GUANGXI PROVINCE, China -- The old woman's distorted, hunched-over frame suggested years of hard work and endurance in this rugged and beautiful land of ancient farming villages and sharp, jungle-covered peaks.
But physical toil was not all she had endured in Guangxi Province in southern China.
"I told them, enough is enough!" the woman says, recalling the day in 1969 when members of Chairman Mao Zedong's Red Guard entered her home demanding money and jewelry.
She was speaking of the Cultural Revolution in China, a violent countrywide campaign meant to purge China of its "exploitative" and "capitalist" past. She refused to give up her belongings and suffered a severe beating that left her with a hearing loss in her left ear.
Many people here have similar stories. Surprisingly, they have adapted and put some of the harsh personal memories behind them. China is entering a new era of openness and economic prosperity, riding on the heels of the transfer of Hong Kong from Britain to China this summer.
This openness also means many are willing to tell their stories to foreigners. Visitors can hear fascinating accounts of those times.
Travel in China, while still not as easy as travel in North America or Europe, is much easier now than it was five or 10 years ago. Most visitors to Guangxi Province arrive by train or plane from Hong Kong. There, United States citizens can get a
three-month tourist visa and make arrangements for travel at one of many offices of China International Travel Service, the government-run travel service.
Guilin, a popular travel destination in Guangxi, is surrounded by sharp pinnacles immortalized in many Chinese paintings.
The people of China can be at least as fascinating as the scenery. The Chinese still talk about the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, in which several hundred people died in democracy protests in Beijing. They realize that their country, while having made monumental political and economic strides in the past five years, still has a long way to go before it becomes a free and open society.
The old woman who had been beaten by the Red Guard said they had been especially hard on her because her husband had been a landlord before the Communists took control of the country in 1949. He was executed that year, leaving her with six children to raise. Her children began working in the fields as soon as they could, but their father's legacy as a rich landlord haunted the family for 30 years.
Life in the countryside is still hard. The average peasant in Guangxi makes about 1,600 yuan, or $200, a year. Rice, sugar cane, peanuts, soybeans and fish are the biggest crops. Hundreds of small villages are scattered through the region.
Some of the rambling stone and brick structures in the villages have been standing for hundreds of years. Extended families of 30 or more live in homeswith a central living and cooking area that stems into numerous adjoining rooms and courtyards. Soot covers the kitchen walls because there is typically no chimney for the wood burning under the blackened wok. Water is usually hauled for cooking and washing. Indoor plumbing is rare.
If there is electricity, it's usually for one or two light bulbs, and possibly a television. Furniture consists of small wooden stools and a few chairs in the living area. Livestock are kept in adjoing buildings.
That's how 900 million of China's 1.2 billion people - one in six people on Earth - live.
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