The vast majority of Chinese people from the earliest times to the last few years have lived in what is classified as rural China. Their lives as they figure in literature or studies have a sort of static, almost unknowable quality. Rural Chinese under Mao became, at least in the language of the Communists, the masters of their own affairs – organised into production brigades and patiently feeding the slowly expanding cities as the country was reconstructed and resurrected. In the Cultural Revolution from 1966, because of the phenomenon of sent down youth, the ranks of the peasantry (in Chinese, the less loaded word 农民) were swelled by these new, sometimes hapless agents of revolution. Current president Xi Jinping fell into this category in his years in Shaanxi from 1968.
The Chinese countryside figures in contemporary imagination as a place either of over-idealisation (the simple faithful and innocent foot soldiers for Mao’s sinified Marxist grand experiment) or deep pessimism verging on horror. In their report, `Will the Boat Sink the Water: the Life of China’s Peasants,’ written and promptly banned in China in the early 2000s, and then translated and published in the West in 2007, Anhui journalists Wu Chuntao and Chen Guidi drew an unremittingly bleak picture of the conditions in the rural areas. This was a world dominated by the struggle against poverty, unfair taxes, and larcenous, all powerful rent-seeking officials. Chinese farmers were victims. No wonder everyone was trying to leave and move to the nearest town or city.
China’s countryside is so vast, diverse and varied that reality must be more complex. And so reading the work of Australian-based Mobo Gao serves as an excellent corrective to the tendency to regard China’s rural areas as bottomless pits of need, backwardness, and despair. His `Gao Village Revisited: The Life of Rural People in Contemporary China’ (Chinese University Press, Hong Kong, 2018) (https://cup.columbia.edu/book/gao-village-revisited/9789629965785) is the sequel to a work he authored two decades ago on his home in Jiangxi province, south eastern China. Gao himself left to study in Europe in the late 1970s, and has since had academic positions there, and in his current base in Adelaide. But he has evidently maintained close contact with the place of his birth and upbringing, and it serves as a central motif of his work.
Gao has always been a wonderful and often bold contrarian. His earlier work, `The Battle for China’s Past’ written in 2008 was a counterblast against the narrative of the Cultural Revolution from 1966 being an unmitigated catastrophe for Chinese people. For him, as a rural inhabitant then, this allowed the elite, urban narrative to dominate over the less privileged one – for occupants of this other China, the decade from 1966 allowed freedom, and on many levels was liberating. He refers to this a little in the current book by talking of this era, when he was an adolescent, as one of exploration, and of permission to be allowed to attack traditional ideas and conservative shibboleths. This is contentious, but his interpretation needs to be set alongside the many others of this era to fully appreciate its complexity, and avoid falling into easy, moralising frameworks.
The most important point that Gao makes in this work is that far from being a place of victimisation and passive, tragic weakness, China’s countryside in the era of Xi Jinping is one of assertion, agency and optimism. It is also, as he very eloquently argues, a place that does not fit into the usual power-dynamics. Far from being a drain on government resources, and a place where the key imperative is to get out as fast as possible, Chinese rural dwellers are `looking after China, taking care of the Chinese government’ (p 19). The dependency is the reverse of what is usually expected. Without the hard work, optimism, and massive energy of this part of China, the rest of the country would not work.
This is a hugely important point to consider. The other is made earlier in the book where Gao argues that `China has to be understood and interpreted on its own terms’ (p. 4). Of course, many would take issue with this, asserting the need to stand up for universal ideas of analysis and assessment. But Gao’s work appeals to me most strongly because, for fairly self-evident reasons (this is after all the place from where he originally came, and to which he is still deeply linked) of the strong emotional link between the observer and scholar (him) and the object of his work (his ancestral home). That gives his narrative an extra dimension, and moves it beyond the sometimes cold, and often almost inhumanely calculating social science or anthropological posture one often gets in books about China.