Farmers here scratch out a meager existence. Posted in the village and surrounding hamlets are signs advertising agents who arrange work overseas, with the promise of higher wages.
"We don't know what we are going to tell our mother this year," said second son, Li Luxin, his brows furrowed as he sat on a plank bed in a Spartan room with a cement floor.
On Tomb-Sweeping Day, families typically visit the ancestral burial plot to clean the graves and present offerings of fruit and burn paper money. Some set off firecrackers for good luck and to drive off evil spirits. Such traditions are strong in rural areas, though they are falling by the wayside as people migrate to the cities.
The Chinese believe the body to be the carrier of one's soul, said Han Gaonian, a folklorist at Lanzhou-based Northwest Normal University. "If you have the body, then the soul has a place to be," he said.
Those presumed dead and whose bodies cannot be returned usually get a grave with their clothes buried, Han said.
But there is no ritual of mourning for those whose fates are unknown.
"People still hope they may return alive," Han said, referring to the passengers on Flight 370. "And in some rural areas, families may hold some ritual of calling back the soul of the missing, alive or dead."
As the youngest of three sons, Li Zhixin was doted on by his parents and older brothers. But he had to go to work like the rest of them once he turned a teenager, after only six years of school.
He was married by the time he turned 20 and lived with his wife and two children — a 12-year-old daughter and 6-year-old son — in the nearby city of Dingzhou.
Li Zhixin never spoke of any grand ambitions but focused on simply providing for his family, his brother said.