BEIJING, Nov. 7 - For the past month or so, a hunched man with watery eyes and stained teeth named Xi Qiuyuan has raked piles of corn into a long yellow quilt to dry in the sun. Then he has watched it. Mr. Xi is a night watchman, and what he watches is the corn.
His role would not have been uncommon in China a century or more ago. He sleeps outside on a pallet of packed mud and keeps warm with a crude brick oven. He uses a handmade rake to sweep the corn along the side of a narrow farm road.
He has no complaints but could do without the S.U.V.'s.
"It's hard to fall asleep, because of the noise from the traffic," said Mr. Xi, 40, one morning as motorists whizzed by. "By 2 a.m. it is quiet."
All across China, the fall harvest has ended. But unlike the activity in the country's vast agricultural regions, where the harvest shapes daily life, the tumult of daily life here in Beijing is reshaping what remains of the harvest. Beijing, after all, is a city of 15 million to 17 million people, depending on who is counting.
Out on the edges of the city, where farmland is fast being converted into suburbs, farmers herding flocks of dirty sheep compete for space on dusty roads with clattering blue trucks carrying construction materials for the latest gaudy subdivision or high-rise building downtown. Other farmers ride carts behind puttering tractors or even mules as sleek black Audis with tinted windows glide by.
There is a constant collision between the two Chinas - one urban and racing into the 21st century, the other rural and seemingly locked in the 18th. Urban is prevailing, as recent government statistics show that at least 40 million farmers have lost their land to the demands of modernization and development.
For some farmers the change is an opportunity for a better life. For others it is an abrupt end to the only life they have known.
Down a newly paved road outside the Beijing beltway known as the Fifth Ring Road, Lei Deqing, 54, chopped rows of dead, brown cornstalks with a crude bamboo scythe as his small flock of sheep and goats chewed on the stubble. He worked about 100 yards from a golf course.
His small village, Bei Dian, once owned large tracts of this land, only to have it whittled away by development projects that brought little in return. Now villagers use a lottery to dole out the remaining tracts but otherwise earn money by renting rooms to migrant workers pouring into Beijing for construction jobs.
"The gap between the poor and the rich is getting dramatic," Mr. Lei offered without prompting. "We barely have any land now." Asked about the golf course at the end of the newly paved road, Mr. Lei scoffed. "Aaah!" he growled. "How many Chinese can afford that? It's only the officials and rich people who can afford it. They will beat you if you go in."
Beijing is actually an enormous geographic region that incorporates more than 6,000 square miles beyond the city itself, including the farm areas being swallowed by urban expansion. Through the eyes of any demographer it is a rational, necessary shift, if a brutal one for those who know nothing but the farm.
Mr. Xi has contempt for the city, saying he has never been there and has no plans to go - never mind that technically he is a Beijing resident. For most of October he joined other farmers in covering one side of a farm road with corn for drying so that it could be ground into meal.
Mr. Xi pointed down the road to where other people sat watching still more corn as evidence of the immutable rituals of rural life. "There has been no change," Mr. Xi said. "It has always been like this."
Mr. Xi is better at watching corn than noticing the society changing around him. Not far away are housing developments with names like Yosemite and Chateau Regalia. A few moments later, a gray BMW sport utility vehicle zipped beside the line of stones Mr. Xi uses to separate his corn from the traffic. He may not go to the city, but it has come to him.
A few hundred yards up the road, a cluster of middle-aged women slurped bowls of noodles and sat beside stacks of corn. "Most of the land has been taken," one woman said. "There isn't much left, so we work in the leftover land."
Asked if their future is uncertain, if a place exists for them in a new China, the women regarded the question as nonsense. "We are farmers," the woman said, refusing to give her name. "We love farming. That is enough."
But Dai Shumin has learned that it is not. Ms. Dai, 54, is the grande dame of Xia Xin Pu, a tiny village being squeezed by an expanding Beijing. Her parents farmed corn, rice and sweet potatoes in this same village, and she learned to plant crops and pick cotton. In 1986, after China had started its rush toward a market economy, her husband got a job in a library. His income bought a car, and the couple started a transportation company.
In turn, that income financed a pig farm that later brought enough money to buy the restaurant now run by her son. Her daughter now works in the city. Her husband still works in the library.
Outside the restaurant, Ms. Dai's corn was drying in golden stacks beside the small road through her village. When she was a teenager, China faced starvation because of the failure of collectivization, and Ms. Dai said her village had survived by eating corn. Corn porridge, cornmeal. Now, she sells her corn to a nearby feed factory for pigs.
She no longer needs farming for income. Her house has new leather furniture, a computer and a wide-screen television. Her industriousness and ingenuity earned her a government award as a model worker.
But she still has a few dozen acres and cannot imagine not planting them. She hires migrant workers to do most of the work, though she helps on some days. "It's not about money," she said. "It's more of a habit. I've been farming since I was young, and it just pains me to see the land so empty."