of China’s population still lived in rural areas. And of that population, about forty million still lived in the man-made cave dwellings known as yaodong. Whereas life in the cities had changed radically, in the country change was slower and many old customs still existed – as the author of this book, Helen Wallimann, was to experience during her stay with a Chinese family in their farmhouse on the loess plateau of Gansu Province, northern China.
There, during the Chinese New Year holiday, she witnessed everyday family life, the busy market, weddings and preparations for weddings, and also various traditions connected with the New Year celebrations or the commemoration of the dead. She visited people in farmhouses and yaodongs, sat with them on the heated kang, ate with them; she watched women doing the cooking, spinning, sewing shoes, doing embroidery; she chatted with old ladies about foot-binding and their work in the fields, with young women about courtship and marriage. She talked with school teachers about schools, a long-distance truck-driver about his work, the local doctor about euros and Swiss francs. She met a government surveyor, a woman who ran a bus line, a man who sold clothes in Moscow…
This does not claim to be an academic anthropological study, it is simply the diary of an open-minded woman who noted and photographed what she saw and heard. Now that so much has changed and that many traditions have been lost or have lost their meaning, this account may serve as a partial record of a way of life that is rapidly disappearing.
Helen Wallimann’s descriptions and photographs of a New Year stay in Gansu give a wonderful, lively picture of daily life for millions of Chinese people, far from the neon and skyscrapers of China’s coastal cities. (Frances Wood, former head of the Chinese collections at the British Library)
Through her vivid description and the numerous photos, the daily life of the people she lived with for nearly three weeks in the midst of winter is recreated in the reader’s mind. Helen Wallimann has the gift of conveying [the] feeling of being accepted as a friend of the family, of being at home to her readers. (PD Dr Johannes Reckel, Curator of the East- and Central Asian Collection at Göttingen State and University Library.