Deng Zhaomin is a farmer from a small village known as Moduo hamlet eight, in Yongli Township, Hanyuan County, Sichuan. The local name for the hamlet is 'Guodidi which means 'wok bottom', which is exactly what this circular hollow perched 2000 metres up above the steep gorge of a tributary to the mighty Dadu River resembles
Deng Zhaomin is in his late thirties. His face is bright and youthful, despite being tanned and weathered from years of outdoor work. He lives with his wife, his father, and his youngest daughter in a six-room adobe house in the middle of the hamlet of a dozen or so homes. The Dengs' house is well kept, and surrounded by clumps of tall bamboo. There's always a chicken or two scratching the dirt. Often there's some timber waiting to be sawn into planks, because like his father before him Deng Zhaomin has been a carpenter, and they both still make furniture for neighbours or build houses from time to time. Mr Deng senior is in his eighties now but is never sitting still - feeding chickens, planing planks and tounge-and-grooving them to make a potlid, off up the hill to cut pig feed.
Traditional religion has been allowed to revive in China's countyside, and you'll notice the simple spirit tablet by the doorway, just a pasted up piece of calligraphy with a homemade incense holder beneath. On the back wall of the central room, behind the potatoes and pig feed are two larger altars, one to the folk Daoist Emperor of Heaven, (who Deng Zhaomin said is "probably the same as your God" until I explained I wasn't a Christian), and the other in honour of Lu Ban the ancestral founder of carpentry and still its patron. There's three coffins up against one wall. Good timber is scarce nowadays due to deforestation, but these three are beauties, in that traditional more rounded Chinese style. I see the hand of Mr Deng senior.
I met Mr Deng because Moduo is classified as a 'particularly poor village', one where the residents have an average per capita income of less than 800 renminbi about $100 US per year. We are assisting villagers in places like this to institute their own development programmes. Mr Deng is the hamlet leader, chosen by his neighbours due to his fairmindedness and ability to get things done. Mr Deng never had the chance to receive an education. His family were laughably classified as 'rich peasants' during the collective era that followed the Revolution and thus were denied access to services because they were 'bad class elements'.The bitter irony is that Hanyuan is a poor remote county and Moduo is in a poor remote mountainous part of Hanyuan. If they moved anywhere else they would have been the poorest there, but there was a quota of class enemies to be found in every community, and as a carpenter who might occasionly organise a gang of men to work a big job like putting up a house in the days when plentiful timber made that a carpentry task, Mr Deng's father counted as the enemy here.
Mr Deng taught himself to read and write, and has put his three children through school at a cost of twenty years' earnings. Now one son is an apprentice mechanic in the county town, another is away learning to be an electronics engineer in the big city, his youngest still at home will start technical college this term. We help pay the cost of school fees for some in Moduo. This is the first year Mr Deng has asked for help, as the price of their major cash crop, apples, has been low for three years, the school fees are the equivalent of three years wages, and he must pay cash to his apprentice son's master now that his apprenticeship is up. Our funds were limited, and Mr Deng, who helps us choose which families to support, cheerfully brought forward other households worse off than his own first, so that there was no money left for him. He will have to put himself deep in debt to meet the fees.
Another project we did up in Moduo was to put in a piped water supply. It takes hours to get up to this mountain village from the county town, so Mr Deng became our local manager. He did such a good job of installing a gravity flow water system for his own hamlet of seventy people, that the other hamlets asked him to help with theirs. He took time away from his farming to successfully complete a supply project for 700 people, and did it again the following year for another two hamlets.
Deng Zhaomin is intensely interested in the outside world and asks lots of questions about my home in England and things I've seen. He knows lots of stories, and folktales, and lots of history, the kind that is about ordinary people's lives and will never get told. He told me that a third of the village starved to death in the famine that followed the disastrous Great Leap Forward
I'm about six foot two tall, Deng Zhaomin stands about five foot four. He's a bigger man than I'll ever be.