Little Soil goes home: a New Year trip back into my childhood, with my son

The village where I was born is in quite a remote part of Gansu Province in Northwest China. Originally, the place was called Luangudui (Messy Old Piles), after several old tombs nearby. No one knows how old they are, or who is buried in them.

Yongxin lies on an arid plain in Gansu Province

Yongxin lies on an arid plain in Gansu Province

By Wotu

Translated by Gu Yiwei

My name is Wotu. I’m a freelance cameraman, living in Jiangsu Province with my wife and my son. We call our son Xiaoxiaotu, Little Soil.

I hadn't been back to my village very much after I graduated from high school. Since I settled down in Jiangsu Province, I usually only go back during Chinese New Year to visit my family. Each stay rarely lasts more than a week.

That was the plan for this year too. On January 14, when I took Little Soil back to Yongxin, my wife stayed behind in Jiangsu. We wanted my son to spend some time with his grandparents and cousins, whom he seldom gets to see. The plan was to head back to Jiangsu after a week but by then the country was in the grip of coronavirus precautions and we were stranded in the village. Even the road between Yongxin and the nearest town was blocked. Thanks to the lockdown, this trip turned out to be the longest time I had spent in my home village for many years.

During normal times, peddlers occupy both sides of the bustling street, and the sidewalks are swarming with people, but now only a checkpoint is here.

We live in a small compound. By we, I mean the entire family. Three flat-roofed cottages enclose a yard, in the middle of which stands a big tree with a sprawling canopy.

The family moved there when my father was born. It used to be only a single yaodong, a cave-house carved out of the hillside and a common form of dwelling in this barren, mountainous area. It took a lot of hard work to turn it into its current state.

I am the second of four kids, but we mingled with a large brood of cousins in this yard. Now, we’ve all grown up, and have had our own children. Stuck in the village, with nowhere to go and very little to do other than sleeping and eating, I spent most days hanging out with my cousins’ children and taking photos of them. They are really just the same as we used to be, playing with whatever they can get hold of.

Little Soil rarely gets close to nature in the city. His best friends are an iPad and early learning toys. If he goes out, he goes to a kids' playground in a mall. I grew up climbing trees and rolling in mud, and thought kids, especially boys, were supposed to be like that. But when I take Little Soil to parks or the countryside, he is unimpressed. Everything is too dangerous for his tastes. “It’s too high, too dirty. Dad, I’m scared,” he would say.

Jiangsu is quite warm, even in the winter. It rarely snows, and when it does, it rarely lies and doesn’t last very long. I have rarely seen Little Soil have so much fun as he did playing in the snow. He changed a lot during our days trapped in the village. He has become bolder, funnier, more thrill-seeking, and he no longer thinks twice about “dirty stuff.”

Generations of my family played in this yard.
Little Soil is occupied shoveling snow, a rare pleasure for a city kid.

A huge puddle in the yard becomes a river in the boys’ imaginations. They build a “bridge” to cross it.

I used to play “Cops and Robbers." Kids nowadays call it “Chiji,” a name they got from the game PlayerUnknown's Battlegrounds (PUBG).

It’s a curious feeling seeing Little Soil playing with old toys which I haven’t even seen or thought about for many years. It’s not just nostalgia, but also the sharing and extension of a tradition.

The closet has been with the family since I was a kid. I used to hide in it, just like this.

This is my mom's old sewing machine. All our clothes were made on it.
I thought the cabinet looked so beautiful as a kid. I still do. We used to fill it with wheat. Gourmet canned food was also stored here.
The family celebrated New Year's Eve with fireworks.

The villagers still keep livestock, and the kids were delighted by the animals. They fed the chickens whenever they got a chance. The poor chickens became so bloated that they refused to eat any more.
The festivity ends with the liaogan ceremony on the twenty third day of the first month of the lunar year. People jump over bonfires to make wishes for the year ahead.

After liaoqian, people start to shuck corn, the staple food in this area. The kids had a great time wading in the pool of kernels.
We used to call this game “fighting on horseback,” except we didn’t have bikes or cars. I used to “ride” a long stick between my legs and my weapon was usually a tree branch.
The kids take a pigeon for a walk.
A car-jacking takes place right in our yard!
The kids “help” their great grandmother pluck a chicken!

Life suddenly became slower in the prolonged holiday that actually turned out to be the longest time I'd spent alone with my son since he was born. I am no expert in early childhood education, but I want him to have a happy childhood. As a father, nothing is more important than this.

Wotu is a freelance cameraman specializing in rock concert videos. He has been working in the visual arts for ten years and has been running Yuanxiang studio since 2014.