I have marveled at the various modes of transportation that we have observed in China since we arrived here nearly 8 months ago. I had expected that cars and truck would share the road with bikes, scooters, and motorcycles. I didn’t expect to see the other modes of transportation that are just as prevalent. I have lived in some remarkable places in my life where the people have travelled using many means. I have laughed at the occasional photos of conveyances that are being used for something that they were obviously not designed for, but there is nothing that matches what we see here in China. I admit that this is really a rural China phenomenon as most of these conveyances are not allowed in cities of any substantial size (let’s say 3rd class cities anyway – something like more than 1 million people).
We see lots of tractors, many of them not much bigger than what the standard lawn tractor in the US looks like. These 20 hp tractors are used here in China for much more than I would have expected. We see them used for many industrial applications pulling trailers which are nothing more than wagons that have scrapped together from anything possible. In many cases they remind me of the old sprinkler pipe wagons or the old hay wagons that I used to see in Star Valley as a youth, when everyone in Star Valley was a farmer. These trailers here are something to behold. They are a testament to the dire circumstances these people live in. The trailers are pieced together from what is available. If it is still useable then it is being put to use as the “owner” sees fit. The ones from Star Valley were an axle from an old army surplus vehicle with some large rusty pipes welded together and it might have some odd deck built on it which would allow for something to be stacked on it.
The means to propel the trailer down the road is even more interesting as it is hardly ever a truck, tractors are common, but I want to describe my favorite mode. I know that many of my readers have tried to garden at some point in their lives. They have either owned or rented a machine that would prepare the soil for seeds. I have always called them a rototiller, even though that is a brand name, just like Snowmobile or Q-tip are brand names, so a rototiller is really a cultivator. You know the kind, you see them at Home Depot or Lowes or your local hardware store, the big 15 HP self propelled rear-tine tilling device. The kind that you dream you would need if your entire 1 acre lot was under cultivation as a garden.The best cultivators are supposed to be the self-propelled ones that allow the user greater control of the machine. I particularly like them because all I had to do was point and steer them in the direction I wanted them to go. Well, here in China these kinds of machines are abundant.
The proper classification for them is really a 2-wheeled tractor. This is the first step towards prosperity for the Chinese peasant, a significant step up from the human or animal powered cultivator. In many cases, the only powered vehicle the family may have is this two-wheeled tractor. I guess we shouldn’t have been as surprised as we were to see it used for so many nonagricultural uses. I have seen it used for so many other things that I given it a new name, “The Rotomobile”.
The rotomobile is the transportation of the peasant. A rotomobile is a vehicle of conveyance that was born of need and ingenuity; it began its life as the rototiller, rotovator, or two wheeled tractor.
Since the average peasant in China has a couple of acres that the family works to earn a living (average income for a farmer in China is something like $5000 RMB per Year, yes, that is correct, that is less than $1000 USD per YEAR), they must have a tiller to work the ground. The tiller is the one major investment that every peasant has to have to be successful. Since you own this self-propelled device it only makes sense to put it to work doing anything and everything you can possibly make it do.
I am sure that the first guy that figure out he could take of the tiller box and hook it to a cart that he could pull with it was actually a genius. But that guy certainly never imagined that the cart would soon have a seat that he could ride on and that his cart would become the rotomoble, the Chinese equivalent of the German volkswagon or people’s car. I am no longer amazed to see the little rotomobile on the rural roads of Shandong province. I have seen it loaded with all kinds of materials not just those that would be farm related. I have seen it as the family ride to town. I have seen it serve as the village bus that takes the men folk to the city to work and back home again.
The rotomobile is by far one of the most interesting things that we have seen in China. It is a testament to the ingenuity of this people. The rotomobile, the people’s conveyance is not as fancy as the vehicles that were driven by my ancestors during the industrial revolution. My people used the horse and wagon until they could get a good tractor. The tractor was discarded for a used car (or an Indian motorcycle or in one case he just stayed with the old Ford 8N) and the rest is history.
The industrial revolution is finally happening in China. The cogs of civilization are turning here and the people are moving towards a more affluent society. The people are moving upwards and are becoming more mobile. The challenge is that in most cases the peasants of China are currently at the level that my great great grandparents were in transportation and living standards. The fact is many, if not most, of the 1.3 billion people living in this country are living in conditions similar to those of my great great grandfather Jeremiah Lainhart was in the woods of Kentucky in the 1880s.
The probability that the rotomobile will fade into the collective memory of the Chinese in this generation as a mode of conveyance is highly unlikely and improbable. A testament to that is the signage in the cities that tell the traveler that the tractor and rotomobile are not allowed. I believe that the rotomobile will continue for at least another generation as the people’s car and their means of livelihood into the foreseeable future. I am thankful that my ancestors didn’t miss the industrial revolution and that I am the lucky beneficiary of a modern society.