Zhongdong in Guizhou Province is considered China’s last cave village. Despite government efforts to relocate them and provide better opportunities, villagers have refused to give up their way of life.
Tucked inside the karst hills of southwestern China, Zhongdong is China’s last cave village.
Here, 18 families totaling about 100 people live in a space measuring over 300 feet wide, 160 feet high, and 750 feet deep.
The residents, all part of the Miao ethnic minority in China, lead an agrarian lifestyle controlled by the cave’s distinctive light and weather.
Despite the barren soil, the lack of road access, and a meager income, the villagers have resisted government efforts to move them out.
“We just don’t want to move.”
“I wouldn’t say it’s a very good life,” says Luo Dengguang, a villager in his 40s and already a grandfather. “But here in the cave, we don’t need to deal with the winter cold or summer heat. Government officials have come here many times, but we just don’t want to move.”
A simple life
At an altitude of 7,000 feet, the cave is a 40-minute walk up a small mountain path plus an hour’s drive from the nearest urban area, the county seat of Ziyun.
Villagers first moved into the cave in 1949, toward the end of the Chinese Civil War, to hide from bandits, Luo says.
Life is simple, but they are self-sufficient. Most of the houses, made of wood and bamboo, are built near the front of the cave, with the inner part mostly empty.
Reverberating with crowing, barking, and mooing, the cave also houses chickens, dogs, cattle, and pigs, and provides drinking water for the people and animals.
Each household has a small pool supplying it with water, collected from larger reservoirs beneath the spots where water drops from the roof.
“It’s just like being in a large room with air-conditioning.”
There was no electricity until the early 2000s, when an American tourist chanced upon the cave during a hike and sponsored the building of a school inside the cave for its child inhabitants. He would return several times with cash gifts.
The school was closed a few years later when the government moved the children to township schools located two hours away on foot, according to villagers.
Zhongdong’s poverty trap
Pledging to end poverty by 2020, the Chinese government has been clearing remote mountain villages by offering farmers new homes in towns, relocating more than eight million people over the past seven years.
More than 30 million people in mainland China—about 2% of the total population—were still living under the poverty line at the end of 2017, official statistics showed.
The average annual income of a Zhongdong resident was about $540 in 2017, or $1.50 a day, below the World Bank’s international poverty line of $1.90 per day.
For Luo, the family’s only regular income comes from his son and daughter-in-law, who work in the eastern province of Zhejiang and live there with their young child.
“Nothing grows well here.”
“Nothing grows well here, and we raise a pig a year, which is enough for us to eat,” Luo says. “We don’t raise pigs to sell because it’s not easy to get them out to the market.”
An occasional source of pocket money for the villagers is a handful of visitors who stop by during hikes in Getu River National Park, where the cave is located.
The village receives a few dozen tourists a week during peak season and few at other times, owing to their lack of access to the cave.
“Most of them just make a brief stop, and only a small number stay to buy lunch from us,” Luo says. “Tourism is not a big thing here.”
Liu Chizhong, an official from the Getu River township government who is responsible for liaising with the villagers, has been visiting the cave every month since the local government began pushing harder for their relocation in 2017.
It has proved a difficult task for him, with the villagers “illiterate” and not listening to his advice, he says.
“They are old-fashioned and seriously clinging to support from the government,” Liu says. “The clothes you saw them wearing are all provided by the government.”
To him, Zhongdong is not a very habitable place. The major crop that local people grow, corn, is often stolen by monkeys that can be found in the area.
Life on the outside
Despite making very little, the villagers are worried about losing the livelihood they have, along with the shelter that nature has given them, if they move out.
The government first tried to relocate the residents by building brick houses beneath the cave for the villagers.
It then offered to relocate them to the Getu River township and recently suggested moving them to the inner urban area of Ziyun County, Liu says.
When the brick houses were completed in 2008, all of the villagers moved, but most of them returned to the cave a year later.
“We were not used to living in the houses,” says Wang Qiguo, one of the villagers who moved back. “Everything around the house got wet on rainy days, which is not the case in the cave.”
“If we move, they will take control of the cave, and it will no longer be ours.”
The new homes also required maintenance costs that did not exist when they lived in the cave.
“When it rains, the wooden doors will rot,” Wang says. “You have to repair the house every few years and change the tiles. But here in the cave, it’s dry every day.”
Wang moved away when he was 16 to work in more affluent parts of China but returned recently because he missed home.
“On summer nights when I worked on construction sites and couldn’t sleep because of the heat, I missed it here so much,” says Wang, now in his 40s. “It’s just like being in a large room with air-conditioning.”
The villagers are also afraid of losing their farmland.
“If we move, they will take control of the cave,” he says, “and it will no longer be ours.”
A road to salvation
Wang believes things might improve if the government builds a proper road. Right now, the only way up to Zhongdong is a narrow footpath.
But the county government has refused on the grounds that it is a national park and the central government’s approval would be needed to build a road.
(Read more: Life inside Taiwan’s most remote tribe)
Another thing they were given but did not want was a cable car from the nearest cement road to the cave, which is under construction.
Despite being offered free use of it, villagers thought it would not particularly improve their lives.
“This is mainly for tourists,” says Wu Baozhen, 30, one of the few young parents who have stayed to look after their children on their own because the grandparents are ill. “It can carry people but not livestock or crops.”
To persuade people to move, Liu says the government has also suggested giving them permanent ownership of existing farmland, letting them keep their houses, and sharing tourism revenue.
With the 2020 deadline approaching in China’s battle against poverty, Liu says he and his colleagues are “under great pressure.”
“If they insist on staying, we will have to think of other measures, like creating other jobs for them,” he says, adding that they could be employed by the government as construction workers.
Asked if there is any possibility of Zhongdong’s determined inhabitants having to be forcibly moved, Liu says, “There might be.”
Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.