Review | China in One Village

Charlie Hore reviews China in One Village by Liang Hong, finding an informative and personal account of the contradictions of rapid urbanisation and societal change in China.

Image from Liang Village, a woman pulls a trolley next to brick.
Cover of China in One Village.

Liang Hong, China in One Village, translated by Emily Goedde, (London: Verso, 2021) 316 pp, £16.99

China’s meteoric rise to becoming the world’s economic powerhouse was powered by an army of hundreds of millions of peasant migrant workers. In possibly the biggest population shift in world history, young men and women from across China’s countryside moved to the old cities and populated new ones, working exceptionally long hours for very low wages.

This mass migration has changed the face of China and created a new – and often highly combative – working class. In 1980, eighty per cent of China’s population lived in the countryside – in 2020 the figure was just forty percent, of a much larger population.

Although villages initially prospered as migrants sent money back to their families, the gap between rural and urban incomes became even wider, at the same time as rural unemployment increased. The result was a series of increasingly large collective protests, starting in 1993 and peaking in 1998 and again in 2003. ‘Between January and June 1998 alone, a total of 3,200 collective protests were sufficiently serious to be recorded at a national level’.[1]  A report on rural poverty, Will the Boat Sink the Water?, sold 150,000 copies in a month before being banned, after which the authors estimated that some seven million pirated copies were sold.[2]

China in One Village, is a literary account of a return to her native village in 2010 by Liang Hong, a university professor in Beijing. Compared to Will the Boat Sink the Water? this is a very different work, but one that has sold in similar numbers. The author mixes interviews and conversations with family with her own experiences to give a picture of how the village has changed in the 20 years since she left.

That picture is in many ways a bleak one – although some people are better off, the traditional community of the village is being hollowed out, with market relations replacing traditional family and clan ties. One example of this is the closure of the village school, founded in 1967 and closed at the turn of the century: ‘The doors have nearly rotted away, practically collapsing into dust with a push. Through the broken glass, the classrooms are a more harrowing sight’ (p88). A homeless woman had lived for a while in one room, while chickens and rabbit are being kept in another one.

The river that runs through the village has become polluted with flammable wastewater – ‘where the river eddies, you can use a lighter to ignite the foam, and with a “whoomp” the fire will race along the riverbank…’ (p50). Large-scale sandmining has also made it a death-trap for swimmers, with a dozen or so people drowning every year (this from a village of some 1,400 people.)

About half of the book is interviews with people who stayed in the village, which adds depth to the author’s picture and gives fascinating glimpses of how lives have changed in the village under and after Mao. Her father’s account of the power relations between – and within – the main extended families of the village gives a powerful sense of the strength of those family ties: ‘For more than two hundred years, the Liangs have been clan leaders, branch secretaries, or in charge of village affairs, and it’s only in the past ten years that the Hans have usurped this position.’ (p22).

One recurring issue is the children of migrant workers being brough up by their grandparents who have stayed in the village, and the ways in which this has altered traditional family dynamics. Traditional family hierarchies have to a large extent broken down, but are being replaced by a new economic inequality. As Liang Hong’s aunt explains: ‘Who in the village would dare say they won’t take care of their grandchildren? These days if you don’t help out, you’re taking a serious risk. Don’t you want to live into old age?’ (pp260-261).

There is a very strong sense of loss running through the book. Part of this is a ‘you can’t go home again’ nostalgia for a happy childhood, though the author is mostly careful to guard against too rosy a picture of the past. Walking barefoot to school sounds idyllic, but rather less so when ‘…you would step on manure more times than you could count…giving off a stink and making your hair stand on end.’ (p44). It’s more a sense of rapid change as something that has been done to the village, the massive physical changes mirroring the social and personal upheaval experienced by those left behind.

The village is on the North China Plain, only a few hours from the nearest trainline, in a traditionally prosperous county. This ease of access to the outside world has undoubtedly been a factor in the speed of change. To that extent, it’s not a ‘typical’ Chinese village (if there is any such thing), but the individual experiences that the author describes so well (and which the excellent translation brings out clearly) are obviously part of a much bigger whole. As she notes in the preface, ‘…whenever I spoke about the book people always wanted to talk to me about their own villages and what had happened to them; never about Liang Village.’ (pviii).

One crucial aspect which is missing from the book are the voices of those who have left, who may well have quite a different take on the divide between rural and urban, as well as the changes occurring in the village. Liang Hong has written a second book, Leaving Liang Village, on the experiences of migrants, and it’s to be hoped that that will soon appear in English. The best account in English of migrant workers’ experiences is Hsiao-Hung Pai’s Scattered Sand[3], which well worth reading alongside China in One Village for a complementary perspective.

The afterword gives a brief update on the changes in the village since the book was written, few of which are for the better. There’s a particularly poignant section where the author notes a dozen (that she knows of) unexpected deaths – from road accidents, a knife fight and suicide, but also one woman who got liver cancer and ‘after finding out how much the treatment would cost…went straight back to work and carried on working until her last breath.’ (p298). She also notes that she’s working on a third book Ten years in Liang Village to bring the story up to date. While the very narrow focus inevitably makes for a lack of breadth, the immediacy of China in One Village brings to life how China is changing in a way that more academic works cannot do.

[1] Jonathan Unger, The Transformation of Rural China (Armonk, NY: ME Sharpe, 2002), p213.

[2] Published in English as Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao, Will the Boat Sink the Water?, translated by Zhu Hong (London: Public Affairs, 2006)

[3] Hsiao-Hung Pai, Scattered Sand (London: Verso, 2012)


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