In Daqiao, a remote village in Jiangxi Province, the landscape is straight out of a Chinese scroll. Ragged boys perch on sleek black oxen furrowing lush fields, and sage-looking ancients contemplate the smoke from their pipes as they relax beside village ponds, disturbed only by the squabbles of ducks and geese. Outwardly nothing appeared amiss. But as a crowd of children stared and giggled at their first sight of a foreigner, Zhu Longshen sat, his face frozen in grim preoccupation, in the atrium of his 200-year-old stone house. After we made our introductions, he began reading from a petition intended for officials in Beijing: "Dear Leaders, because of our hunger for gold, we suffered a catastrophe."
The words were as much a moral fable for modern China as the preamble to a plea for help. A decade ago when gold was found nearby, local officials decided to blast open a mine, recruiting villagers to work in it. Before long the men were sickening from a mysterious disease. It turned out to be silicosis, which had come from inhaling mine dust loaded with invisible silica flakes.
"We didn't know such an illness even existed before this happened," Zhu said again and again. Zhu, who is 34, has a wife and four children. He looked brown and healthy, but as he talked, his hands trembled, and his lungs, clogged with silica, labored to inhale. He said the disease, which is incurable, had already killed more than 100 of his 400 fellow miners, and he feared that within a year or two it would kill him and the rest of them.
When the mine opened, Zhu had jumped at the chance to earn $25 a month—much more than he'd ever made before. In this he is typical of a vast new group of Chinese, the roughly 200 million peasants who have left farming in the past 20 years. He is also an example of how in seeking a better life, Chinese, and especially rural Chinese, often take on the world's dirtiest jobs. More than 25 million Chinese workers are now in regular contact with life-threatening toxic dust and poisonous material. Millions more endure physically sapping and mentally dulling work in factories and sweatshops, making toys, shoes, and sporting goods for the United States and other rich consumer nations.
A thousand miles (1,600 kilometers) south and west of Daqiao the sleepy village of Naren perches at 11,000 feet (3,400 meters) in the upper reaches of the Yangtze River in Yunnan Province. Progress hasn't inflicted deathly sickness on the people here, yet they readily admit that their growing prosperity has come with risks.
"The trouble is everybody is trying to build a bigger house than his neighbor," said Gesrong Dinghu. Gesrong—Naren's headman—invited me and several villagers onto his roof for a better look around. Pointing a finger at the large, extravagantly painted wooden house next door, he noted with a hint of envy that it had a new satellite dish.
"It was the mushrooms that made us rich," explained his friend Lurong, still amazed by the unexpected turn in Naren's fortunes. "All these years we never realized we had this gold just growing under our feet."
Naren's gold is the stubby matsutake mushroom, which grows wild amid the roots of oak and pine trees and is a delicacy for which Japanese gourmets pay high prices. The boom began in the 1980s when the first Japanese buyers arrived. Now over the course of a summer, villagers can earn as much as a thousand dollars—five times as much, if they're lucky—by picking mushrooms and medicinal herbs.
Before their windfall, the people of Naren, like other ethnic Tibetans in the region, rated among the poorest of the poor, subsisting on barley and corn grown in fields scattered through the steep valleys and grazing their yaks in the peaks high above. Then, flush with new money from mushrooms, the villagers began building themselves fine new wooden houses, as big as Swiss chalets, equipping them with TVs, CD players, and other luxuries of modern living. But how long can the good times last?
Lurong's 73-year-old mother remembers how different the area looked when she was growing up. "There were oak trees covering all these hills," she said, lifting an arm toward the bare slopes. The village then had 20 households; now there are 42, and families have been steadily cutting down their trees to build houses and to use for fuel. Shaking her head, she said that Naren has been plagued by flash floods. Indeed, every year in Yunnan Province some 500 people die in floods and landslides that wash away not just houses but entire sections of roads and railroads. Without trees and bushes to soak up rainfall, the water rushes off the bare slopes. Beyond flooding, villagers worry that more tree cutting could put an end to the mushroom bonanza—and their ability to acquire the creature comforts of modern life. "Without the forests we have nothing," said Gesrong Dinghu.