So, in the winter of 1978, after another terrible harvest, they came up with an idea: Rather than farm as a collective, each family would get to farm its own plot of land. If a family grew a lot of food, that family could keep some of the harvest.
This is an old idea, of course. But in communist China of 1978, it was so dangerous that the farmers had to gather in secret to discuss it.
One evening, they snuck in one by one to a farmer’s home. Like all of the houses in the village, it had dirt floors, mud walls and a straw roof. No plumbing, no electricity.
“Most people said ‘Yes, we want do it,'” says Yen Hongchang, another farmer who was there. “But there were others who said ‘I dont think this will work — this is like high voltage wire.’ Back then, farmers had never seen electricity, but they’d heard about it. They knew if you touched it, you would die.”
Despite the risks, they decided they had to try this experiment — and to write it down as a formal contract, so everyone would be bound to it. By the light of an oil lamp, Yen Hongchang wrote out the contract.
Today, the Chinese government is clearly proud of what happened in Xiaogang. That contract is now in a museum. And the village has become this origin story that kids in China learn about in school.