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Cave Dwellers

Photographer: Hwee Young How


'Yaodongs' or cave dwellings are typical in the plateaus of northern China in Shaanxi Province. They are mostly carved out from the yellow earth of the Loess hillsides and are about seven to eight metres deep with height and width of three metres. These ‘yaodongs’ are home to many of the rural peasants living in the outskirts of Yan’an city, a former stronghold of the Chinese Communist Party. Its leader then, Mao Zedong and his comrades battled the Kuomintang forces while sheltering in these very caves in the mountainous region from 1936 to 1948.


While China enjoyed staggering economic growth in the past decades, life for the rural peasants of Yan’an has not altered much over more than 60 years of communist rule. Many of its farmers still struggle to make ends meet. Chinese corn farmer Yang Zhichong’s family of five can barely survive on his yearly income of around10,000 RMB (1,248 euros) from growing and selling corn. Like many other peasant families living in ‘yaodongs’, his tiny cave home serves as the bedroom, living room, kitchen and dinning room for the whole family. Parts of the walls are in danger of collapsing but there is nothing he can do about it with his current income.


87-year-old farmer Chao has lived in the same small cave home for the past 60 years. He remembers the hard and dangerous times of Mao’s revolution and helping to hide Communist red army soldiers from Kuomintang forces. But even after the Communist party gained victory, the illiterate farmer’s life is still a story of poverty and hardship that has changed little over the years.


As towering skyscrapers and fast cars changed the urban landscapes of China, many of the young and able have left the poor rural villages to seek better paying jobs in the cities, often leaving old parents and children behind in their spartan cave homes. 66-year-old apple farmer Cui Weiliang is such an example, living and tending to his apple farmland alone on top of his mountain cave home with only pictures of his children hung on the earthy wall of his ‘yaodong’ for company.


The Chinese communist party is slated to hold its 18th national congress on 08 November where a major leadership transition will see current leaders President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao make way for a new generation of leaders helmed by Xi Jinping. The new leaders are likely to face mounting pressures to tackle the country's rising wealth gab and inequalities between urban and rural areas that are increasingly becoming the source of simmering resentment and growing unrests.