Duan Family's Self-Sustaining Lifestyle

In the Hebei Province of China, the Duan couple, both in their 70s, rise with the sun every morning. Before the sun gets too hot, they weed and water their fields of corn and peanuts. It's back-breaking work.

The Duan family, like so many farming families all around China, eat what they grow and some of what they produce is sold in the local farmer's market and fed to their 33 sheep, which bring in the majority of the family's income.

The elderly couple, who have been married for nearly 50 years, still grow much of their own food, but it is more and more difficult these days, with their age and the absence of their strong sons.

"All of our children work in the cities now, so it is difficult to raise vegetables," said Li Gui Hua, the 70-year-old matron of the family.

Usually, Li Gui Hua only cooks for herself and her husband. But the day we visited the Duan family was special. Every other week, the Duans' children try to make their way home for a family dinner.

"It's always a joyous occasion when our children come home!" Mr. Duan exclaimed. "We cook extra dishes, all of which are our children's favorites."

The Duans have four children, a daughter and three sons, who work in nearby cities. Their wages help to supplement the family's farming income. Two of Mr. Duan's four children, with grandchildren in tow, were able to come home for dinner. It's hard for the whole family to get together, and usually the entire family of 15 only reunites once a year, during the Spring Festival.


For today's feast, Li Gui Hua started preparing the table's dishes very early in the afternoon. Her eldest daughter-in-law soon arrived early to help prepare the meal.

They washed and cut the vegetables, most of which were grown in nearby fields. Some of the vegetables have to be bought from the farmer's markets, but the Duan family still remains somewhat self-sustaining. They grow their own corn and wheat for flour and cornmeal, and peanuts for oil.

"The oil we cook with is from our own peanuts," Mrs. Duan announced proudly. "We use only our own oil."

Chinese meals are based around the main staple, or the "fan," as the Chinese call it, which ranges from rice to cornmeal and wheat products. Since there are so many different taste buds to please, Mrs. Duan and her daughter-in-law prepared rice, bingzi, a Chinese wheat flatbread, and wotou, a cornbread that can be baked or steamed. The bingzi and wotou are made with wheat and cornmeal from the Duans' own crops.

As dishes begin pouring out from the small kitchen, the women place the colorful vegetables, plates and bowls on the table. Mrs. Duan's teenage grandson uses a fan to keep away the flies.

Today they are eating stir-fried eggplant with peppers and tomatoes, vinegared potatoes, green beans, cucumbers, fungus with mushrooms and carrots, and bell peppers. Missing from the table were the main meat dishes that we expect in Western kitchens.

Duan Ze Ling, the 70-year-old grandfather of this family who has been working the fields his entire life, explains this anomaly.

"I am not used to eating meat," he said. "Our children work in the cities, so they eat more meat and less vegetables. They are fatter, too," he noted with a laugh.

Duan said he likes to know that the vegetables they eat come from their own fields or neighboring ones. He trusts his own vegetables.

"I know how much fertilizer and pesticides I use. There is no telling with the vegetables from the markets."

The Dinner

Around the table, there is laughter and talk as the family share the news of the last two weeks. They drink some local beer, which costs about 25 cents a bottle. Although proper custom dictates that one should focus on the meal and not talk, it is hard to follow such traditions when the family only gathers every other week and don't have much time to catch up.

However, one Chinese tradition that is strictly followed is that everyone must finish all the food in his or her rice bowl.

"Li li jie xin ku," one of Mr. Duan's sons jokingly reminds his wife.

"Li li jie xin ku" is a line from a famous Tang-style poem, "Min Nong," or "Compassion for the Farmer." The poem describes the hardships that a rice farmer must go through in order to harvest the rice that will end up in the rice bowls of people around China. To leave food left in one's rice bowl is very rude, for not only is it wasteful, but it is also disrespectful to the farmers who toiled in the fields to bring such foods to one's rice bowl.

As Mr. Duan stated, "A grain of rice is a drop of sweat." No sweat was wasted on this meal, as all the rice bowls were emptied to satisfaction.

Most Western families would pass around sweet desserts as a finale to their dinner, but Chinese customs are a bit different.

"Sugar is a killer," declared Mr. Duan. "Sugar is the most harmful to the human body, so we eat as little of it as possible."

Instead, a watermelon from their own fields is sliced up and passed around.

"Watermelon is better, because it acts like a beverage as well. We don't need to drink water because of the water content," Mrs. Guan explained.

Indeed, on a summer evening in the countryside, there is no sweeter ending than gathering of family and a slice of watermelon.