China’s Overlooked Small Towns — A Review of “China in One Village”

Hong, Liang. China in One Village: The Story of One Town and the Future of the World. Translated by Emily Goedde. New York: Verso Books, 2021.

Reviewed by Lei Zhang

Good scholarly accounts of life in rural China have been scant of late, because of a dearth of accounts written by people acquainted with small-town life and academics’ relative ignorance of rural communities. Liang Hong, a writer who resided for twenty years in Liang village in inland China, has pieced episodes together to present a vivid picture of village life in China in One Village.

Dating to the early twentieth century, urbanization in China was carried out at the expense of the countryside, especially after the coming of communism in 1949. By collectivizing agricultural communities, the state extracted tax and grains from villages to sustain national industrialization and urbanization. Mao Zedong destabilized the countryside politically and socially from 1949 to 1976, through his bureaucracy’s successive campaigns of land reform, the Anti-Rightist Campaign, the Great Leap Forward, and the Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping’s reforms and Open Door Policy further dismantled the countryside economically from 1978 to 1997, and the inhumane one-child policy fundamentally dismembered the family and kinship structure which had so long characterized rural Chinese life. 

Liang village, the subject of China in One Village, collapsed from within in an unprecedented manner. The conversion of the local school into a pigpen symbolized an important rupture of one vital source of rural social upward mobility. Liang was depopulated, as its children entered the ranks of millions of migrant workers who left for factories in faraway cities. Liang Hong’s dilapidated hometown became the province of undervalued families and elders as it was left behind. One woman committed suicide by poisoning herself because of the sexual frustration that came from her long-distance romantic relationship with her newly relocated lover, a transient laborer. A boy brutally murdered and raped an octogenarian woman after watching pornography. These horrors—perhaps categorizable as death and crime of despair—were the results, in Liang’s telling, of the moral decline, social disintegration, and debasement of political power occasioned by a rapid growth in regional inequality. 

Migrant workers come from all across the country to urban centers like Chang’an in search of temporary or factory work. Chris, “Migrant Chinese Workers,” 2009, Flickr.

The rural reconstruction movement of recent decades gave a glimmer of hope to what had become a ghost town. For instance, NGOs, academic institutions, rural cooperatives, and everyday participants brought to small towns the New Rural Reconstruction, an intellectual current and social movement initiated by Wen Tiejun to address the crisis in rural China at the beginning of the twenty-first century. But rural reconstruction sponsored by the government itself was superficial, since the cultural teahouse and village theater were image projects that ignored local interests. In Liang village women found dignity, equality, and respect In Christianity. However, the state continued to suppress religion, as did similarly watchful patriarchs. 

China in One Village sheds light on the meaning of life, recounting the diversity of individual feelings in Liang village. Liang writes as both a former villager and as a daughter. In other words, her sense of superiority as an urban writer and her nostalgic sentiments have become an integral part of the record. Liang presents a song of sorrow for the obsolescence of her village, and seeks a sense of belonging not only for herself but also for her generation. She tries to find China in one village, but her once home has become a foreign land. This is the topophilia of the era of mass homelessness, the plight of our generation.

Lei Zhang is an assistant professor of history at Lingnan University, Hong Kong. His research interests focus on urban history, environmental history, and historical geography in modern China. He has published articles in Technology and Culture, Journal of Historical Geography, and Journal of Urban History.

Featured image (at top): Many of China’s smaller rural communities were left behind in the midst of rapid urbanization during the twentieth century. Asian Development Bank, “Zhangbei Wind Power Project in the People’s Republic of China,” 2009, Flickr.

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