My Trip to Minning Town

(played by Zu Feng) brought to mind one of my favorite overlooked 19th century US novels, Edward Eggleston’s The Hoosier Schoolmaster, which has twice been adapted to film.

Other times, this heartwarming saga delving into frontier life reminded me of cherished classic American series like Little House on the Prairie and The Waltons. But Minning Town isn’t about a bygone era. It covers a roughly 15-year period from 1991 to 2016, and its setting is the Gobi Desert.

Inspired by real events and the lives of ordinary farmers, the setup is that China’s Central Government has launched a poverty alleviation program in which economically disadvantaged villagers living hardscrabble lives in remote mountains are cajoled into relocating to the vast desert to try and make it bloom. Hey, if the US can build sprawling cities like Las Vegas and Los Angeles on top of a desert, why can’t they?

But there is literally nothing there for the villagers. All they have to go on is faith that the Central Government will follow through on its promises to irrigate the land for crops while they build homes, or rather shacks, with no electricity and no indoor plumbing. But if they just hang tough, things will gradually improve, or so they are promised. Permanent homes will be built. And a hospital. And a bus line to the city.

Should they trust the government?  Would you trust your government? Some of the villagers do and some don’t. Some consider making this leap of faith an act of patriotism while others are more cynical and set in their ways. Indeed, there are many deserters along the way who make a break for it at the first sign of a sandstorm and run back to their harsh but familiar home villages.

But ultimately, this isn’t a show about deserters. It’s a show about the pioneers who stuck it out and continue thriving there to this day. Some characters are narrowminded villagers who find honor in sticking with tradition.

I was particularly struck when the young woman Shuihua (Rayza) runs away from home to escape a marriage her father has arranged with a young man from a neighboring village in exchange for a donkey (yes, that is value placed on her), only to be overcome by family guilt and trudge home to fulfil her father’s wishes and honor tradition. At first, I was troubled by the filmmakers’ apparent messaging here about the need for women to be dutiful to men as their primary purpose in life, but then I thought, like it or not this is probably true for a woman in a rural farming village.

I had nothing to fear. Shuihua’s is but one storyline in the series. We meet an array of women on the show who follow a variety of paths and have their own ideologies and who pursue their own dreams for their futures. And as for Shuihua, we keep following her on her marital and professional journey through the end of the series. She’s a complex character struggling to find her footing in a new world as the old ways crumble beneath her feet.

Every episode put a lump in my throat at least once, and I can’t wait to watch it with my son because the stories are universal to the human condition. They just happen to be set in China. All of us have somewhere in our family and national histories stories of immigrants arriving in a harsh new place and having a go of it. For some of us, this happened generations ago. For others, it’s happening right now somewhere in the world, as anyone following the news knows.

Either way, you will surely find yourself rooting for the characters. I was engrossed, waiting to see what would happen with lead character Defu (Huang Xuan), a young man in his early 20’s on whom the government thrusts the title of village spokesman. He has no political aspirations but he’s favored in his community because he holds a two-year college degree in agriculture. Many of his community’s daily problems with the desert relocation program will fall on his shoulders.

He must learn diplomacy and politicking in a hurry, while worried sick about his own family and friends. For instance, in one storyline a group of early teens, including his kid brother Debao (Bai Yufan) and headmaster Mr. Bai’s daughter Maimiao (Huang Yao), run away from home, sending the community into a frenzy.

Along with the seriousness, there are moments of homespun humor peppered throughout that made me laugh out loud. When an official arrives from the faraway city of Fujian, a southeast coastal province designated by the Central government to help them out of poverty, and in his Fujian dialect lays out a vision for the future in which the community will grow mushrooms and sell them in the nearest city, thus “building a bridge” for