The village and the girl

She spent her childhood working in the fields, feeding the family’s pigs. The destruction of rural China became for Xiao Zhang a liberation - and an opportunity. This is the story of how her life changed as much as her country.

In 2015, Xiao Zhang's former home, White Horse Village, is long gone. A new city which stands in its place is full of slogans painted in urgent red. The one above her head reads:
“Justice, efficiency, cleanliness, serving the people!”

For the chief cleaner of the new city courthouse, service is all she's ever known.

Serve the parents. Serve the pigs. Serve the future. Serve the family.

Right now Xiao Zhang is serving the people with a feather duster, carefully working round the gold stars on the crimson emblem of state above the judge's high-backed chair.

Across the empty courtroom, her husband is perched on a window ledge, polishing the glass that looks out on to iron bars, security gates and a city street that 10 years ago was an expanse of shimmering green rice paddy.

Xiao Zhang does not miss that greener past. For her, there was nothing romantic about life on the land.

She'd started helping with the farm work almost as soon as she could walk and when she was 11, she dropped out of school.

“Every family was poor but we were poorer,” she says.

“My mother was often ill. As the eldest I always had to help out, feeding the pigs, working in the fields, looking after the little ones.

“It was a 40-minute walk to school. No-one paid any attention to my studies. I tried hard and I was a good student, but at night, by the time I'd done all my chores and got round to reading my schoolbooks, I was always falling asleep.

“After primary school, I had to give up my studies and work full time in the fields to help my parents.”

When I started coming here 10 years ago to chart the transformation of White Horse Village into a city, Xiao Zhang was already complaining that change was too slow.

Amid all the anguish of elderly farmers forced to give up their fields and move into tower blocks, she was impatient, longing for the day the government would demolish her home and concrete over her fields.

For the first 20 years of Xiao Zhang's life in White Horse Village, a future of city streets, car showrooms and karaoke bars would have been unimaginable. She had never seen a plane or a train, never sat in a car.

White Horse Village was the land that time forgot, one of the most impoverished corners of a China that had come to despise itself as a backward country of subsistence farmers.

But as economic reforms gathered speed in coastal China in the early 1990s, recruiters came hunting cheap labour for construction sites and for the factories that were to become the workshops of the world. New opportunities beckoned.

But only for the young men of White Horse Village. The world beyond the mountains was seen as an unsafe place for an unmarried girl. Xiao Zhang spent her teenage years chafing against her destiny.

But then she learned that another girl from the village had made her way to Beijing, 1,000 miles away. When Xiao Zhang read her letter home describing the miracles of modern city life, the most miraculous thing of all seemed the chance to earn money.

In her letter, she said she was working as a maid and earning enough to save.

“My parents didn't want me to go,” Xiao Zhang said.

“They worried about the risks in a big city. My mother even sold the first railway ticket I bought. But I was determined to get to Beijing.”

Xiao Zhang spent most of her 20s as a maid for city families and her four-storey house is the fruit of that decade. It's taller than its neighbours, clad in the fashionable white tiles that shout city success to the neighbours' one-storey mud-brick homes. Xiao Zhang saved everything she earned and poured her savings into the house.

“People respected me when I came back and built the house,” she said.

“We country people always like big houses and all we want in our whole lives is to build a house like this.

“One floor is for my daughter and her family. One floor is for my son. I hope they won't use them when they grow up. I hope they will go to university and live in a big city. But if they choose to stay, there's room for them.”

That conversation was in 2005. It was my first visit to White Horse Village. Xiao Zhang had just turned 30, and her city years had given her a taste for making money. But in White Horse Village, there were no rich families to employ maids.

She'd come home to get married and have children, and she'd had no choice but to fall back on her farming skills. The only way to earn any money was fattening pigs and that meant mixing pigswill over a steaming wok in the back yard.

The pigs occupied the basement floor of her home, grunting expectantly as they smelled mealtime approaching. As we talked, Xiao Zhang's one-year-old daughter Yangyang played at our feet while her baby son Peipei slept.

Terraced fields rose steeply behind, dotted with ancestral tombs and stands of bamboo.

To complete the backdrop of a classical Chinese painting, magnificent cloud-wreathed mountains framed the scene.

But having once tasted a city future, Xiao Zhang could not reconcile herself to a farming past.

“The outside world opened my eyes,” she said. “I now know how city people live. Farming is too hard. I will never go back to the way my parents lived and I will never accept that old way of life for my children.

"I don't care if I die of exhaustion just so long as I can make my children happy and successful.”

In 2005, life in White Horse Village hadn't changed much for hundreds of years. It was a community of dirt-poor farmers working small plots by hand, counting themselves lucky to earn a little money from selling pigs or silkworms.

The only thing that had changed in Xiao Zhang's lifetime was the disappearance of all the young people. Over the previous decade, it had become commonplace, almost compulsory, for the able-bodied to leave for paid work on the coast.

There they joined the tide of hundreds of millions of hungry migrants from identical poor villages, flooding the cities to look for work.

This other China was the one the outside world was becoming familiar with, a China fabulously rich, powerful and modern. By the early years of the new millennium, the government had become alarmed by the economic gulf between the rich coast and the impoverished hinterland.

It started to talk about reversing the migrant tide, moving development inland and bringing cities to the countryside.

It hoped to fold half a billion farmers into the urban workforce and the money economy, creating new urban consumers to cure China's dependence on foreign export markets.

White Horse Village has been part of that hopeful story.

Over 10 years I've watched as the village was destroyed to make way for Wuxi New Town - an epic transformation being replicated in thousands of villages all over China, the biggest urbanisation in human history and a giant leap of faith in the name of progress.

Fattening pigs was a frustratingly narrow outlet for Xiao Zhang's ambition and by the second time I visited, in 2006, she was kicking against her fate.

One evening I watched as this restless young mother fed the pigs and fed the family, and then with the light draining behind the ridge, took her son in her arms, squared her shoulders and set off up the mountain to her mother's house, her daughter trotting ahead.

She was about to fight a battle she would lose and go on losing for another 10 years.

A century from now, when historians are arguing about how China came from nowhere to become one of the most powerful economies in the world, they will assess the impact of culture, ideology, leadership and globalisation.

But how will they weigh the dogged ambition of hundreds of millions of farmers who poured off China's fields to claim a different destiny?

And how will they measure the fierce energy of women like Xiao Zhang, of women trying to make their own choices for the first time in history?

Xiao Zhang's mother

Xiao Zhang's mother was not highly prized in the marriage market of her youth. Even today she remains somewhat dismissive of the idea of love.

“All marriages were arranged by matchmakers in those days,” she says. “As long as the old people agreed on the terms, the deal would be done. It was 1971. No-one talked about love. What love?”

In the 1970s what mattered in a woman - and this hadn't changed for thousands of years - was physical strength and bearing sons.

White Horse Village lay in a narrow river valley hemmed in by daunting mountain peaks and a good farming wife was one who ensured the survival of the line.

Xiao Zhang's mother, Xiang Caiping, was a sickly young woman, with breathing problems so acute she often spent days in bed. So although she came from a relatively comfortable family, she married down.

In a land of steep mountains, marrying down socially meant marrying up physically - off the fertile valley floor and into the punishing hills. To make matters worse, she married an orphan, a man who could not offer the protection of a large clan.

White Horse Village was located in one of the poorest counties in China, its difficulties compounded by the excesses of Chairman Mao's farming experiments.

Saying Xiang Caiping's birth family was relatively comfortable is only saying it was comfortable relative to the neighbours, some of whom had starved to death during the famine years of her childhood.

As she trudged up the mountain to begin her married life, she was sinking deeper into a destiny of distress.

“In those days, people were starving,” she says. “We had no idea where the next meal would come from. Many people were eating wild grasses because they were so hungry, then they got sick. Some died.”

In 2015, Xiang Caiping is still up her mountain, a wiry farmer in a straw hat with shoulders bowed by too many years under a heavy carrying pole.

In the spring she grows maize and sweet potato, and in the autumn wheat and oilseed rape.

In the second decade of the 21st Century, she would not be out of place in a landscape painting from 100 years earlier - or even 1,000 years earlier. Every time I see Xiang Caiping, she's bent double in the fields.

Today, as on many other days, she has walked there behind her husband, aiming a sharp swipe with a hoe at a crate of honking geese as she passes. Later she offers the pigs a kick and a warning as she feeds them their slops.

“If you try and get out I'll beat you, you hear!” she mutters.

Passing on the abuse. In the flint-hearted hierarchy of these hills, only the animals are lower than the women in status.

Down on the valley floor where Xiang Caiping came from, the physical landscape may have been transformed as White Horse Village became a city, but nothing demonstrates the distance modern China has travelled better than the changing expectations of women.

From 66-year-old Xiang Caiping to her 41-year-old daughter and her 11-year-old granddaughter, this is China's living history.

Chairman Mao famously said that women hold up half the sky - a slogan to encourage women to escape the chains of Confucian hierarchy, to feel equal and free.

But for the first 40 years after the Communist revolution, the mantra really only resonated for women in the cities, and even then only fitfully.

Here in the countryside, home to the vast majority of China's population and its deepest sense of identity, no-one was deceived.

Women held up their share of the sky, but that didn't mean they owned it.

Face down to her crops, Xiang Caiping doesn't have time to look up. The locals call this way of life “face to the earth, back to the sky”.

She has never left these mountains, never read a book, never had a holiday.

But in the essential duty of her life she succeeded. She bore four children, three of them living and, importantly, one a son. From birth, he was the focus of all her energies.

When I first met her a decade ago, she was living alone. Her husband had joined the tide of migrant workers, trying to earn enough to pay for the son's education. She herself was putting in an 18-hour day, raising pigs and growing crops.

“Our son is the only person from round here to go to university,” she says.

“Before we thought education was a waste of money. My son says education is the only way for someone from a farming background to become a city person - but it costs so much money.”

This son has always cost his parents a lot of money.

They already had two daughters and according to China's strict family planning policies, they were not entitled to any more children. But in traditional Chinese thinking, only a son would carry the family line.

Xiang Caiping hid in the mountains to avoid an enforced abortion, and when her son was born she paid the crippling fines.

From then on she strained every sinew to give her son what a son is due, even at the expense of a daughter.

Because after all, a daughter was due very little. Which brings us back to that evening when Xiao Zhang embarked on the argument which has lasted a decade.

Xiao Zhang's husband

“Please help me mum! Look how hard I have to work to save money for school fees. Planting rice, raising pigs, growing silkworms - all for no money. Don't you think we should change the way we live our lives?”

It was 2006. Xiao Zhang was sitting against the bare wall of her mother's farmhouse. It was a house she herself had helped build, carrying the bricks up the hill on her back as a child.

Now she was a wife and mother with a one-year-old pressed to her breast, but she was determined to leave this baby son and his three-year-old sister with their grandmother.

She wanted to go back to the life she had before marriage, a job as a maid in a big coastal city that might earn her a wage and pay for a different future.

But in rural China parents have no obligation to a daughter once she's married. Xiao Zhang's mother was immovable.

XIANG CAIPING: The children are still small. You shouldn't be worrying about school yet. And they don't do what they're told.

XIAO ZHANG: I really need to leave. I can get a job, earn money and feed everyone at home. But you're telling me I have to stay here and put up with all this.

XIANG CAIPING: Yes that's exactly what I'm saying.

XIAO ZHANG: I can't bear it.

This wasn't the only family fight Xiao Zhang was having. The restless mother was also a restless wife.

In 10 years of filming here, I've only twice met Xiao Zhang's husband, Changsheng. For a decade he worked in a Beijing chemical factory, returning only once a year, for Chinese New Year.

China had hundreds of millions of migrant workers like him, the unsung heroes of the economic miracle, providing the low-cost factory labour seven days a week to produce the goods that flooded world markets.

With no jobs in White Horse Village, separation was the only way a young married couple could support themselves and save for their children's future.

In February 2007 I met Changsheng in his factory dormitory just as he was about to set off for his annual trip home.

“I never wanted to leave while my children were so small,” he told me.

“I wasn't even there when my son was born. Last year I only spent three weeks at home and then I had to return to Beijing.”

It was a three-day trek home for Chinese New Year - a bus, a train, another train, another bus. As he approached, Xiao Zhang prepared for the New Year feast, the climax to the rhythm of life on the land.

The slaughterman with apron and gold teeth came to butcher one of the pigs she'd been fattening up all year. Its terrified screams rang out across the valley, its blood ran into a plastic basin, and when its legs stopped thrashing, three-year-old Yangyang tentatively stepped up to stroke the bristles.

On his journey home Changsheng witnessed wave upon wave of change as modernisation pushed inexorably inland.

His coach travelled a new highway along the Yangtze River and he marvelled at the forests of skyscrapers and the great legs of the road bridges marching across the landscape.

More than a million people had been resettled in new cities to make way for the mighty Three Gorges dam on the Yangtze, and all these cities were being linked with a motorway network.

In time the road gangs and tunnel builders would reach White Horse Village and it too would become connected to the modern world.

Gazing from the coach window, Changsheng yearned for the day that this would result in a well-paid job at home. But in 2007, and for many years to come, his children had a father they barely knew.

When it came to being a couple, Xiao Zhang and Changsheng were out of practice. They'd never had much time to get into practice in the first place.

Xiao Zhang's feelings about her husband were complicated. They had met as teenagers and he'd fallen in love. But he was shorter than her. His family had no prospects.

Especially after her years as a maid in the capital, she felt she could do better. However, as the years ticked by, she was still single and her parents worried that in her late twenties she would be too old to find a husband.

Changsheng had made himself useful to her mother, and his family fields and farmhouse were on the coveted valley floor, a much better location than her own family home.

At the age of 26, Xiao Zhang went home for a visit. Tired of the family pressure and touched by how long he had waited for her, she agreed to marry Changsheng.

In 2015, city living has changed the way couples see themselves. There are wedding studios to capture love's young dream in elaborate photo shoots, complete with bride in white wedding dress and groom in black tie, embracing against the mountain backdrop previous generations were so anxious to escape.

And now that the village has become a city with real employment opportunities, many newlyweds see marriage as the moment to give up migrant life and come home permanently to settle down.

But when Xiao Zhang and Changsheng married, separation was still the norm. There were no wedding photos. And it's hard to imagine that she would have spent money on a wedding dress or a photo shoot even if they had been available.

She may have escaped some aspects of her mother's destiny but not all. With two children born in quick succession, self-sacrifice for the sake of the next generation was about to become the business of her life.

And whether he liked it or not, she was determined this would be true of her husband too. With his biological duties complete, Xiao Zhang sent Changsheng to Beijing to begin life as a wage slave.

He was not in a position to argue. On the day after their wedding he had admitted that his family was deeply in debt and needed her savings to pay them off.

Money continued to be a sore that put a strain on their marriage and in 2007, as I watched Changsheng arrive for his annual trip home for Chinese New Year, it burst open again.

He wanted to come home for good, for the sake of the children. She was determined that the children could make do with one parent while the other sent home a wage from a paid job on the coast.

As a freezing fog curled in off the mountains, they grimly set about the task of blackening the face of the slaughtered pig over a maize-stalk fire. And that ancient money argument crackled into life.

XIAO ZHANG: If you don't work away how will we support ourselves?

CHANGSHENG: We can't go on like this. Think of the children. I want to come home.

XIAO ZHANG: Well, what do you think we should do?

CHANGSHENG: I should come home to work here.

XIAO ZHANG: There is no point in arguing with you. I'll go away to work and you stay then.



CHANGSHENG: Well leave then, the door's wide open.

Xiao Zhang didn't leave and Changsheng didn't come home.

The stalemate in their marriage continued for a decade. It was a decade in which his father killed himself by drinking rat poison after a family argument over money, and in which their son Peipei suffered a rare and life-threatening disease.

It was the kind of illness which can bankrupt a rural family with no meaningful health insurance and no access to credit. Thankfully Peipei recovered. But the people of White Horse Village have inherited a collective memory of hunger, debt, disease and destitution lasting for centuries. Money fears dominated the family's decisions.

While Xiao Zhang fought with her family over work and childcare, the villagers fought the authorities over their homes, their land and schooling for their children.

White Horse Village was disappearing and the city was growing. Tower blocks, highways, restaurants and bars… modern China was fast advancing on the valley floor. With the city's construction sites inching towards her home, Xiao Zhang could soon earn money by renting out rooms to newcomers.

Then the government expropriated her farmland. She took the compensation without a backward glance and started working as a cleaner in the new city courthouse.

Eventually she impressed the management enough to win the cleaning contract for the whole building, at which point she relented and let her husband come home.

“At the courthouse, people tease me saying I'm the boss and he's my assistant,” she says.

“That's right,” chips in her husband. “She gives the orders.”

It's 2015, and Xiao Zhang is relaxed enough to laugh. With the pecking order publicly acknowledged, she is prepared to be generous.

“He has strengths too,” she adds. “He treats our children and our parents well and he's more patient than me.”

They are sitting in the same back yard where I watched them argue over their destiny eight years ago. No more blackened pig's faces. Even the peas they're shelling are from the supermarket.

“I do miss the fresh fruit and vegetables we used to grow on our own fields,” admits Xiao Zhang.

“But there's nothing I enjoyed about farming. It was hard labour and I don't miss that for a moment.”

There's a man listening in as he spools internet cable between new houses. The hilltop has been levelled off ready for the next development and the once luminous rice fields lie choked with weeds, waiting their turn.

Changsheng is just happy to be home at last, and with the benefit of hindsight he is philosophical about the quarrels of the past.

“She thought money was the most important thing in life. She grew up working hard. She was looked down on by other people and learned to struggle alone,” he says.

“In the factory, I just had to follow orders from the boss. She had a much tougher time back here. Bringing up the children on her own and doing all the farming. She only knows how to work, she never stops.”

Money worries and long separations bring many migrant marriages to breaking point but Xiao Zhang says this was never really an option for them.

“We still quarrel,” she goes on.

“Different things matter to us. Me, I think a person should struggle hard to make progress. But he thinks as long as we've got enough to live on, it's OK.

“The younger generation split up at the drop of a hat. But we still think like the older generation. We think about the children, and feel it's important for a couple to overcome their difficulties and stick together.”

But what do the children think about them?

The girl I first met here in 2005 as a one-year-old is now 11. In the course of her short life she has watched her mother give up pig farming to become a courthouse cleaner, she has rediscovered a father she barely knew and she has seen a city arrive on her doorstep.

At the same age, her grandmother was watching neighbours die of hunger and her mother was leaving school.

So what does Yangyang think?

Xiao Zhang's daughter

Yangyang brushes her teeth with great thoroughness and concentration. Her father has just woken her up, as he does every morning at 6am.

When he first came back from Beijing to live with them, she says it was like living with a stranger. But now he's the hands-on parent.

There is no washbasin, so Yangyang spits out her toothpaste in the toilet, combs her bobbed hair and carefully knots her young pioneer scarf - coloured red, to remind China's children of the blood of the revolutionary martyrs.

The family home has washbasins on the upstairs floors, but Yangyang's mother is renting all the best rooms to lodgers. Even the basement that once housed the pig pens has been turned into an apartment for migrant workers.

So the family now lives in a bare-walled concrete extension.

Neither parent had plumbing when they were growing up, and although they now pass the gleaming bathroom showrooms of the new city on their way to clean the courthouse every day, they're unwilling to invest any more in the house in case it's earmarked for demolition in the next phase of city development.

In any case, Xiao Zhang's view is that a washbasin is a luxury her children can manage without.

The house sits on a busy road and its ground-floor rooms and front yard are occupied by a mechanic's repair shop.

It's not yet light as 11-year-old Yangyang picks her way through an obstacle course of tyres, tools and disgorged engine parts, rolls up the iron grill and steps on to the road she's been walking alone since the age of four.

City or no city, the main road still has no pavement. When I first filmed Yangyang walking to nursery in 2007, it was a 40-minute march for four-year-old legs, with trucks, motorbikes and buses rumbling past.

A woman had been killed nearby just days earlier.

“Yangyang needs toughening up,” was all her mother said when I remonstrated about the risks.

Yangyang has always struck me as toughened-up beyond her years, a strikingly resilient and purposeful soul.

The first time I met her at the end of a long cold winter in 2005, she was swaddled almost spherical in multiple layers of clothing. Her mother was high on the hill, ploughing her terraced fields by hand, and that's where I met Yangyang too, trying to be useful with a trowel despite the obstructions of her clothing.

At the time of my next visit, she'd just turned three and was squatting alongside Xiao Zhang in the summer rice, while taking instruction from her grandmother on weeding.

Eight months later she was keen to stir the steaming pigswill over the maize-stalk fire in the backyard. Always watching, always learning, with two steel-willed, self-denying women as role-models.

By the time Yangyang was walking to nursery alone, these hardworking habits seemed well entrenched. Already all the children knew how to stand to attention, to salute the national flag, and to sit quietly in class, heads down over long repeating lines of perfectly formed numbers.

But before anyone else, Yangyang would put down her pencil and shout, “Miss I'm finished!”

This did not surprise me, partly because of the personality that was already forming, and partly because I'd heard her father on the phone from 1,000 miles away in his factory, telling Yangyang he'd only be able to come home to visit if she studied hard.

Up in the farmhouse on the hill, I'd heard her grandmother warn that she could only ask for pocket money if she studied hard. And I'd heard her mother bluntly ordering her to study hard.

Not only did Yangyang walk to her lessons from the age of four, she knew the pressure was on to perform while she was there.

Some things would have been different if Yangyang had been a boy.

For a start, her mother would have worried about kidnapping. Many farmers still regard a son as the only insurance in old age and family planning rules mean that the demand for boys outstrips supply. So trafficking kidnapped boys is a business.

I've never seen Yangyang's little brother Peipei walk home alone.

Peipei's luck runs deeper than that. Despite the big posters in the village clinic reminding pregnant women that gender selection is a criminal offence, there were many unexplained terminations in White Horse Village after ultrasound scans became available.

It's this prejudice against girls that has given China one of the most severe gender imbalances in the world, and in the early stages of her second pregnancy, several relatives advised Xiao Zhang to abort if there was any danger of giving birth to another daughter.

Fortunately for Peipei, he was a boy.

Now Peipei is 10 and Yangyang only a year older, but in some ways they are very different. Peipei is physically small and slight, melts noiselessly into a room behind his sister and waits for her do the talking.

He has always struggled at school, but he is a boy in a world which cherishes boys, a boy whose life seems extra precious and vulnerable after a life-threatening illness, a boy who might be swept up by child traffickers if his sister is not careful, and one who so evidently needs looking after.

Looking after Peipei has always been a big part of Yangyang's life.

“It's my job to take care of him,” she says.

“I won't let him feel cold or hungry. Before dad came back, sometimes Peipei got injured and I didn't know what to do. Mum was always at work so I had to deal with it myself.

“Once he was playing with the kitchen cleaver and accidentally gashed his hand. There was blood everywhere. I ran to ask for help and a neighbour drove us to hospital. But I still remember being so afraid.”

Yangyang is not afraid of much. As we chat, on the way to school, she tells me her biggest fear is the snakes which infest the fields behind the house, especially in summer.

She needs a grown up to tell her which snake is poisonous and which is not. But it is Yangyang who deals with Peipei's fears, including his fear of the dark.

“At night, even the branches of the tree moving against the window really upset him,” she explains. “My room is upstairs, but I often keep him company in his bed when he gets frightened.”

If Xiao Zhang had been able to persuade her mother to look after the children, Yangyang and Peipei would have grown up as what China calls left-behind children, those whose parents migrate for work, leaving them in the care of relatives.

The families of migrant workers are generally not entitled to education or healthcare in the big cities, so China has millions of these left behind children.

If mishaps befall the relatives left in charge, or if the parents split up while away, the children all too often end up physically or emotionally neglected.

Aware of these dangers, Changsheng was adamant that one parent must stay at home. But as even Xiao Zhang acknowledges now, she was too often out at work, and the children left to eat junk food from packets or work out for themselves how to cook noodles.

At 11, Yangyang is philosophical about growing up early.

“If I ever have children, I'd want them to understand that it's not easy to make money. I'd teach them to think independently and to realise that children can't rely on their parents for ever,” she says.

Yangyang doesn't lean on her parents much. She never needs help with homework and this summer she's due to “graduate” from primary school, a top student and class prefect. Both parents are proud.

CHANGSHENG: You can't order Yangyang around. She'll dig her heels in. That's why I had problems with her when I first came home. But if you explain clearly why you need her to do something, she'll do exactly what you ask. She just needs to understand the reason why.

XIAO ZHANG: Yangyang has never given me any trouble. I never have to ask her to do her homework. She works hard and she knows how to handle herself.

One of the things I admire most about Yangyang is that she also finds ways to have fun and make the best of things.

She's had very few toys, but as a toddler she gurgled with inexhaustible merriment when her mother knocked pomelo fruits down from the tree.

At three, she teased the piglets. At eight, she and her friends were obsessed by clapping rhymes. And now at 11, she goes down to the new city square to take part in the public dancing on a Friday evening.

It's free and women young and old flock from all over the new city.

“I've always liked dancing,” she says. “Whenever I dance, I feel peaceful.”

Some of her friends go to dance classes, but they cost money. Yangyang's been forced to master her aspirations in an often materialistic society.

“I don't have any precious possessions. I'd like a guitar but mum says it's not necessary for me to learn,” she says.

“Sometimes when I'm with classmates who have guitars I feel jealous. The sound is so beautiful. Sometimes when I see other children with mobile phones, I want one too.

“But I know there are games on it which can distract you from your schoolwork. And it is also bad for your eyes. So it doesn't really matter that I don't have one myself.”

Yangyang has learned early not to ask for what she can't have and to be grateful for what she is given.

When she was eight she told me she wasn't sure she wanted her father to come home permanently because her parents always quarrelled so badly on the phone. But now he is home, Yangyang is pleased.

“We have meals at home and mum and dad get on a lot better,” she explains.

“Their quarrels were always about money, but now we have enough. There was one day when we all went to the park together. I think that was my happiest day ever.

“Normally mum and dad are always busy with work outside and don't have time for us. But that day, they were both free, and they spent a whole day with us in the park. I was so happy that day.”

Life in Wuxi New Town

Xiao Zhang has bought an electric scooter. She's still a bit uncertain on it, but exhilarated to be one of the women who no longer walks behind the men.

Riding down to the courthouse on straight city streets, her bright reflection bobs through the plate glass windows of car showrooms and kitchen shops.

She gives no thought to the old farming life. The fields behind the house await the bulldozers. Xiao Zhang is impatient for the house to go too.

When that happens, she'll lose the rental income from her lodgers, but the family will be allocated a city apartment, and the compensation for the house will give her the capital with which to start a business - perhaps a shop or a restaurant.

She feels the unequal treatment of girls has left her handicapped in life, short of money, education and luck. But now that White Horse Village has become a city, she's hoping for a more equal world for her daughter.

“Our generation think differently,” she explains.

“For example, when I have some money, I won't give it all to Peipei. I'll give some to Yangyang.

“I think they should be equal. In our parents' day, daughters didn't count when they were married off. It was only the boys who mattered.”

Up the hill at her mother's house, the boy who mattered is still the focus of his parents' attention.

All the hard work to fund his education has paid off. He's got a job as a civil engineer in a big city. Last year he came home to get married and in celebration of this momentous event, his parents rebuilt the family home.

The new house is on a much bigger scale, with those all-important white tiles and an upstairs floor dedicated to the newlyweds, complete with balcony, curtains and framed photographs from last year's wedding shoot.

Xiao Zhang jokes that her brother is not just getting comfortable but getting fat. She accepts the unequal treatment with good grace.

“It's not just my parents who are like this. Everyone from their generation thinks the same way,” she says.

“So I don't resent it that they didn't help me. If they'd looked after Yangyang and Peipei when I asked them to, they wouldn't have earned the money to support my brother through college.

“He's doing well. I'm happy for him. And I don't feel sorry for myself. Problems happen in life, but I can solve them for myself.”

Sitting outside her new house in the shade of her orange trees, Xiang Caiping is happy.

The view out across the valley to the mountain ridge opposite is as wild as it was on the day she toiled up to start her married life, but just below the house there's a steady rumble of construction as a section of the hill is leveled and concrete poured for a new driving school.

Even up here, the city is arriving. And now that her son is established in life, and she has a small government pension to fall back on, Xiang Caiping says she's going to give up the pigs and the work in the fields.

“I can go to the city supermarket now and buy whatever I like,” she says. “I don't have to grow it for myself. And in a few months, my son will become a father and I will have a grandson.”

There are new beginnings for Yangyang too.

In August she will start at the best secondary school in the county. Her parents hope it will be a stepping stone to one of China's elite universities.

For generations, women here were trapped by rigid family rules and the routines of farming life but in the space of Yangyang's short life, modernity has arrived.

The bigger the change, the bigger the expectation of change. At 11, Yangyang is already conditioned to look ahead to the challenges of adult life.

“I'd rather go to a bigger city than stay here. In a big city, there's more room to make something of myself. I can enrich my knowledge and experience. It's better to get out of here,” she says.

Traditional Chinese culture may say it is the son who carries the family line, but this is a story of daughters who carry as much of what matters.

For Yangyang and her mother, striving is as automatic as breathing.

“Even if I had so much money that I didn't have to work, I'd still work,” Xiao Zhang says. “I think it's part of being human, to keep working for as long as we're alive.”

Such women have always held up half the sky over these mountains and it is their hunger, resolve and energy that are changing China.