8 of 8 people found the following review helpful
on June 2, 2011
This book helps dispel three preconceived ideas about rural China: that Chinese villagers are not interested in or capable of romantic love; that the rural private self is constrained by tradition and collective spirit; and that market reforms have generated a decline in civic virtues and a rise of egoism. According to this reasoning, the moral economy of rural China doesn't fit the requisites of a modern polity, with the strict separation between the private and public spheres and the individualist ethic associated with the spirit of capitalism. In sum, Chinese peasants are different and therefore they are not mature for democracy, which requires loving selves, autonomous subjects and civic-minded individuals. Let me take these three assumptions in turn.
The first cliché assumes that love is an urban inclination imported from abroad and still unknown to the Chinese rural masses, who have yet to enter modernity or have bypassed it altogether. Two versions of the same story come to mind: The Good Earth, Pearl Buck's novel with Wang Lung as the striving, hard-working farmer who places Chinese virtues such as filial piety and duty to family over personal sentiments; and The Red Detachment of Women, the Socialist ballet that was a favorite of Chairman Mao and which features Wu Qinghai as the young and heroic peasant girl who places revolution above all else. Wang Lung and Wu Qinghai are both incapable of romantic love: this sentiment is alien to the first because it is non-Chinese and rejected by the second because it contradicts revolutionary spirit.
Yunxiang Yan's patient research and personal experience contradicts this first assumption. Based on a decade of anthropological fieldwork in a village from Heilongjiang province in northeastern China where he had first lived as a young farm worker, he shows that love and courtship have long been an important dimension of village life. To be sure, "a couple who fell in love in the 1960s did not enjoy the same kind of romantic love and intimacy that couples did in the 1990s." Notions of romantic engagement, free choice in spouse selection, conjugal independence, and individual property that emerged during the collective era (1956-80) have become increasingly important in the domestic sphere since the 1980s. But workers in farm collectives during the 1960s and 1970s were also capable of expressing their tender feelings and conveying their affections to their loved ones. They did so in sometimes subtle and touching ways: a stutter of embarrassment when offering help while working in the field, a sudden blush when accepting it, small gestures of attention such as giving a good hand in a card game or offering a watermelon.
In comparison to their parents and other siblings, village youth of both sexes in the 1990s mastered a wider range of love words and were more open and skillful in communicating their affections. The magic word love (`ai') has entered the discourse of romance along with other catchwords such as `wo xihuan ni'' (I like you) and `wo xiang ni' (I miss you). Until the early 1980s, being `laoshi' (obedient and honest) was a highly regarded merit in village society. But in the post-reform era, `laoshi' has gradually become a negative term. The new ideal spouse is a `fengliu' (romantic) type who knows how to talk (`you huashuo'). Premarital sex, a social taboo in the 1960s, has become a rather common practice among engaged couples, who go to the city to `take an engagement photo' (`zhao dinghun xiang') and spend the night together at the home of an urban relative or in a hotel.
Thanks to the institutionalized time and space of the post-engagement period, village youth have been able to cultivate the emotions of love and intimacy, using the words and role models presented in pop song and TV dramas. The time is over when a farm worker recalled his arranged marriage as a distraction from collective work in the land reform period of the fifties: "I spend only one night at home for the wedding and returned to my work team the very next morning. I was so happy when my leader praised me for being a devoted revolutionary, always putting work ahead of my personal life." Paradoxically, the new ideology that supported youth autonomy, free choice in marriage, and gender equality was introduced into village life through political meetings, the mobilization of women in collective work projects, and entertainment outlets officially approved by the Communist cadres. The conclusion of the author reads like a warning against a culturalistic view of the Chinese countryside worker: "The expression of love and intimacy is a learned behavior, and if it can be learned by American youths it can certainly be learned by their counterparts in rural China or elsewhere--as long as social conditions allow it."
The second issue Yan's book allows us to revisit is the tension between collective values and individual freedom, between the group and the self. The individual has long been missing from scholarly discourse on rural family life in China. It was assumed that the family unit, dominated by the patriarchal elder, or the work collective, under the control of the Party representative, stifled the expression of individual aspirations and feelings. In fact, as the book shows, Chinese rural workers are die-hard individuals who pursue their own private interest with little respect for tradition, parental authority, or the collective interest. When collectivization broke up the previous system of social hierarchy based on kinship, it also created the antithesis of collectivity--namely, individuality.
First, Xiajia villagers are not bound by tradition because there is no tradition to speak of. In comparison with other villages in many parts of China south of the Great Wall, Xiajia is a young settler community, with a history of little more than a hundred years. There is little mention of village customs, season festivals, or ancestor worship rituals. The only reference to religion is to mention the growing number of Christian converts gathering in house churches in the post-reform period. In a way, Xiajia is not unlike the rest of rural China, where traditional culture was wiped out clean by the so-called Great Leap Forward (in effect a huge step backward) and the equally misnamed Cultural Revolution (which attacked all references to culture as counter-revolutionary). The attack on traditional symbols and popular religion continued in the 1990s, as when the local government ordered to dig up the tombs and unbury the dead in order to perform mandatory cremation.
The collapse of parental superiority and the decline of filial piety that characterized traditional China should therefore come as no surprise. There was a shift in power and authority from the senior to the junior generation and in particular from the elder mother to the daughter-in-law--what the author labels "the triumph of conjugality over patriarchy" or "the demystification of parenthood". The reasons are partly economical: in family businesses, petty commodity production and wage labor, young family members play at least as important a role as their parents, and women contribute more to the proper functioning of the family. Power follows the money. The result is a ruthless give-and-take mentality where intergenerational transfers are subjected to strict accounting. Newly married sons expect their parents to help them move out to new houses with brick walls and tile roofs, and then often leave them in the old-style clay house that thus becomes an "empty nest".
Inside the new houses, multiple bedrooms give individual members of a family their own personal space or "territories of the self", therefore contributing to the rise of individualism and conjugality. Fewer and fewer parents can expect formal obedience and ritual respect from their married children, and almost no one in the younger generation considers unconditional obedience to one's parents to be a moral norm. Support for the elderly is no longer guaranteed; to gain it, parents have better cultivate a good relationship with their siblings and in particular their daughter-in-law, who tends to look after her own parents more frequently. The author documents several cases of severe parent abuse, as when a daughter-in-law "grabbed her father-in-law from behind and pounded his head against the wooden furniture several time." Another grandmother is reduced to living in a tiny hole and snatches food from the kitchen when the rest of the family is enjoying dinner in the main room.
The third issue at stake in Private Life under Socialism is the importance of civic virtues and moral sentiments as opposed to greed and distrust. A popular view attributes the decline of collective discipline and the rise of the uncivil individual to the introduction of values associated with the market economy. In fact, as the book vividly documents, the most ruthless individuals and law trespassers are party cadres and village officials. This is how the author describes a former village head in the 1990s: "This man formerly had been a well-known troublemaker and had a record of criminal offenses, including battery, theft, and attempted robbery (...) Relying on a small gang of violent youth, this bully-turned cadre was indeed able to collect the unpaid levies that villagers owed to the local government (...) These achievements made him an excellent village cadre in the eyes of the township government (...) As party secretary he became even more corrupt and abusive, openly taking bribes, appropriating state loans to the village for his own private use, and pocketing public funds. He was involved in extramarital affairs with three women and reportedly used his political power to seduce or force several other women to engage in casual sex with him." He was finally removed from the post after a mass protest involving more than 300 villagers in 1998.
This "model village party secretary" is no exception. The first party secretary from 1952 to 1060 was an illiterate and extremely poor farm laborer who earned the nickname "big wolf" and his heavy-handedness inflicted famine and poverty to the village through the early years of collectivization. The man who held office from 1978 to 1987 confesses to the author that he could not remember how many people he had beaten during his ten-year tenure as party secretary." His successor is even more candid: "Why am I doing this job? Simple--for money." Xijia's public life in the postcollective era has declined rapidly in many respects: "political participation, public goods provision, cultural activities, morality, and sociality in general have all suffered." The village party branch virtually stopped functioning because party members never met after the early 1990s: "The villagers told me that the cadres did not want to hold mass meetings because they could not account for the missing public funds and the other problems caused by their irresponsible leadership." But the heavy-handedness remained: when a woman refused to vote for the "right" candidate, the village office cut off her family's electricity the next day.
The worst change, according to many villagers, is the deterioration of public order. Xiajia had been a safe and peaceful community during the collective period, and there was no need to lock one's house from the inside during the night. After the late 1980s, theft of private and public property increased yearly, forcing Xiajia residents to lock their houses and build walled courtyards. There was a collapse of public trust and civic virtues. The epidemic of lying and cheating and stealing made any sort of civic life impossible; the collapse of civic life only encourages more lying, cheating, and stealing. Lacking faith in one another, villagers fell back on themselves and their families. The structure of the village economy is collectivist, but the village, in spirit, is the opposite of a collective. Its real structure is every man for himself. It is not the market economy that is to blame for the miseries that man does to man in this man-eat-man's world.
It is worthwhile to quote the book's conclusion at length: "If there were autonomous societal organizations and if villagers were able to participate in public life, a more balanced individualism might have developed, in which the individual obligations to the public and to other people could be emphasized as well. But just the opposite has happened. Beginning in the 1980s, public life declined, social order deteriorated, and the village community disintegrated. Local government and village cadres became increasingly predatory and exploitive in order to extract more and more resources from the villagers to support the ever-expanding bureaucratic system and meet their own personal desires. To make the situation even worse, the state remained hostile to any organized societal forces even after it withdrew its political and economic support of public life at the local level. Having been excluded from political participation and public life, villagers were forced to retreat to their private homes and have grown increasingly cynical about any moral discourse. As a result, their sense of duty and obligation to the community and to other people as equal individuals continue to shrink in both the public and private spheres."