Life among the farmers

Two days ago I reviewed this book, and now I see its author has written a splendid piece about his experience living deep in the countryside in southeast China and his thoughts on the role of the agrarian classes in China’s future, and their plight throughout history.

Just one snip:

Not unlike the country’s own 260-million-strong “floating population” of itinerant laborers, I myself am also a nongmingong (migrant worker), presently dividing my time between our village and neighboring Shanghai, where I work. But the “simple life” I lead back in Jiangsu is not something I have been entirely inclined to share with other foreigners here. There seems to be an unspoken but prevalent attitude amongst more colonial-minded expats in China that leaving the luxury of the big city for the countryside is not becoming of us as westerners.

No, Western imperialism is not dead, and ironically it is found more frequently today among the Chinese themselves, especially the well-heeled, urban second-generation, whom harbor a deep-seated disdain for their agrarian countrymen. The derision is palpable, as if anyone with sun-kissed skin and a provincial hukou (identification card) is a shameful, sepia-toned reminder that China was not always an economic powerhouse.

Lest we forget, it is they — not the government who steals their land, nor the second-generation snobs residing in the skyscrapers built by them — who are the true People of this eponymous republic. And if the China watchers are correct in their prediction that the country’s profound social divisions may culminate into outright revolution within the next decade, my forecast is that the numbers are in favor of the farmers.

It’s very moving to see an expatriate championing China’s farmers. It is certainly not something you see very often. Please read the whole article.

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Richard Burger is the author of Behind the Red Door: Sex in China, an exploration of China's sexual revolution and its clash with traditional Chinese values.

The Discussion: 16 Comments

I get what he’s saying, but “my China is the real China” is an almost stereotypical noobish expat sentiment.

April 2, 2013 @ 1:06 pm | Comment

That’s a whacky definition of imperialism, too.

April 2, 2013 @ 7:19 pm | Comment

Hate to play devil’s advocate here (and quite ready to be called a snob…), but some people in the city don’t like people from the countryside for reasons other than where they come from and their skin color(the tone of this article is weird on so many levels like many things I read in English about China these days), especially those of us directly allying ourselves with such persons. Simply imagine, when someone like my mother, a lower-middle class 9-5 worker like everyone else, need to have more than half of her paycheck going to sisters, brothers and mother in law at the countryside, is directly responsible for everybody’s housing & meals when they visit the city and children’s employment after graduation, has some complaints against the countryside and its people, how can I cite their hard work and diligence as a politically correct gesture and tell her to think otherwise?

I cannot buy into the romanticizing of Chinese countryside anymore than the unrealistic high hopes towards urban middle class (foundation of democracy and freedom etc.). If I have to choose, I think the first one is even more unrealistic. I certainly would rather Chinese countryside looks more like Japanese, German ones etc., but China isn’t the only country that suffers from a urbanization & migration issue (a look at Latin American city slums would give you an idea, another parallel may be the 1920s history in the US but that’s a shabby comparison), and asking urban middle class to be directly responsible for the Hukou issue is unachievable as public policy though not entirely unreasonable morally.

April 3, 2013 @ 6:26 am | Comment

And by 1920s I meant late 1800s to early 1900s….

April 3, 2013 @ 6:43 am | Comment

BTW (as far as anecdotal evidence goes), my roommate, a first generation migrant/immigrant from the countryside and made it to a third-tier city by efforts of her parents and then overseas on her own, asks me to tell foreigners who are sympathetic/empathetic towards the countryside people in China but not plan to live there for the rest of their lives to simply shut up because motivated people in the countryside don’t need their compassion.

April 3, 2013 @ 6:52 am | Comment

BTW (as far as anecdotal evidence goes), my roommate, a first generation migrant/immigrant from the countryside and made it to a third-tier city by efforts of her parents and then overseas on her own, asks me to tell foreigners who are sympathetic/empathetic towards the countryside people in China but not plan to live there for the rest of their lives to simply shut up because motivated people in the countryside don’t need their compassion.

This. The last thing we need is for China’s rural areas to resemble India’s rural areas, where farmers lobby politicians for handouts and prostrate themselves before overseas NGOs for ‘aid’

April 3, 2013 @ 7:42 am | Comment

I personally won’t go that far (there are certainly times when I wish Chinese rural population makes their voice heard more to the urban middle class and overseas/western media), but I think it is important to understand that many segments of population in Chinese rural areas don’t do these things, including many of the most motivated members. Many of them don’t buy into the radical egalitarian agenda, and won’t turn to foreigners unless something really big happened and the official channels are closed off (some countryside people’s interview on how they lose their only kid in 5/12 being one of the examples). The proper foreigner’s perspective, in my mind, is what Peter Hessler did when he was approached by a guy named Rebecca in Fuling, saying that he wants to go to the US because he doesn’t like government in China: Hessler gave him a better grade than he deserved out of pity, but also told him that moving to the US is not going to be feasible.

Of course Chinese rural areas come in all shapes and sizes, the author’s village is definitely on the more developed side – but what alienates me is always that “I did something special, I can speak for all these people” and that what I see as something almost borders on sexism…for instance, why isn’t his wife writing about her experience? Why isn’t she talking to us about Chinese countryside, marrying to a Westerner and what that brings to her? Where is her voice in this, other than these brief sentences in the beginning, supposedly give him the authority to speak for her?

April 4, 2013 @ 6:50 am | Comment

Imperialism is based on urban elites ruling over agrarian populations, so Carter is not off-base there. The urban-rural divide and conflict goes back to the origins of civilization.

There are parallels here with recent Western history, such as the enclosure acts and clearances in Britain, which cleared rural populations off the land and pushed them into the cities to die-off (cities are demographic sinks) or forced them to flee to the New World. There has been a similar “American Clearance” over the past half century where family farms have been decimated and young people have been herded into urban areas.

April 4, 2013 @ 7:01 am | Comment

Alright, I take part of my criticism back because of what he covers in his book. But still, I think people need to be extremely cautious when representing anyone else’s cause and it’s always the best let others speak for themselves. A note on my perspective may help: I’ve lived in the US for years and travelled extensively, talked to people in many social-economic status, religious beliefs, residential environment, studied its politics and history, and instead of representing any segment of American society, that cultural conservative in me reaches the conclusion that I’m not part of this story, and I’m in no position of acting like an American expert in front of Chinese nationals. I certainly cannot speak for all Chinese nationals living in the US (many are way more comfortable than I do in acting like American experts), but I do question that overconfidence in the article and in some Chinese studies communities I’ve encountered here.

April 4, 2013 @ 7:33 am | Comment

@Jake.

You make good Marx type points, but in the 21st century it is all about food security – and not aristocrat absentee landlords – which today is a globalised business.

The players are Saudi Arabia, Abu Dhabi with China a poor third (because of its rotten reputation).

South Koreans will be the last nation state in Asia to dismantle the family farm, even though Korean women now refuse to marry male farmers, who have to seek brides from Vietnam and Laos.

@ Cathy. If Korean women now want to live in urban locations, so to do Chinese women. Would any of Lesley Chang’s Factory Girls permanently return to their home villages?
No way.
It is not just Bright Lights, Big City: it is about financial independence and enpowerment.

And thats a positive thing about China today, in contrast to the Islamic world (and you can throw in that sewer India).

Oh yeah, brown is sexy and attractive.

April 4, 2013 @ 3:26 pm | Comment

@ KT

China is not Korea. The geographic and economic size (and diversity) isn’t on the same level. Taiwan can be compared to Korea, but not the mainland China. China’s current development level cannot sustain a full scale industralisation of the whole nation, not even a significant part of it. Many people currently living in the countryside are going to stay there for quite some time. Urbanisation is definitely going to happen, but the better way is doing it locally (meaning moving some of the fast-grown industries to inland centres, developing suburb style of residence), instead of telling more people to move to these already over-populated big city centres.

As for those who have already migrated, getting rid of Hukou definitely helps, but having everyone stuck in Beijing/Shanghai/Guangzhou will likely create Southern Chicago/Washington DC etc. instead of a harmonious metropolitan neighbourhood.

I like Chang’s book too (gave it five star highly recommended), but her sample isn’t representative. She said that herself, she lost so many contacts during the whole interview + writing process. It is still better than many other people’s accounts of contemporary China, yes, but that tells us more about the lack of high quality work than anything else.

April 5, 2013 @ 6:56 am | Comment

And actually, part of the problems in Islamic world is about young people (in this case, mainly males) moving to city centres but still unable to find high paying jobs…without the city centres they cannot organise…if you’re saying that the difference here is gender, that’s an interesting argument, but if you say it’s because China has a better urbanisation policy…I don’t quite see that, though as always, I may be wrong.

April 5, 2013 @ 7:01 am | Comment

BTW (I’m talking too much these days, graduation anxiety apparently), though I don’t know much about Korea, the whole marriage/relationship dynamic is a both way issue. For many newly financially independent females I know, the rejection from the comparable male population came way before their own decision of staying single/seeking out other opportunities, for instance, younger partners.

April 5, 2013 @ 7:13 am | Comment

I was drawing attention to strong gender differences and the fact that both Korean and Chinese young women will do their utmost to escape from the traditional farm or village with its defined roles. And cities provide that opportunity.

China’s urbanisation policy sucks, but at least it has one compared to Egypt or that failed sewer state Pakistan.

And, I got the distinct feeling that Chang’s subjects were fairly representative, combining this with a fair bit of personal observation when in China and Korea. BTW, Korea is a far more Confucian social formation today, than China has ever been at any point in the last fifty years.

It is not about geographic size, it is about prevailing gender norms in rural areas and the opportunities offered to women by cities.Why slave away in the kitchen and field seven days a week – interpersed with child rearing – when cities allow one to redefine onself. Okay, their initial jobs aren’t exactly great, but I think women take a long term view about the process of self-betterment.

April 5, 2013 @ 8:07 am | Comment

Far more people (women and men) fail to achieve self-betterment from this migration process than what one may conclude from her book (because people she’s able to get and remain contact belongs to the very motivated and persistent type, a large minority but a minority still), especially after the financial crisis (yes, it affects Chinese economy as well). I’ve never been part of the migration from countryside to cities, I’ll admit that now; but I’m part of the migration from inland to more advanced areas. A far larger percentage of people getting degrees in Beijing/Shanghai/Guangzhou are going back to their home province now than ten years ago. I don’t see how or why that cannot happen to migrants of another kind, or why it shouldn’t.

Korea and Japan the like are small economies. They can go from agrarian societies to industrialised/service-oriented ones on a national level. China cannot because China needs people on the farm and produce food. Not all people (again, men or women) can go out and be migrants. Another thing here is that remain culturally conservative may not necessarily be a bad thing for a society, if the more privileged members live up to their side of the bargain. I know many Chinese women who went through the migration/financial independence process but still remain conservative in gender roles (and happy about it). As I’m quite disappointed at many Chinese men myself, I won’t argue this point further.

April 7, 2013 @ 8:38 am | Comment

” As I’m quite disappointed at many Chinese men myself, I won’t argue this point further”.

Are you simply dismissing the class Cathy, or are you referring to the recent study released by the National Academy of Sciences.

April 9, 2013 @ 10:18 am | Comment

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