Niu Yuqin: A Xinjian poplar
The woman in front of us is a legend.
Niu Yuqin, from Jingbian, Shaanxi, had headed for the desert carrying a wooden stick with a green scarf tied to it. There she paced off 670 hectares of desert contracted to her, and swore, “If I fail, I'd rather die and be buried in this sand.”
She’s an ordinary woman from the northwest, but also a heroine who’s the match of any man. At dusk, the yellow rays of the setting sun dance on the green leaves of the trees. Sixty-four-year-old Niu Yuqin smiles, and behind her, sweet white-red peaches weigh down the branches of their trees and touch the ground. In her home bordering the orchard, her mother is embroidering a tiger on a pillowcase.
We asked her, "After years of struggle, your life has improved and the wasteland has turned green. When you started did you dream of a better outcome than this?"
Niu Yuqin raised her head, her eyes gleaming in the twilight and said, "I would like to go back to the time when I was standing alone on the desert."
We were deeply shocked.
Thirty years of back-breaking work to accomplish all this, and all she wishes is to go back and start all over. Her passion to undertake a mighty task has not diminished at all. What kind of woman is she?
Her answer reminded us of the demoiselle cranes of Haba Lake.
Even though their wintering place is lush and beautiful, they still take off on a grueling migration to their far-off ancient home. Even though some of them will die of cold or exhaustion and they will encounter fierce storms, they still fly north when spring arrives. Every migratory flight has its tragedies, and some of these cranes will die in midair and fall from the sky. But none of this keeps them from taking to the air—heading back to where they began their lives. This is exactly the way demoiselle cranes live their lives.
Fighting relentlessly, overcoming extreme dangers to return to the starting point of life—this is exactly the way Niu Yuqin lives her life.
The more we listened to her tale, the more we entered her inner world.
In 1985, she and her husband Zhang Jiawang contracted for 667 hectares of wasteland. Every morning before sunrise the whole family, parents and children, started to work. They carted the tree seedlings to the site along a rutted road, left footprints where none had been before, and reached for a future of prosperity.
Once she came down with appendicitis and had to go to the hospital for an operation, but she was back planting trees before the stitches were taken out.
She didn't have time to go to the hospital to have them taken out; she just cut the thread herself using a pair of household scissors, and with a gasp of pain, pulled out the blood-soaked strands of thread one by one.
She didn't realize even greater pain awaited her.
Zhang Jiawang contracted bone cancer. She had to carry the whole load of the family herself.
The day after she buried her husband, she led a tree-planting crew into the desert.
A sudden storm soaked her to the skin, and she came down with a high fever. She used a sewing needle to let some blood. The blood letting didn't help, so she got some dried ground pepper, put it in boiling water and drank two bowls. Early the next morning she dragged herself back to the forest.
Those years she was living from hand to mouth and often lacked the money to buy necessities.
She sold the rice she needed to eat, her water crock, winter coat, casket, and everything else that could be sold to buy tree seedlings.
She wouldn't be needing the casket in this life, but how could she get through winter without a heavy coat?
She only thought about getting the seedlings planted now; winter was too far off to worry about.
She lost track of how many people pursuaded her to remarry, sell the forest and live a comfortable life in her remaining years. She told everyone the same thing, "I won't sell my trees and I won’t remarry."
She always wore a small copper bell around her waist, which was an engagement present from Zhang Jiawang. She'd been wearing it for 48 years. It was a constant reminder of their dream of becoming rich. To fulfill this dream, she wouldn't give up no matter what she had to go through or how tired she got.
As the years passed, Niu Yuqin became famous for planting trees and was invited to speak at the United Nations for her contributions to improving the ecological environment. Once she was famous she became the target of gossip, and she was accused of falsifying the acreage of her tree planting and exaggerating her accomplishments.
This got her son's blood boiling and he got into fights with many of her detractors.
Niu Yuqin kept her temper and held him back.
She sat down and wrote a report that read:
"To the Provincial Forestry Department:
The so-called "Desert Control Hero" Niu Yuqin is a fraud. Her purpose obviously is to improperly win fame from which she can reap profit. Her motives are not pure. Please promptly dispatch officials to formally assess her achievements.
July 11, 1991."
Professionals arrived within days and took accurate measurements, after which it was determined that Niu Yuqin had improved 1,100 hectares of barren land and planted more than one million trees, with an afforesting rate of more than 40%.
When this report was published, the rumours immediately ceased.
Many years later, she wrote in her memoir, "The hardships I faced in my life only strengthened my resolve."
All the people who pursued their tree planting dreams across the vast northern tier have a certain kind of character—they are all noble-minded, stubborn and tenacious.
To fulfill their dreams of changing their lives, they endured what others could not endure and conducted themselves in a way others dare not to.Continued: Heroes Fighting relentlessly: Yin Yuzhen