Zhanli, a mountain village in southwest China's Guizhou Province, has intrigued anthropologists and population experts with its low population growth rate of 0.4 per cent, compared to the national average of one per cent. Its inhabitants, the Dong ethnic minority, have managed to keep the population under check using herbs and centuries-old wisdom instead of modern contraceptives. Until January 2003, the village had a population of 762 people against 729 people in 1990. The total number of households has remained at 156 since the 1970s. And since 1949, the village boasts of a zero crime rate.
"Here you see harmony between human beings and nature. It seems their ancestors understood centuries ago that their land would not feed a booming population. Crimes surface when people do not have adequate food and clothing," says Zhang Xiaosong, professor of anthropology at Guizhou University, who has been studying the village since 1999.
The Zhanli villagers enjoy a better life than farmers elsewhere in Congjiang, says Xiaosong. "Their per capita possession of arable land, about 0.09 hectare, is almost double the county average. This enables them to afford to plant grain of lower yield but better quality, like sticky rice," she says.
In Zhanli, there are a few villagers in their 80s and even 90s. It is indicative of their well-being, says Xiaosong. Yet their family size is not big. Wu Laogu is 90 but his five-generation family has only eight members. This kind of family is not rare in the village. Elsewhere in China, a family with five generations may have 12 to 100 members.
Also amazing is that 93 per cent of the families in Zhanli have a son and a daughter each, while only five per cent have one or two sons and two per cent families have one or two daughters.
This remote community had no idea about planned parenthood or family planning until it was introduced to the village in the 1980s. The State population control policy, which drastically challenges the traditional Chinese concept of more babies means more good fortune, was resisted in many rural areas. But in Zhanli there were no obstacles. "They spontaneously practiced birth control all along, although they did not call it by that name," says Xiaosong.
Equally positive is the community's attitude towards boys and girls. Sons and daughters get an equal share in property: usually the son inherits the paddy field while the daughter gets the cotton field. Woods and gardens are divided equally and while house and livestock are passed on to the son, the daughter gets clothes and jewelry when she gets married.
Xiaosong says that before a Zhanli woman gets pregnant, the sex of a baby is predetermined by a herbal medicine named Huanhuacao. But no one from outside the village has ever seen this magic potion: its recipe is kept a well-guarded secret, says Xiaosong.
Traditionally, the village apothecaries, who are all female and have inherited the knowledge from their mothers, must administer the medicine. Wu Naigen, 72, is the last apothecary of the village and has also served as a midwife. Naigen says the perfect balance of children's sex comes naturally to the community.
Though Zhanli villagers believe that it is Huanhuacao which plays a key role in population control, Xiaosong claims the community also uses herbs for contraception and herbs and surgery for abortions.
However, it is the traditional wisdom that limited land can only feed a limited number of people passed on from generation to generation in the form of community codes, folk songs or ancient legends, that has helped the community to be small and healthy. No family has ever tried to have more than two children. In case a family does, it is fined and has to offer food and property to the whole village.
Even the religious faith is allied to the concept of restrained reproduction. According to folk religious beliefs, babies up to one year old don't have souls and can be considered like small animals. This helps mothers to have abortions without guilt. In fact, it is more sinful to have an extra baby than have an abortion, informs Xiaosong.
The Zhanli villagers also show wisdom in utilizing natural resources. They breed fish in paddy fields, and build barns over fishponds that can provide plenty of water in case of fire. The excrement of fish is used as fertilizer for rice. For fuel, they only break off branches but never the timber. On the birth of a child, the family plants dozens of fir trees on nearby mountain slopes. The firs function like a timber bank for the child: when he or she turns 18, some of the trees are chopped down for house building.
"Such living wisdom, to remain in harmony with nature and ensure a sustainable development is admirable," says Xiaosong. "The government should learn how Zhanli's community system regulates people's behavior and lives. This is a more effective way of population control than high-handed coercion."
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