Returning home to life in the Chinese countryside

At least 20 million rural migrants have lost their jobs and returned to their home villages over the last year. Many have subsequently returned to the cities to look for new employment, but for many of those who remain behind, readjusting to life in the countryside can be a real challenge.

In January 2009, a young man working in Shanghai returned to his home village in northeastern Anhui for the Spring Festival. He later recorded his thoughts and observations in a blog 2009年回家过年, 我所见的农民与农村. The blog, which has now been republished and much discussed on numerous Chinese websites, laments the state of contemporary rural society and sheds light on the life facing those rural migrants who have returned home.

In his preamble, the blogger, Xiao Sanlang (萧三郎) describes his feelings on returning to his roots after living, studying and working in the vibrant modern city of Shanghai as: “a depressing experience. It was a leap from post- to pre-modernism, from the 21st Century back into the mediaeval world, and it left me with a mixture of feelings - anger, sadness, bitterness, impotence and much else.”

The blog looks in detail at the rites of passage in a rural village, social welfare and education, land ownership and village politics, as well as the nature of “rural culture.” It records a society in transition, a rural community coming to terms with economic development and modernity.

CLB has translated the main body of Xiao Sanlang’s extensive and discursive blog, divided into 11 sections, below.

Early marriage

I must begin this article with some thoughts on early marriage. This is the thing that shocks and upsets me the most. You may blame the ignorance of country people, or the backwardness of village life. Whatever the justification, the fact is, it happens.

According to the Marriage Law, the statutory minimum age for marriage is 22 years for men and 20 years for women. This is what actually happens in our village. When I came home, a 17-year-old boy was preparing to get married to a local girl that he had met online. I don’t know the girl’s age, and when I saw her during this trip, wrapped up with a scarf against the cold, I couldn’t guess. But I don’t think she could have been that old, because where we live, it's very rare for women to be older than their husbands. When I heard this news, I was shocked, and still more so to learn that she had had an abortion during the winter (such is the level of awareness of contraception among young country people).

I asked around a bit and was told people generally get married before they are 20, unless they move away from the area to go to college. If you do not marry by the age of 20, your options become increasingly limited.

One day, I met this young man, who was just a boy when I was a student, and to me still is. I asked him, has your marriage been registered yet? He said it hadn't. I said, you’re marrying without registering? He said it was not a problem. I asked, so what will you do when the first child comes? He replied, we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

Cross that bridge when we come to it ... That would mean arranging for a bribe to be sent to some official to falsify the ages and post-register the marriage certificate. If they didn’t do this, how could the couple register the birth?

Another day, when I was drinking with our village brigade leader, I asked him about the early marriage issue. His answer was typical: it has always been like this, not only in our village and county, but even in neighbouring counties. There was nothing he could do about it.

“I'd like to act, but I cannot. After tying the knot, these young people leave the village to work in the cities year in year out. If they are single, you just cannot keep tabs on them,” he said.

In our area, early marriage has become a kind of fad, a model that others copy, as villagers always keep an eye on what neighbours are up to. If A gets married at 20, then B will wed at 19, and C will get married at 18. Basically nobody bothers with the marriage certificate. As far as the parents are concerned, if the nuptials are completed early, that means their responsibilities also end early, and it also stops the young ones from going astray when they leave to work in the cities.

Here’s another case. A girl in our village, about 19, came back to the village at the end of the year to get married. But she already had a child several months old. She met the father while away, working as a migrant. Unable to certify the marriage, they could only “marry” by organising a banquet for the village, thereby earning informal community recognition for the union. It was enough.

This issue has affected me personally. After I came back, my parents pressured me every day to get married. They felt that because I was already in my twenties but still single, other villagers would look down on me, I would not be able to hold my head up, I would be laughed at.

Let me say something about the background to all this. Our village - a very typical village in a county of northeastern Anhui, is no different from countless other places in the area. Over 1,000 people locally have the same surname, and four families predominate. Villagers usually have around four mu (two-thirds of an acre) of land. We are not really poverty-stricken. Apart from income from farming, people in their twenties and thirties can work in the cities year after year. In our village, a number of two-storey buildings have been erected in recent years (typically at a cost of around 150,000 yuan) and some people have been able to buy small Daihatsu cars (60,000 yuan). Of course, a lot do remain poor.

Early and late child-bearing

The reasons for early childbearing are easy to understand, given the above remarks on early marriage. In rural areas, a child will generally be born within the first year of marriage, and if this does not happen, the couple can suffer mockery and discrimination. One couple in our village did not have a child for more than four years, so the husband began to beat his wife, even though people said medical checks at the hospital showed the problem was nothing to do with her. However, the husband adamantly refused to get himself checked.

To be a woman in the countryside means forgoing one’s youth. After marriage and childbirth, she ages very quickly. A girl in her early twenties looks the same as a worn-out woman of 40. I heard that a girl in the village, just turned 20, got married in the spring of 2008. That winter she gave birth to a child. In rural areas, the tendency is always to want children very soon after marriage. Waiting is considered strange.

Under China’s birth-control laws, if the firstborn is a boy, the parents are not allowed to have a second child. In the tightening of birth-control regulations in the 1990s, rural women in China had to undergo compulsory tubal ligation. I always found this an act of profound inhumanity. But, on close reflection, perhaps there is no other way. How else can the birth rate be controlled? It is hard to persuade country people to use condoms, count the days or take contraceptives.

In recent years, however, many women approaching 40, who have undergone forced tubal ligation, have had surgery to reopen their fallopian tubes and have a second child. A woman in a neighbouring village, 40 this year and with a son born in 1994, now in his third year of elementary school, had another boy last year. I saw the infant during this stay. My father blames social pressures, saying “everyone is having children nowadays.”

Early one morning, a woman came hobbling along the road to the west of our village, her stomach thrust out. I didn’t know her, and asked my mother who she was. “Just somebody,” she replied. Originally, it transpired, this woman had had two children, a girl and a boy, but the daughter had died three years earlier (when I was back home this time, I went past the grave; she had been only 15 or 16 years old). Only the son was left, and so she had another operation and was now pregnant again.

I didn't ask, but I would guess she was over 45 years old.

This is what happens in the country, the real country. Women aged 45 and 18 go through the travails of pregnancy and birth. The arrival of the internet in the countryside has made it even easier to get pregnant. A boy and girl hook up through an internet dating site, a child will be born out of wedlock, and an elderly midwife will be called in - it’s much the same in the country now as it is in the cities.

On a wall of a house at the entrance of the village, you can see a large-character AIDS-prevention poster; I cannot remember exactly what it said.


Whenever I go back to my village for the New Year, I always ask my father who died over the past 12 months. All of the people in the village are getting on, and of the ones I know well and have fond memories of, any could die some day without my knowing. Of course, my time will come too. I have already chosen my parents’ and my own grave plot. All of us will be buried in a field that is now green with young wheat.

I have never worried much about how many babies were born over the year, since I have nothing to do with them. At least, they are not part of my memories. In 2008, three people died in our village, a woman and two men. The woman died in an accident. She fell off the top of a newly roofed two-storey house, and failed to recover from untreated head injuries.

I want now to say a bit more about these two men. At their deaths, one was 59 and the other just past 60. They both succumbed to cancer, having only been diagnosed in the late stages of the disease. Less than six months later, both were gone. Before their deaths, they had been great stalwarts of local farming. Of course, lacking medical insurance, they did not think of getting their health checked. They were like animals in the wild, quietly passing their lives, calmly waiting for the sudden onslaught of disease to carry them off.

In the country, people often say that happiness is “having enough to eat and drink, and escaping illness and disaster.” But if one day they do fall ill, it can mean death. A minor illness, untreated, will deteriorate into a serious one. Then it is just a matter of time.

Of these two men who died in 2008, I didn’t know the elder, and won’t say anything about him just now. But I do want to say a few things about the 59-year-old, who was an acquaintance of my father.

He was the eldest of two brothers. The family had a well-known sesame oil workshop (they fried the sesame seeds and stone-ground the oil out, getting one catty of oil from every three catties of seed).

When he was young, he was too poor to find a wife, but later, in the 1980s, he bought a girl from Yunnan. Later, she bore him a daughter, but then ran away. After that, he devoted himself to care of the daughter, remaining single. His younger brother married and fathered two sons. However, when I was at middle school, one summer afternoon, the younger brother hanged himself from a roof beam in his house. It was said he was wearing white hand-made clothes at the time of his death.

After his death, the people of the village wanted to bring the older brother and the widow together to form a new household, but the girl did not agree because of the age difference. Later, she set up home with another man.

Now, the older brother too has died, of stomach cancer. He was diagnosed in summer, and passed away at the New Year.

I remember when I was in my second year of elementary school, three village girls committed suicide by drinking pesticide. The strange thing was that their graves were dotted around three sides of the village. This created much unease among the villagers, who feared that somebody else might be carried off to occupy the fourth side.

One afternoon before New Year, I went for a stroll in the fields, and in the distance saw a new grave. On top of it there were still a few wreaths. As soon as I got back home I asked my father who it was. He didn’t know. After the New Year I went back and saw that more new graves had appeared amid the fields outside the village.

Still on this morbid subject, I’d like to say a little bit about cremation. Some time ago, the government began forcing people to cremate their deceased. This was good news for crematoriums in our county, which had suffered a string of closures. Now they were unexpectedly brought back into operation, and reportedly made good money. During the summer holidays in my third year of elementary school, I went to the funeral of one of my relatives on my mother’s side.

Village custom required use of a coffin, even after cremation, so the bones and ashes were placed in a cinerary casket inside the coffin. Afterwards, they held a funeral ceremony and lowered the coffin.

Later, there was talk of backhanders. By offering a bit of cash to the crematorium (several thousand yuan – the exact amount was determined by the strings you could pull) it would have been possible to avoid burning the corpse; instead, in return for the money, the crematorium would simply issue the death certificate. Of course, if it had been somebody with influence, a dignified, direct burial without cremation could be arranged without greasing palms.

Some years ago, things got so busy in the funeral trade that the village had to consider building a single public cemetery for cinerary caskets. But these plans later fizzled out. As a rule, the deceased are now always buried in the fields of their family. They become a kind of embellishment dotting the fields. The only difference is the new grave mounds are smaller than the old ones.

Cremation was proposed as a way of keeping valuable farmland in cultivation. Now, in our county at least, it has become another official routine, and sometimes a hotbed for shady deals. In the Chinese countryside, even the dead have their price.


According to official sources, the proportion of university students from rural areas is now in steady decline.

At year-end, I went to a wedding banquet, and sat among a group of village elementary school teachers, roughly aged from 40 to 50. I did not know them very well. We drank and began to chat.

At the table, somebody took out a mobile phone. I glanced at it, and saw it was a LG model, worth, I guess, several hundred yuan. Somebody asked: Director Liu, where did you get hold of that new phone? The man said someone gave it to him. The school principal had one, he had one, and later the school supplies manager had got one too.

The person who asked the question laughed and said: “So, it’s graft. You guys will be the ruin of the Party! I’m going to hand in my membership if you go on like that!”

Afterwards, the people continued to drink and brag. I listened quietly at their side.

A middle-aged teacher, who had just had an operation (apparently some kind of haemorrhoids problem) said he could only drink standing up now. “I am now just like Kong Yiji, I only ever drink on my feet.” Everybody laughed.

Mention of Kong Yiji gave me a start. How sad! Today, the countryside is full of Kong Yijis, but where is Lu Xun?

Although in theory the countryside has a nine-year compulsory education system, this is basically just empty talk. Most village children either drop out early or leave after middle school to become migrant workers.

A 15-year-old neighbourhood girl dropped out during elementary school. Before she was physically mature, she spent a year away from the village working. In the spring she went to pick tea, and then to work at a family business in Nantong in the neighbouring province of Jiangsu. She was earning 500 yuan a month to pack food. She never had Saturday or Sunday off, every day she had to start work just past seven o’clock. I asked her when she finished in the evenings, and she said it varied. Sometimes they went on past ten o’clock. There were two other girls of her age. After the wheat harvest, she went home with 2,900 yuan for over half a year’s work.

Two thousand nine hundred yuan: the fruit of six months’ toil for a 15-year-old girl. When I spoke to her, she had no complaints. She said that was simply her lot in life. Endurance and obedience: that is all that is required. She is only 15, her hair is straight, she has a slightly city-girl look, but her hands are rough like those of an old person because of all her cuts and calluses This was her youth, the sweetest time, the springtime of her life, but this is what has become of her.

On the ninth day of the Lunar New Year, she had to go back to Nantong. I gave her my mobile phone number, telling her to call me if anything happened to her.

You will often hear village people say “it makes no difference whether you go to college or not,” or “what’s the point of going to university, you will still end up a migrant worker.”

I am ashamed to say that in the last ten years, I am the only person from our village to pass the university entrance exam and go on to graduate school, maybe even the only one since the resumption of university entrance examinations in 1978. In close to ten years, this village has produced only three undergraduate students, including myself. I say this with sadness, not pride. As Lu Xun said; “It is like seeing a pile of bodies deeply asleep in an iron cell, none of whom show signs of life.”

What I fear most when I come back is people asking how much I earn. In their eyes, after going to graduate school in (to them a place of dreams, a city where the streets are paved with gold), I should be earning over 10,000 yuan a month, with a nice apartment thrown in.

If they ever found out how little I actually earn, they would say, there’s no point in going to study, so-and-so did not even complete middle school, but now earns several thousand yuan a month as a migrant worker. What would I say to them then?

I think we have one of the lowest college entrance exam pass rates of any county in Anhui. The population of our county is more than 800,000, but in 2008, little more than 7,000 students took the university entrance examination (and this figure includes many students doing retakes). Barely 1,500 passed and the majority of those were doing retakes, some for the third or fourth time.

A poor elementary school education leads to a poor middle and high school education. It leaves pupils unable to compete in the provincial college entrance examinations. Those few that do get admitted to universities are basically all children from the county towns.

After the New Year, I went for drink with a high-school classmate of mine, who now works as a teacher at a county high school. He told me that his school’s basic target for getting arts students into college was just one out of 70. Getting three into college would be exceeding targets. I asked him to estimate how many had a realistic chance of getting to college, and he said, at most, five or six. The others he told me would simply have to retake the exams or become migrant workers, and then later come back, marry and have children.

My former classmate asked me to say a few words to his final year students, to give them some encouragement prior to taking the exam. Standing on the rostrum, facing these students, all I could do was tell them that their fate was in their own hands, and how pleasant university life was, and encourage them to go out into the world and gain experience. I warned them that the outside world is very competitive now and that they would have to study even harder in order to realise their ambitions.

In our county, a number of vocational and technical training colleges have just opened, not only in the main town but also in the smaller towns. Training courses include lowly stuff like sewing and electrical welding. Afterwards, the students will go to factories in the coastal areas to work. For more and more children and their parents, this is the only realistic road in life. Even if you study at high school and spend a lot of money on education, there is no guarantee you will get into university. And if you do, it doesn’t mean it will be any use.

I certainly don’t see university as the only option in life for them either. But I do think university can at least give you self-awareness, some understanding of society, and for ever free you of the ignorant aimlessness of country life.

Here, of course, is the paradox for the man of education: who is better off in the end, the enlightened or the benighted? Is it more painful to know, or not to know? Should people be allowed to remain in blissful ignorance until one day they awaken naturally, or should they be awoken? And what happens when they awaken?

That day in the classroom, I drew on the blackboard a pyramid. I told these 17 and 18-year-olds that they should not expect to reach the top, but hoped they did not end up at the bottom of it, either. I only hoped that they could find a place for themselves in the middle. That, I said, would be enough.

Sometimes my parents say, half in jest and half in anger, it would have been better to have kept me out of university, “for if we had done that, we now would have had a grandson to hug.” Nearly all people of my age in the village have produced a grandson for their parents.

This was hard to swallow. It was not what my parents really thought. They were simply voicing a widespread prejudice among country people.

The minimum subsistence allowance

In the countryside, some things happen that just boggle the mind. An example is the minimum subsistence allowance. On this subject, I just read the following on Baidu, here paraphrased:

The minimum subsistence allowance is designed to be an open, fair and just livelihood guarantee. You become eligible through a process of individual application, case review, audit, report approval and supervisory checks. Responsibility for approvals lies with the county Civil Affairs department, with specific cases handled by local authorities and village (Party-affiliated) committees.

The basic process for applying for the minimum subsistence allowance in the countryside is as follows: An application is made by the head of the household to the village (town) government or the village committee. The committee then launches an investigation, and arranges an initial canvassing of opinion. After a review by the local government, approval is given by the county Civil Affairs department. The local government and county Civil Affairs department conduct an investigation into the economic circumstances of the applicant’s household, get an idea of the family’s income, assets, labour capacity, and actual living standards. Combined with the canvassing of local opinion, opinions are forwarded on review and approval. In the process of submitting and checking the application, the applicant is required to give full information about his own and his family’s income, and actively cooperate with the investigations and reviews of the examination and approval authorities, in line with regulations. The authorities must promptly report back the results of their investigation, and clearly explain reasons when approval is not granted.

In our village, there is a four-person household, including an infant, in which everyone is getting the minimum subsistence allowance. In many cases, healthy people of working age are also receiving it, while my grandfather and grandmother, both past 80 this year, are not. Given our family circumstances, we do not have any difficulty in looking after them, but this kind of thing really makes people angry.

When my father talked about this with me, he was furious, saying “anyone who gives gifts to the Party secretary gets the allowance; anybody who has higher level connections can get it.”

All this stuff about formal application, asset investigation and fairness is a joke. The minimum subsistence allowance has become part of the brigade leader’s armory of carrots and sticks, a tool for rewarding and attracting allies.

The allowance amounts to nearly 1,000 yuan a year, and in every sense has become a kind of supplementary welfare benefit. But those who deserve it do not get it, and people who do not need it do. Members of influential households get it, the well-connected get it, the givers of gifts get it, and households that make a nuisance of themselves also get it.

My family does not get it, although my grandfather is now 85 years old and my grandmother is 80.

I hope I’m not being overly critical in all of this. I only wanted to write down what I have seen in my own village. Neither I am not trying to say that I have sloughed off the last traces of peasant thinking. Whoever I talk to, I always speak frankly. After all, I too am the salt of the earth.

What’s more, I certainly do not agree that country people should be allowed to flood the cities (though expert claims that this would create slums and ghettos is really laughable). But you cannot just stand by as country people are fed into the machine of modernization - bled white, their youth spent, and crushed into husks to be discarded.

It is my solemn conviction that nobody has the right to sacrifice the rural population on the altar of national modernization, for whatever reason, on the pretext that “they were born to be peasants.”

Political issues in the countryside

“I always keep two bullets on me, one for self-defence, and the other for joining the next Cultural Revolution.” These words were spoken by a 70-year-old man standing in our doorway on the morning of Spring Festival eve.

He has no official duties, he is not even a member of the Party, but he always enthusiastically takes part in village activities, such as checking the village committee accounts and joining petitions to county authorities.

My father said nowadays he is busying himself writing something at home. What is he writing? I asked

“No idea … he’s writing about big issues,” my father said.

I do not know whether this man has read Marx and Lenin, but he always has Marxist phrases on his lips, and seems to know what he is talking about.

“The countryside needs a second Cultural Revolution, to bring down all these dogs. In terms of Marxist materialism, the transformation of this society is already 80 percent complete.” I took out my mobile phone, and recorded these insightful words.

Taking the bus back home from the county town, I saw a big, bold red banner hanging over the road at the entrance to a village - all the more striking on a winter’s day. It said “Direct village elections are an important guarantee for building grassroots democracy in the countryside.”

I couldn’t help laughing. Democracy, direct elections, how nice it all sounds.

Back at home, I asked my father, about the elections? He told me: “Elections are no more than going to an appointed place, being told to vote for somebody, and then voting accordingly.” The Party secretary of our village, 69 years old this year, is known as “Roly-Poly” (不倒翁) [a self-righting doll – you can knock him down but he always gets back up]. He has been sitting pretty for nearly 20 years at least. Some people jokingly call him Chairman Hu. He takes everyone for a ride and has friends in high places, but never dirties his hands himself; if there is dirty work to be done, he will get somebody else to do it, behind closed doors.

Another issue is rural Party recruitment practice. Anybody who wants to join the Party has to go through him, giving gifts and reaffirming their loyalty. The Party recruitment process has degenerated into one of cultivating favourites. At the very least, an aspirant must show that they will not threaten the secretary’s position. We have a few people who like to stir things up, they have no chance of getting into the Party. Denied access to political power, all they can do is make a fuss from the sidelines. And the authorities can shut them up when they get tired of it, by cooking up some criminal charge.

There is a single guy in our village with a particularly strong sense of justice. He is always going to the county or city to petition the authorities. From a ditch by the roadside, he has carved out a pond. In the summer, many village people go to the pond to get water to mix with their pesticide. He lets them use it, but not members of the families of local officials. He has got into scraps over this. Later, he fostered a little girl abandoned by her parents. There has never been anything untoward in the idea of a bachelor adopting an abandoned girl like this. But the village authorities insisted he was violating family planning rules, and he was taken away by cops from the local town. I do not know if he was beaten there, but he was certainly a lot quieter when he came back.

“If you drink King Zhou’s water, you cannot criticize King Zhou.” That’s a saying my father drummed into me. Especially when I happened to get angry about things in his presence.

The land question

In our village everybody has approximately four mu (roughly, two-thirds of an acre) of land. Around 1995, after the first round of land redistribution, nothing changed in our area. Many people who married and had children have not yet received their due under land redistribution, while others, like me, who have transferred their household registration still retain land granted by the government. Some of this state-granted land even belongs to dead members of our family.

In 1995, when land was redistributed, they said there would be no further redistribution for 50 years.

Recently, the privatization of land has become seen as a panacea for solving the problems of the countryside. This trip back, when I discussed this with some people in the village, their immediate response was that land was being “annexed.” I mentioned that if land was privatized they could buy and sell it freely, but they said, you would soon finding people selling it off, particularly crooked elements.

“We need to get back to the time before liberation, we need to have landlords!” one said.

In fact, the nostalgic attachment all country people are supposed to have to the land is fading steadily. A lot of the wealthy people in the village have moved to the town or elsewhere in the county to buy a house. Normally, they live in the town, and only come back twice a year when there is a lot of farm work.

When I was small, our village grew a lot of cash crops such as cotton, mint and watermelon (we used to grow ten mu of cotton, nearly ten mu of mint and three to five mu of watermelons). But now, there is just a wheat season and a soybean season. Everything is completely automated, saving labour (with combine harvesters, the crop can be taken directly to the homestead; some households take the harvested crop to the market and sell it, and then go away after pocketing their money. Later, they burn the stubble and plant for the next harvest.

Although land in the country cannot be bought or sold, country people can lease out land for cultivation (at 300 yuan per mu per year). Some families do not want to farm, or are away all year, and so they lease out the lands for other people to farm.

Now I’ll turn again to last year’s land sale problem. An expressway now under construction through our village (apparently from Xuchang to Suqian) requires requisition of farmland, for two different purposes. Firstly, land is needed for the road itself, and secondly for related earth-cutting works (to underpin the road foundation).

About 18,000 yuan per mu was paid for the first type, while the second type commanded 12,500 yuan per mu (the difference in pricing supposedly arising because, in areas where earth has been cut away, resulting ponds can later be used for fish farming and other profit-making activities, though I suspect that here it may have gone illicitly into the pockets of the contractors).

The area for earth-cutting is very large, covering a good number of plots of land of 80 mu each. (Our family lost 4.5 mu). Those who can sell the land are pleased. Land is no longer scarce. People were only unhappy about selling too cheaply. They did not speak much about it.

As regards the abandonment of land, this doesn’t happen in our area. People tend not to cultivate the land themselves, but contract the work out to others. I guess that sort of makes us pioneers in land privatization.

There is another interesting thing about this issue of land sales to road builders. Some households in the village have received a share of the proceeds and some have not.

The lucky ones are very happy, but those left out are not. Some people say that the proceeds of these sales should be divvied up equally amongst villagers, and then the remaining land be reapportioned. Is this egalitarianism or a relic of collectivist thinking? Of course, nothing came of this proposal, but it was indeed a turn up for the books - something to think about, at any rate.

Rural scholars always say that the land has become a kind of shackle on country people, impeding rural modernization. Some people also say that the land is the livelihood guarantee of last resort for rural people, the ‘natural habitat’ they can fall back on when they return home. But whatever the experts say, the incontrovertible fact now is that country people no longer cleave to their patch of land.

The poet Ai Qing once said: “Why are my eyes full of tears? Because of the depth of my love for this land.” But today, the old patch has become something people venerate only out of habit.

Cultural issues

I have always believed that rural problems are not just political and economic but cultural as well. Never mind Marx’s theory of economic determinism, I believe that these cultural issues significantly impact the living conditions and lifestyles of rural villages and villagers, as well as their consumption patterns and life choices.

I have also long wondered, what exactly is culture in the rural context? Is there something we can call a rural culture? What kind of culture is specific to the countryside?

Everybody says that Chinese people are influenced by Confucianism, but in the villages, you see very little humanity or fellowship. All you see is selfishness, greed, stupidity and ignorance, the law of the jungle and infighting. What happened to the simple, pure-hearted, virtuous peasant of lore? What turned them into creatures like this?

Fights, quarrels and adultery are all are commonplace. Especially during the Spring Festival, gambling, drinking or petty grievances can lead first to quarrels, then to beatings and finally to grievous bodily harm.

After drinking, some people will wander around the village shouting abuse, insulting whoever they like, mouthing obscenities. Any family that has a lot of sons will have many willing fists, and can intimidate their neighbours.

Eighteen-year-old boys wear earrings, grow their hair long and dye it. Girls of seventeen or so adore [China Idol] Chris Lee and write on their schoolbooks statements like “I’m not mainstream.” These kids have never heard of the WTO, but they know about McDonald’s, online dating, and how to use QQ to find a girlfriend.

There are no newspapers in the village but just about every family has a television set. We’ve had cable for the last couple of years but because of the cable fees not everyone is hooked up. The county TV stations always broadcast provocative “Viagra” and breast enhancement ads. Adults and children both watch regardless.

In recent years, we have also seen the emergence of a new kind of [traditional Chinese] clarinet (唢呐) troupe. These troupes perform at weddings and funerals, and should be invited into the host families’ home - if you do not invite them in, you lose face and are looked down on. When I was small, the bands played traditional music, with a good variety of instruments. They worked hard to give good performances. But now, there are only a few bands left, and they have electronic keyboards.

Of course, the music is not what I want to talk about. My point is, these troupes bring dancing girls. Most are over 30, and past their best. In the evening they pile on the makeup, get onstage and bawl out some vulgar ditties, tell dirty jokes, and later flirt with the audience. It’s basically about sex. Sometimes they even perform a striptease.

The audience includes adults, children and the elderly, of both sexes. When the show starts, they all start chanting or shouting “get them off, get them off.” This happens even at funerals. And when it does, there is no hint of grief in the faces of family and friends or fellow villagers. If the girl doesn’t take her clothes off, the crowd might think that this troupe is no good, not giving them what they want. Personally, I think the scene resembles Lu Xun’s description of a crowd at an execution.

Some say it is question of religious belief. There is no doubt that in recent years, Christianity has fared very well in our area (and elsewhere), especially among older people. Every Sunday, they all go to the service.

More comments on education

Let me first say something about my own case. From childhood on, my father always warned me that country people only have two options if they want to get out of the village: join the army or go to university. At that time, university meant security, it meant you could wash off the mud of the fields, go to the city and become a “respectable person.” But nowadays, few people look at things in this way.

In the past, life in the village really was hard. Several dozen mu of wheat had to be harvested with a scythe, stroke by stroke, and at the mill it had to crushed with an ox-driven millstone. Several dozen acres of mint had to be constantly heated in huge iron pots for several days around the clock.

When I was at middle school (this was 1997), students who had good marks all sat exams to get into technical colleges. At that time, this was seen as good enough by country people. High school did not necessary lead to university, and if it did, that meant huge financial outlays. Our village had two high school students then. One sat retakes for the university entrance exam for several years but still did not get in; he then became a chicken farmer, and after failing at that, a migrant labourer – for a while, he was the laughingstock of the village. The other studied physical education, also spent several years retaking the entrance examination, and in the end got into a teacher-training college in the province. He went on to become a mathematics teacher, of all things, in a secondary school - a miracle if ever I saw one.

Because so few students in our county get to take university entrance examinations, many go instead to vocational or private colleges. (These colleges simply grabbed kids from the gates of high schools, which all got a cut when a student was enrolled). Country people do not understand the difference - they think all colleges are universities. But after graduating from these colleges, the students still end up as migrant labourers, and so ever more people have come to see the benefits of higher education as a myth. At the same time, the migrant labour myth has blossomed and spread. People think a high-school student turned migrant labourer can earn 8,000 yuan a month. There is, of course, some justification for this, but mostly it is wishful thinking.

A joke: A few years ago, there was a boy from a nearby village who got into Beihua University [in Jilin], on a military scholarship. To celebrate, his family screened four movies over two evenings and hung out a big red banner from the entrance of their home. It was the talk of the town.

“What kind of university is Beihua University?” one villager asked another.

“Who knows, maybe short for Beijing Qinghua University? What an achievement!”

“Tut tut, I hear that this university not only wants your money but also gives out money.”

I heard all these things from my father when I came back.

In the past, I believed in enlightenment theory, that education was the key to transforming life in the countryside. I thought every child in the village should be aware, achieve self-awareness and have a clear understanding of the world around them. Then everything would work out. But now it is more about salvation than enlightenment. The wrecked villages of China need a saviour.

The truth is that very few university graduates would now be willing to return to help develop their home villages. Yes, you could say this is neglecting your roots, acting in bad faith. You could of course accuse me of these things. But you have to understand the difficulties. This trip back, I heard people say that university students are now being appointed to grassroots village official posts. It’s a sound policy, but only a half-measure, going through the motions for show. How can one or two people with book learning sort out the problems of a whole village, where the waters run so deep?

A fellow student was very keen to return to the county town after graduating, to become a local businessman. Our county town is now much like Shenzhen at the beginning of the 1980s. If you operate a wholesale company for a year you can make 100,000 to 200,000 yuan, although rent in the county town is around 1,500 yuan per square meter. But his parents would not allow this on any account, considering it a loss of face.

Four years ago, when I left my family and home to become a graduate student in Shanghai, I saw a myth welling up behind me, like a great mushroom cloud. It is often said that the tides of history drive the individual forward, and that is what it felt like. There is no way I can go back and puncture that myth, however difficult life away from the village may be. I think at least for those who come later, it’s good to retain some hope. If I went back, no doubt I would be seen as a tragic case by everybody. I would inevitably be treated as an example of what not to do. I would be held up as proof of the uselessness of study.

Was my departure a heroic conclusion or a tragic beginning? In The Emperor’s New Clothes, the child that speaks the truth is not always appreciated. Of course, you can accuse me of weakness. During this stay, I awoke suddenly one night, full of foreboding that, if I weren’t careful, I could end up like Wei Liansu or Lu Weifu.

It’s not that I don’t want to go back home, it’s that I went too far away, and have no way back now. As soon as I turned away, I realized that I had no way back. This is what I want people to understand.

Life in the countryside

Many people have mentioned the problem of gambling in rural areas, and there is indeed a lot of it in our area, especially during the New Year. When migrant workers have earned their money and come home, they get together to gamble. They gamble recklessly, and some people can lose a year’s pay. Gambling of all kinds occurs, and even women and the elderly get involved. The games include dice, mahjong, dominoes, and various card games.

Another aspect of gambling is the official corruption it engenders. For our local police, gambling arrests have become a new form of revenue-raising. No matter how small the stakes - one or two yuan, even 50 cents - they still haul people in. One winter’s day, my own mother was detained for playing dice. No matter whether you are a player or a spectator, you are still taken in, and afterwards your family is told to cough up such and such a sum for your release. This is frankly illegal, but it has been like this for many years. Of course, if you have connections, and call for help, then there is no problem. They will not dare to pick you up.

And now a few words on counterfeit goods. Once when I came back for the mid-autumn festival, I bought a bottle of Coca-Cola at a village shop and was surprised to find that it was a fake. A student who came back with me said that even toothpaste and washing powder in the village shops are fake. According to my father, when people in the village prepare for the New Year celebrations, the alcohol and cigarettes they buy are always counterfeit. The villagers have all grown lazy, and have even given up making their own steamed buns. Why is this? Because the shops now have everything you need, from steamed buns to everyday goods, meat, fruit and vegetables, bottled drinking water, and gas and telephone bill payment services. When I came back this time, I heard a neighbouring village even has a supermarket. Yes, a self-service supermarket, a mini-Carrefour - a sure sign that modernization has reached the villages.

Human life is a dime a dozen in the countryside. Two examples: In a hamlet at the back of us lived an old man who had studied privately, had fine calligraphy, told fortunes in the local market, and had some understanding of the works of Confucius and Mencius. Although he was over 80 years old, he remained active. A few years ago, he was knocked down by a motorbike while crossing the road and later died. In the end, the family reached a private arrangement with the driver, and 10,000 yuan in compensation was paid. I asked my father, how could it be so little? He replied, “he was over 80, how much longer would he have had left?” The value of human life is measured, it seems, by the number of years remaining.

In another case, in a hamlet not far away from my home, a woman of over 60 last year went to the village clinic for an injection. She had died before they withdrew the needle. This was clearly a medical accident, and it resulted in another private settlement, with payment of 45,000 yuan in compensation.

Now, how would these two matters have been handled if they occurred in the city?

Life in the country still seems to follow the currents of nature. Caught between the post-modern and the mediaeval, village life flows like a river without direction or restraint, and nobody knows where it will eventually run its course. Of course, these things matter little to the villagers themselves.


Thank you patient reader. I will say nothing more here about the many other issues affecting the countryside, such as public order and the care of children left behind by migrant workers. Indeed, I think I already said too much. Initially, I thought what I have written here is no more than common knowledge. But people often forget their common knowledge, or reinterpret it. So, here I hope I have, so to speak, repackaged the banalities of country life, for Chinese people everywhere.

There is no doubt that rural problems are firmly on the agenda now, the object of both scholarly and governmental attention. This is good news, but this attention is also an objective recognition that problems do exist on the land, and they are urgent.

In their comments, some readers speak of a period of “birth pains” that the countryside has to go through as part of the process of modernization. But, I would ask, will these “birth pains” actually lead to the kind of future that everyone aspires to? And why are people in the countryside expected to undergo “birth pains” in the first place? Is it because they are just “peasants”? Because, born as peasants, their lot is to go to the cities to sell themselves as labour? Take degrading jobs, and put up with humiliation and suffering? Must they become the victims of modernization?

One generation makes the sacrifices, and another gets the benefits - is that right? Must the pyramid of prosperity be founded on the exploitation of wave upon wave of migrant labourers at the base? Are they just a prop for China’s great development project and soaring ambitions?

China’s reform and opening process is now three decades old. Its legitimacy has been confirmed at every level. I too acknowledge the correctness and historical necessity of the reform and opening policy. But shouldn’t we also stand back to reflect on these 30 years, and not just constantly trumpet the successes?

Particularly with regard to the reforms, I often hear country people saying things like, “Times have changed, there’s a new mood in society, and people have different expectations. If it was still Mao’s day, everybody would have been taken out and shot.”

I too have always believed that people are not animals and that material prosperity must not be an excuse for spiritual poverty. We must not believe that filling the stomachs of rural people and putting a roof over their heads will solve all their problems.

Some people argue that, compared to the days when there was not enough to eat, country people have it good now. That’s undeniably true, but do we have to always make these comparisons across time? Following this logic, shouldn’t we all be singing and dancing in the streets now, because we are so much better off than we were in feudal or slave societies?

All proposed solutions to the problems of the countryside involve a promise that things will get better, if only we wait for industrialization to continue its advance and for China to become wealthy and powerful. Well, let’s wait then, and let’s not worry about whether or not this is an empty promise. But my grandfather will not be able to hang on that long, and my father does not know whether he will manage it. And what of my brother and sister who still live on that patch of land of ours? They do not see hope, they do not know what hope is.

I have left the village behind, and each time I go back home to it, I feel sad. I do not know; will this place be the home of my children? After all, it is a place I often worry about, and sometimes miss badly.

I admit that I need courage to write these words. To avoid accusations of bringing shame on my home, I could have adopted a different style, softening and sweetening the images, sketching village life poetically and dreamily, against a background of ever-blue skies and fertile fields. But then I would be behaving like Ah Qnot daring to look in the mirror at the scars on my own scalp.

Lu Xun said: “Dig out your heart, and know its taste.” This is what I see in my village. And it makes me sigh.

Kong Yiji is the eponymous hero of a Lu Xun short story first published in 1919. He is a failed scholar who dies in poverty because he never gives up his academic airs and is too proud to engage in manual labour. Kong Yiji cannot afford to drink with his fellow scholars inside the village inn, so stands outside with the manual labourers dressed in tattered scholar’s robes.

Lu Weifu is a character in Lu Xun’s short story In the Wine Shop (在酒楼上) who aged from a political firebrand into a bookish melancholic.

Lu Xun’s most famous literary character, Ah Q is emblematic of China’s national character at the beginning of the 20th Century.

掘心自食, 乃知本味. Lu Xun’s epitaph, expressing the pain involved in understanding (and changing) oneself and one’s country.

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