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Memories from a northeastern Chinese logging camp

This story is published as part of TWOC’s new collaboration withStory FM, a renowned storytelling podcasts in China. Narrated by filmmaker Yu Guangyi and Kou Aizhe, founder and host of Story FM,the story has been translated from Chinese by TWOC and edited for clarity. The Chinese version of the story can be found on Story FM’s channel on Himalaya.

My name is Yu Guangyi. I am a filmmaker. I was born in 1961, and grew up in a small forest farm under the Shanhetun Forestry Bureau in Wuchang county, Heilongjiang province.

The Songhua River has a major tributary called the Lalin, which originates in my hometown. People say that the best Wuchang rice grows in water from the Lalin River and black earth from Changbai Mountain. That was the soil in which I also grew up.

In the summer of 2004, a classmate from my hometown came to visit me, and told me that the hundred-year-old practice of logging, which started in 1895, was about to end. The government was about to make it illegal to cut trees. This made me feel that someone ought to make a record of the last loggers.

I had been away from home for 18 years. Both of my parents had already passed away. When I arrived in my hometown, I found it intimately familiar, yet also estranged. As I started filming in a field of snow that didn’t quite reach my knees, I said to my parents, “Dad, Mom, I’ve returned to make a documentary about the lives of people on the mountain. Please bless and protect me, and make sure I do it well.”

On December 16, 2004, the last logging teams set off for the mountain. I followed them into the dense forests, and we spent the whole winter eating and sleeping together in a shack.

The loggers were full of reverence for nature, because felling trees on the mountain was full of dangers.

Every year, on the day that they set off for the mountains, the loggers hold sacrificial ceremonies. They find a thick tree and peel away its bark, then use charcoal to write “Seat of the Mountain God” on the trunk.  They bury a pig’s head, place incense and fruits over the spot, and pray.

Yu Guangyi (front row, center) with the loggers in his documentary

In a high and cold location, facing bitter conditions, a sense of veneration emerges in people. Unlike city folks, who are overconfident, who overestimate the power of humans, loggers have created their own unique way of life in that extraordinary environment.

They consult a fortune-teller to find out which days are the best for going up and down the mountain. Once you’re in the mountains, there are mountain rules to follow. Some sayings are taboo: for example, you should never say “Be careful of accidents,” but instead use a euphemism like “Take care.” You shouldn’t sit on the stump of a tree that has been felled, because they believe that is the mountain god’s dining table. Putting your rump on it is disrespectful and will bring you misfortune. You must not harm wild animals, because up there, there is no difference between the animals and themselves—they are all weak, and small.

Their favorite moment of each day is when they get to drink. Their most anticipated event was when I went up the mountain, because I would bring them lots of food. I’d leave a bag of frozen dumplings and steamed buns in a hole in the snow, and it would all be eaten by the second day. Then they would say to me: “Guangyi, it’s snowing too much! I can’t find that bag of food!” And I would reply, “OK, then find it in summer.” I’d also ask, “What else do you need?” and one man said, “Frozen biscuits,” so the next time I went up, I would make sure to bring enough.

Of Horses and Men

Their work looks easy. It’s the same every day: They wake up at 3:30 in the morning to eat, and head up the mountain at 4:30. Before the sun is up, they would lead their horses up the mountain, and use a sledge to bring the timber down to where the trucks can reach. They make the trip twice a day.

There is division of labor. A woodcutter uses a chainsaw to fell the trees. Then, there are normally two people to a sledge—one person leads the horse, the other loads the sleigh. The income from each day is calculated according to the amount of timber transported; one cubic meter of timber is around 50 RMB. If you brought down 3 cubic meters of wood in a day, they called it “three heads.” That’s 50 kuai for the person who leads the horse, and 50 for the sledge loader, and 50 for the horse rental station, because renting out the horse is a risk too.

[Editor’s note: Two people typically bring each load of timber down the mountain. Each horse pulls three or four pieces of timber of about 2 cubic meters. The total weight is around 3 tons. Going down the slope, the momentum is extreme, and it is exceedingly dangerous for both the humans and the horses.]

That winter, six horses died of exhaustion.

A horse died on the way down the mountain after we had been up there for around two weeks. It left me shaken. It was snowing lightly then.

In my movie, there’s a scene where the horse is just lying there quietly, like it is at a funeral. A dozen people dragged that horse a short way from the shack, and then started to skin it.

Another time, I had prepared to spend a night on the mountain and film the loggers waking up and making breakfast in the morning. But in the end, I filmed too much that afternoon and my battery had run out, so I decided return to the guesthouse at the forest farm at the foot of the mountain.

The journey was around 10 kilometers, and I found a man named Yu San to take me. He cheerfully led over his mule, hitched up a sledge, lay a wooden board on top of it, and took me to a guesthouse run by his relatives.

Loggers offer sacrifices to the mountain god in a scene from Yu’s documentary

It snowed the whole way. I sat in the front and Yu San sat behind—we sat like that for over an hour in the freezing cold. Once the sun went down, it was impossible to see anything, except for the mule’s behind and tail swaying back and forth in front of me. The sledge created friction with the snowy ground, and made sounds of vibration in a rhythmic way.

When we got to Yu San’s relatives’ home, they immediately started to cook—they made four dishes for me, and warmed wine for Yu San. We ate and drank for over an hour, then Yu San said he had to get back. I reminded him not to drink too much, for I was worried about him returning to the mountain alone.

But when he went outside, he found that his mule was gone. How? Its hoof-prints led up the mountain, and its reins had been snapped off. I told Yu San to look for it tomorrow, but he said he couldn’t; he needed the mule for work the next morning.

I thought he would find his mule within the hour. But the next morning, when I went to talk to Yu San again, he said that his mule had wandered into someone else’s shack. A logger had been driving a mare past where the mule was hitched. When the male mule smelled the mare’s scent, it struggled free of its reins and chased the mare all the way to that shack. By the time Yu San had found his mule, led it back, and then drove back to his shack, it was already midnight.

This incident made a large impact on all of the loggers. At first, they treated it as a joke, but eventually, it made them all miss home: “Even a horse will chase a mare to another shack. A band of guys like us, staying in the mountains for a whole winter, who wouldn’t miss home?”

At that moment, I realized they had been forced to go deep into the mountain and take up this ancient profession because they had no alternative. They were human; they missed home. But in order to survive, they could put all of that down.

On the mountain, there were only people, horses, and forest. There’s no hierarchy, no rich or poor; only those three lives bound together under the protection of the mountain god, struggling for all they’re worth.

Magical Childhood Memories

All of my childhood memories seem to have to do with snow. Every year, it snowed from November to the end of April; sometimes, the last snow was as late as May 1. Snow gave us never-ending troubles and freezing temperatures, and made life inconvenient.

In the 1990s, I discovered Gabriel García Márquez, the Colombian magical realist writer. In my memories, my childhood was full of magic.

The state-owned forest farm where I grew up was only a kilometer from north to south. Over 400 loggers lived there. In 1937, the Japanese built a railway that crossed our forest farm from south to north. On each side of the railway tracks there were houses made of mud and grass, with thatched roofs, and logs propping up the earthen walls. The houses had no soundproofing. There were eight or ten families to a house, and each family had less than 50 square meters to themselves. In the forest farm, the air was always filled with the sweet smell and the sound of crackling twigs set alight.

The most iconic part of the forest farm was a small train. In the day, the train would putter up the mountain with the timber. The high altitude meant there was a lot of strain on that little train. In the middle of the night, I would hear the train again, puttering down the mountain. The sound shook bits of dirt off the mud walls. As a child, I thought this was a treasure mountain; the timber was forever being transported down. From as far back as I can remember, the train was always hauling timber. Until I was 20, 30, or even 40 years old, it was still hauling timber.

State-owned forest farms were a major part of the northeast’s economy prior to the 1980s

In the autumn and spring, the forest became dry, so safety standards were especially severe. We couldn’t even light a fire to cook if the winds were above Category 5. The forest farm had a loudspeaker tied halfway up the fire-prevention flagpole. This loudspeaker was our lifeline; it transmitted news from outside the mountain.

Every day, that loudspeaker seemed to be bitterly cursing. I grew up amid the sound of that cursing. It cursed the US imperialists and the Soviet Union, and said that the USSR had invaded four islands in the north of Japan. It cursed an Italian [filmmaker], Michelangelo Antonioni. This scoundrel had made a very offensive documentary about Chinese cuisine. Later, when I started to make documentaries myself, I suddenly understood Antonioni’s work.

After the loudspeaker stopped cursing, my neighbor Liu Dudu would start. He would curse his wife and his son, and curse his neighbor’s dog for not eating its shit. Then he would curse the leaders of the forest farm for how they treated him: They made him retire in his 40s, and gave him just 18 kuai, 5 mao, and 7 fen per month—it was hard raising a family on just that. When they all finished cursing, the loudspeaker would start playing model operas1. Every day, they would play The Taking of Tiger Mountain, the part where Yang Zirong beats the tiger and goes up the mountain. Every day, on the way to and from school, we seemed to be walking to the beat of Yang Zirong’s drums.

Until 5:30 in the evening, commuter trucks would drive down the mountain. They were old and battered Jiefang trucks. A metal plate was attached to the front, facing the wind and snow, and they carried home over 100 loggers who had finished work for the day. In the dark, while the loudspeaker played music from Tiger Mountain, over 100 pairs of frozen and stiff rubber-soled shoes crunched across the snow together. They seemed to be walking in time to the music, while behind them, the trucks lit them up with their headlights. It was a mystical and incredibly thrilling sight.

Occasionally someone would shout something, but with no meaning in particular. Maybe it was because they were tired and hungry after a day of work, and then they had to ride in the truck for over an hour. They were frozen so stiff that that they couldn’t even open their mouths, and would have to first exercise their jaws before they could go home and eat. Sometimes, the electricity would suddenly cut off, and they wouldn’t know which direction to walk in, so they would stop and look at the loudspeaker. Their steps would become messy, listless. and sapped of energy.

The loudspeaker played every day. At 5:30 in the morning, an announcer would say, “Forest Farm Radio is now starting its first broadcast.” That voice was a signal for the wives of the loggers to get up and make breakfast for their husbands. It took an hour to gather the firewood, get the pot up to boil, and cook the rice. The loggers brought their lunch up the mountain.

One winter, the broadcasts went on as usual, until one morning, the loudspeaker said, “Forest Farm Radio is now starting its first broadcast,” and a big yellow dog appeared out of nowhere and began howling like a wolf at the flagpole. After this, whenever the broadcast started, the dog would bark on cue; everyone thought it was very strange.

In the work shack there was a man called Mad Zhu, who would often be sharpening a broad axe. He would stand on the mountain or in the village, and shout curses. In the middle of winter, he would take off his cotton-padded jacket and shout, bare-chested. When this happened, everyone locked their doors and windows; it was very frightening. Mad Zhu would occasionally come to his senses. When he saw the dog howling, he said, “There will be an accident. There will be an accident.” Everyone said, “Lin Biao has already fallen to his death2 , how could there be any accident bigger than this?”

Loggers sort timber before transport at a forest farm in the Small Khingan Mountains in 2004

My neighbor’s third uncle was the father of the radio announcer. He also thought it was strange that whenever his daughter shouted over the radio, the dog would howl. He got scared, grabbed a stick, and went about the whole village chasing the dog. Eventually, the dog would run away when it saw him coming, and come back when he left. Later, he got a worn-out padded jacket, took a pot of alcohol, and sat underneath the flagpole, and draped the jacket over the dog.

That winter there was a lot of snow, and a lot of accidents. The old madman had spoken the truth.

Just before the New Year, a logger had an accident on the mountain and died. While trying to save him, another worker fell from the truck and died too. That was a sad day.

Old Bachelors in the Shack

In those days, children ran wild; not like today, when their parents accompany them everywhere. Back then, the public order was excellent, and there weren’t as many problems as today. An old logger became my teacher after he came down from the mountain, and I grew up listening to his thick Shandong dialect. After school, I didn’t have any homework to do, so the old logger’s shack was my favorite haunt.

The shack was built by the logging company. It has a big workshop of 30 to 50 meters, with a corridor running along the northern side and ten or so rooms facing south, where there was the best sunlight. In each room, there was a kang3 on either side. When I was little, going into the room felt like falling into a pit; I would enter with a thump. At that time we had mud floors, so whenever the floor was swept, a bit of dirt would be pushed out of the room. Year after year, the floor would lose half an inch in height compared to the corridor. When I was just around 10 years old, the kang came up to my chest, so climbing up was a real struggle.

A lot of old bachelors slept there; bare-chested, with a quilt draped round their shoulders. Above them hung a 200-kilowatt light bulb filled with fly droppings and covered in cobwebs. At that time, under the planned economy, electricity in the forest farm was free, so no one cared if you used lots of big lightbulbs. Everyone lived there for free.

The old loggers loved to tell us stories. They didn’t have any children, so they got excited whenever they saw a group of kids coming to visit, and told us some action-packed yarns about their early years in the remote mountain forests, such as when a gang of bandits brought them supplies, or when they married a fox spirit that turned into a woman. Some of these were folk tales; some were real.

These bachelors were mostly old loggers who had come to the forest farm during the time of the puppet regime in Manchuria; a few others had come to the forest in 1960 when Shandong province suffered a big famine. By 1962, there were so many of them that the forest authorities tried to send some back. No one wanted to go back. Those who stayed behind lived in the work shack and spent their whole life unmarried. In the winter they felled trees and made money, spent it all during the summer, and started over the next winter.

Drifter Li’s Petition

I remember there was a man called Petitioner Li. I just know that his surname was Li; I don’t know his first name.

He came to the forest farm in the 1960s. According to the rules of state-owned enterprises, he had a period of family leave after working there for two or three years, so he set off for his hometown in Shandong. Afterward he contracted a strange illness, a mental illness it seemed. He couldn’t explain it clearly, and his family didn’t know what had happened to him.

Six months later, he came to his senses and came straight back to Heilongjiang, back to the forest bureau.

In the northeast, SOEs have a rule that if you don’t come to work for over three months, it is considered voluntary resignation. The forestry bureau told him: You’ve been away for six months already, so according to our rules, you’ve already been struck off. Li kept explaining, “I was sick. I don’t know what happened. I didn’t even know how much time had passed.”

He was an honest person, and had a little education. He was about 175 centimeters tall, and in the 60s, he was only around 20 years old. The forest farm couldn’t help him, so they reported the problem to the forestry bureau.

Ex-forest farms in the northeast have developed snow-themed tourism after the logging ban

Petitioner Li could only live in the work shack. Luckily, they still let him eat in the canteen. In the mountain, people were naturally kind. Rules are rules, but there was still empathy. After all, he was a state forest farm worker; he was different from those drifters who came to the northeast later.

Petitioning was a new kind of life for Li; he changed from a forest worker into a drifter. In the winter, he went up the mountain to hunt. At that time there was lots of game to hunt: red deer, Siberian roe deer, wild boars, black bears, and even Siberian tigers. The most valuable was mink fur, which we call “big fur.” Nowadays, it’s a luxury product. Back then, one pelt of big fur would sell for over 70 kuai, the same as a month’s salary for a forest worker. In the summer, Li would dig for ginseng and make herbal medicine.

To win justice for himself, he went to the forestry bureau endlessly to lodge complaints. Our forest farm was 80 kilometers from the forestry bureau by train, and he went countless times every year.

He was too ashamed to sit in the seats on the train, so each time he would squat in the corner, and take out dried tobacco to smoke.

When he first started petitioning, he had some written evidence, but his case became more and more hopeless as time went on, and his illness got worse and worse. He couldn’t say anything clearly, but just squatted at the bureau every time he went. At lunch, the staff would tell him that they were going off work, and he would pick up his bag and go, then return in the afternoon. After he had squatted for two or three days and had run out of hope, he would ride the train back to the forest farm. He petitioned his whole life, until even his real name was forgotten, and he was just left with this nickname.

At the beginning of the 1980s, I was in love with painting. I had painted almost everyone in the forest farm already, and thought that the petitioner would be an ideal model. He could sit for hours without moving.

He was from my father’s generation, so I called him Uncle Li. I was always very respectful toward him. He almost never replied to anything you asked him, but just smiled.

By the time he was around 50, there were fewer wild animals on the mountain, and less ginseng too, so he changed to planting milk vetch root (huangqi), a kind of medicinal ingredient. The herb took two or three years to grow, and it was only about as wide as your finger, an inch long. Once processed, you could sell it, and in the autumn, you could sell the huangqi seeds too—you could earn an income all year-round.

One day, in around 1985, some people saw him burning a lot of paper behind the work shack. They asked him: “Petitioner, your family isn’t here; who are you burning paper4 for? ” He didn’t say anything, and everyone felt it was very strange. On the second day, he disappeared. Everyone thought he’d gone up the mountain, but by the third day, he was still nowhere to be found. Some people informed the forest farm authorities, but he wasn’t on the regular payroll—if he was gone, they wouldn’t bother looking for him.

Yu filming on the mountain

A week or two later, someone found a rotting corpse a few kilometers downstream. They suspected it was the petitioner, so some kindhearted people brought his body onto the riverbank and buried him.

He disappeared the same he lived: No one paid any attention to him.

But after the petitioner died, something happened that moved me very deeply. In the spring, the huangqi he had planted covered the whole mountain. When the wind blew, the petals floated up to the sky as far as the eye could see, and the cuckoos would sing. Petitioner Li had been dead for many years, but he wasn’t gone; when the cuckoos came, it was as if the petitioner had returned.

Mad Zhu’s Letter 

Mad Zhu wasn’t really mad. Back in his village, he was a teacher in a private school and he took a fancy to the daughter of one of his colleagues. At that time, private school teachers didn’t have much status; they weren’t considered public servants, just temporary employees.

He and that girl fell in love, but the girl’s father was a cadre in the commune, and he didn’t approve of their relationship. He said that a private school teacher’s status was uncertain, and he wanted his daughter to have a better future. The woman’s father asked Teacher Zhu to become a public employee, and then he’d reconsider.

That was in 1960, and Teacher Zhu couldn’t get a position like that in Shandong, so he joined the migration to the northeast and arrived at our forest farm in Heilongjiang. Now, he was officially working for the state, and his status rose back in his hometown.

He and the girl often wrote to each other. At that time, transportation was rudimentary, and sending a letter from Shandong to our farm took a few days. The farm’s postal service became the most important part of Zhu’s life.

Zhu would often follow the postman to the mail room, and go through the mail for his letter. He thought, now that he was a state employee, he could soon bring the woman he loved to the forest farm, and everything in his life would come together.

But two years later, just when he and his partner were discussing marriage, the forest farm started to lay off workers and send them home. Zhu was one of them. For him, this was a terrible blow: not only was his forest worker status gone, but his love story was over. He couldn’t bear it—he went mad.

The forest farm today

After he went mad, he followed the postman every day, always thinking there was a letter for him in the mail bag. When it first started, he would go to the canteen every day and eat three meals. Later, when he ran out of money, he started to have two meals. Eventually, he couldn’t even afford one meal, so he would randomly get a bite wherever he could.

Like Petitioner Li, he didn’t want to go home. He hunted in the winter and dug for ginseng in the summer, practicing the oldest professions in the land.

In my earliest memories, he was around 40 years old, with a head of long white hair. In his lucid moments, he was just like a healthy person.

By 1976, when I was already 15 or 16 years old, you could still see him following the postman around. After the postal workers got off work, he would go to the mail room, open the door and rifle through the letters. One time he found a copy of the People’s Daily and saw the headline: “Great Leader, Great Teacher, Great Commander-in-Chief, Great Helmsman Chairman Mao Zedong has Passed Away.” The shock brought him to his senses in an instant.

From the beginning of the 60s until 1976, for over 10 years, everything had been a muddle for him. But the one thing he was always certain of was that his lover’s letter was in the postman’s bag.

Forest Under Siege

In the mid-80s, all of China started to reform and open up for business, but our forest farm was already struggling to catch up. We didn’t know what business was.

I remember, one time in 1985, I walked across three villages to take the train to Harbin, then traveled from Harbin to Daqing. The person sitting opposite me had taken out a wallet with a dozen 50 yuan notes inside. It looked like there were at least 100 notes in that pile, or 5,000 yuan. I don’t know why, but he kept counting his money.

I was shocked. At that time, I earned 40 or 50 kuai a month, and my dad only got around 100; combined, we couldn’t make that much money even if we worked for years. The world had already changed, and our mountain was getting left behind.

Nature’s resources had been used up, and in some places, there were no more trees to fell, so forest workers faced lay-offs and cuts to their salary.

At that time, my dad’s earnings were less than 200 yuan a month. He started working for the forestry bureau in 1949 and retired in 1989 at the age of 69—he saw the rise and fall of the forest with his own eyes. Sadly, he passed away in 1992, just as reform and opening up began to benefit every family. His death left a dark shadow on my heart. He worked at the forest farm his whole life, and he was a cadre. Until the end, he didn’t get one cent of his medical expenses reimbursed; he didn’t know how to.

The forest was under more and more strain every year. There used to be over 300 permanent staff in our farm, but by the 21st century, there were reportedly just 19 left—practically just the factory director, vice-director, union chairman, and the bookkeeper. I don’t know where the rest of the people went.

[The forest farm’s glory days lasted over 20 years, and it struggled on for another 20 years. After Guangyi’s documentary, Timber Gang, was finished, the era of tree-felling also ended. Some people went to the city to work; others went deep into the mountains to hunt, to live like Robinson Crusoe.

In 2010, Heilongjiang started to develop tourism, and the families in the forest farm began to live off the tourists. They set up guesthouses and restaurants for visitors from cities far away. Though initially suspicious of tourism, the mountain folks have now embraced urbanization. For them, the old way of life in the forest was over.]

I love the people of my hometown. They are kind and industrious. They create warmth and human affection out on that icy land, and help each other get through the cold days.

It is now over 30 years since I’ve left home, and every time I return, there is less of the older generation left. But when I meet their descendants, we are still like family, just like family.

Translated by Sam Davies

Images from Yu Guangyi and VCG


[1] A repretoire of eight theatrical works approved for public performance during the Cultural Revolution
[2] Defense Minister Lin Biao, thought to be Mao Zedong’s second-in-command during the Cultural Revolution, died in a mysterious airplane crash in 1971.
[3] A heated brick bed common in northeastern homes
[4] It is a Chinese custom to burn paper money and other offerings to deceased family members.

The Last Lumberjacks” is a story from our issue, “You and AI”. To read the entire issue, become a subscriber and receive the full magazine. Alternatively, you can purchase the digital version from the iTunes Store.

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Yu Guangyi is a contributing writer at The World of Chinese.

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