This feature was co-authored by Li Congjun, president of Xinhua News Agency, and four other Xinhua reporters to recognize thousands of individual peasants and volunteers who devoted their lives to planting trees to stop desertification in China's least fertile regions.
BEIJING, Sept. 27 (Xinhua) -- Shi Guangyin discovered that sandstorms were his enemy as a child.
He was herding sheep near his home in Dingbian County in northwest China's Shaanxi Province when the worst sandstorm in his memory swept him nearly 15 km away to the neighboring Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.
The 8-year-old narrowly escaped death and managed to return home with the help of strangers, but his friend, 5-year-old Zhao Huwa, was never found.
Now, at 69, Shi still remembers the nightmare with horror.
"I knew I had to push back the sand to survive," he said.
Life was difficult for Shi growing up. His home village of Haiziliang is on the edge of the encroaching Muus Desert, one of the largest deserts in China. The arid land of his hometown was often fruitless as a result of the tough climate; seedlings died under heavy layers of sand and plants were often uprooted by strong gales.
During the thin harvests, Shi and his peers used to feed on the seeds of weeds. He was a peasant throughout his youth, but eventually worked his way up to manager of a state-owned farm.
In 1984, he resigned from the farm and teamed up with six other villagers to contract 70 hectares of barren land to plant trees.
"The land was barren and even weeds did not grow. If trees were not planted to contain the sprawling desert, all four villages in the area might be buried someday," he told Xinhua in an interview.
To raise money for their tree-planting project, Shi and his partners sold all their cattle and borrowed 100,000 yuan (16,340 U.S. dollars) in loans.
His fellow villagers were skeptical. Many of them had tried planting trees before, but never with any success.
In the first two years of the project, less than 20 percent of the trees survived.
Shi, who only finished primary school, realized the project needed professional help.
"We consulted forestry experts and learned some new techniques," said Shi.
With their new knowledge, Shi and his partners reversed the campaign's fate. By 1987, almost 85 percent of the new plants survived.
Shi and his partners began putting up posters to recruit more villagers to their green campaign.
"That year, 120 villagers joined us," he said. "All were in absolute poverty. Some were mentally handicapped and unable even to count cattle."
Their contracted land also expanded to 1,000 hectares.
Before Shi started his green campaign, he swore he would never give up. His ambition was never dampened, not even by the loss of his only son, who died in a traffic accident in 2008 while transporting irrigation equipment from Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region.
His son, Shi Zhanjun, was a lanky and athletic young man who had received an offer to train as an athlete when he graduated from middle school, but his father persuaded him to join his green campaign instead.
The young man never complained, as sons in traditional rural Chinese families are supposed to follow their fathers' advice. He even enjoyed planting trees, and always sought out new plant species, equipment and technology for the project.
By the time of his death, he had successfully grown lush pines, spruces, willows and poplars on the formerly barren land.
Shi often sits at his son's tomb at the end of the day, smoking and talking as if his son could hear him.
Shi's dream of pushing back the desert has come true. His green project has grown into a large sand control company and has resulted in a green barrier running more than 100 km along the south edge of the Muus Desert.
Meanwhile, he has led his fellow villagers and employees out of poverty by helping them grow trees, vegetables, fruit and other cash crops.
He is still not planning to retire.
"I feel I'm like a pine tree and will not bend easily. I can keep working until I die," said Shi.
GREEN GREAT WALL
Shi is just one of the campaigners to answer the central government's call for forestation in China's arid northern and western regions.
The planned forestation project, launched in November 1978 in tandem with China's reform and opening-up, covers 13 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions in the northwest, northeast as well as the north China region surrounding Beijing.
In these areas, which cover more than 4 million square km in total, sandstorms and soil erosion have caused deserts to spread by 156,000 hectares a year.
However, over the past 35 years, the forestation project has turned 26.47 million hectares of barren land green in an effort late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping once called the "Green Great Wall." It is estimated that the trees planted under this project, if planted 3 meters apart, could encircle the globe 2,000 times.
The people who helped build this "Green Great Wall," often at their own expense, are mostly poor peasants who worked ceaselessly for a common aim: to reconcile with nature so that future generations could continue to live on their ancestors' land.
The project to restore the region's forests will run until 2050.
A WIDOW'S ONE-WOMAN CAMPAIGN
Niu Yuqin cherishes the bronze bell her late husband gave her more than 30 years ago.
Young lovers living in China in the 1970s could not afford jewelry, so her husband, Zhang Jiawang, an amateur "dragon dancer" in their home village in Shaanxi's Jingbian County, took one of the bells off a dragon dance prop and gave it to Niu as an engagement gift.
After they were married, Niu followed her husband to plant trees on the edge of the Muus Desert.
Her husband died of bone cancer in 1988, leaving behind three children and his ailing parents.
But Niu was determined to carry on her husband's project at all costs. She contracted 600 hectares of barren land and promised to cover it with trees in five years.
"I was resolved to fend off the creeping desert with trees so that my children and grandchildren can still live on the same land where their ancestors lived."
Her one-woman campaign was a daunting task. None of her three sons went beyond junior high school, leaving the classroom behind so they could join her in planting trees.
A rough calculation shows the family has planted more than 1 million trees and increased green coverage on the formerly barren land to over 40 percent.
At 64, Niu is relieved her forestation dream has come true and her grandchildren can receive higher education. Her eldest grandson is majoring in forestry and is almost certain he will carry on the family's tree-planting tradition.
Yi Jiefang, a native of Shanghai, made a big decision in 2003, when she moved to Tongliao in Inner Mongolia and devoted herself to growing trees on the sandy land for 10 years.
Yi said she did this to fulfill her son's will. The young man, Yang Ruizhe, died in a road accident in 2000.
Just two weeks before he died, Yang, who was attending a university in Japan, told his parents he was ready to plant trees in Inner Mongolia after graduation because sandstorms were causing too much damage in China.
After his death, Yi resigned from her job at a travel agency, sold her apartment in Shanghai, and spent most of her son's compensation funds to lease land and hire more than 300 local peasants to work with her.
They planted 10,000 young poplars in April 2003, but all were swept away by strong gales on the fourth day. They hiked into the desert and retrieved as many trees as possible, replanted them and prayed for rain.
Yi said a magic spell must have helped her: it did rain -- an extremely rare phenomenon in the desert -- and 70 percent of the trees survived.
Her husband suggested she return to Shanghai now that she has fulfilled her son's wish, but Yi says she is attached to the land.
At 64, Yi is widely respected as a mother figure by the locals. They often sing her a Mongolian song called "Mother." Yi said she doesn't understand a word, but always ends up in tears with the singers.
FORESTATION TRANSFORMS A MAN
It was a spur-of-the-moment idea that drove Zhang Yinglong to give up his well-paid job in Tianjin and join in a forestation project in his ancestral home province of Shaanxi.
A friend asked over dinner whether Zhang, then a business executive in Tianjin earning half a million yuan a year, was willing to invest in forestation in Shenmu County of Yulin City. Zhang, half intoxicated, readily agreed.
"I was debauched then by drinking, gambling and luxury, and felt down and out," he said. "I never knew why I agreed to take up forestation. Maybe I was destined to do it."
His investment snowballed from an initial 50,000 yuan to 5 million.
"The plantation was in the middle of nowhere and we needed to start by building roads and installing power networks before we could get there," Zhang said.
Unable to travel back and forth between Tianjin and Shenmu, Zhang resigned from his job in 2003 to concentrate on forestation.
He spent many lonesome days at the plantation to tend the young plants. At his most isolated, he was stranded for 48 days in September 2003 after a downpour destroyed all roads. In his extreme loneliness and fear, he hallucinated and was on the verge of breaking down when, finally, family members were able to reach him.
"But this new undertaking transformed me into a different person -- a better man," he said.
Today, Zhang runs a 30,000-hectare plantation, but refuses to be referred to as its manager.
"I'm its servant. We're all nature's guests and must strictly follow the rules," Zhang said.
He said ecological engineering takes time and pain.
"The more I get into it, the more I realize that we mustn't seek immediate benefits. We need to respect nature in order to sustain."