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February 5, 2016

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Home » Opinion » Book review

Rural Chinese society fractured by loss of traditional ways of life

OVER recent years, numerous books have sought to portray the desolation and decay of rural society as working-age villagers pour into cities in search of better opportunities.

One of the most recent efforts is Yan Haijun’s “Yabian Report: A Record of the Fractures in Rural China” (2015), which focuses on changes in the author’s native hometown of Yabian village, in Gansu Province. Like so many other villages, Yabian is inhabited mostly by senior citizens, many of whom seek out a meager existence as subsistence-level farmers.

At the beginning of the book, the author recalls an anecdote during Tomb-Sweeping Day in 2008, when an 80-year-old villager mused that the all-but-deserted village was reminiscent of 1929, or 1960 — except at those times Yabian was depopulated as a result of severe famines.

During the annual Spring Festival, migrants will endure long journeys and other hardships to get back to their native homes. But once there, rural decrepitude and desolation can give way to dismay and disappointment.

As is widely known, much of China’s rural working-age population has relocated to cities. Once there, many migrants try to stay for good.

Those who can’t make the journey into the urban labor market — the elderly, the young, the weak, the sick, the handicapped, the unambitious and the least resourceful — are often left to fend for themselves in villages.

For many villagers, to abandon life as a peasant is the first step toward a better life, though the process of upward mobility is paved with uncertainties. Settling down is especially difficult for ordinary migrant workers.

One thing is sure though: All have little to lose by leaving their village homes.

In Yabian village, only villagers born prior to the 1970s are still involved in farming. The same is true in countless other villages.

Nationally, this means social dislocation on a gigantic scale: Recent statistics put the number of left-behind elderly at 40 million, left-behind wives at 50 million, and left-behind children at 61 million.

Funerals and marriages were once solemn occasions where rural young people were acquainted with, and awed by, time-honored rituals and customs. But with the youth of Yabian now mostly far from home, such customs have fallen by the wayside.

From 2000 to 2014, there were only five weddings in the village. Most Yabian natives now get married in cities, either for convenience, to dodge supervision of local family planning authorities, or to avoid the extravagance and expense of a rural wedding.

As a matter of fact, getting married is a growing burden for village families. According to elderly villagers, in the 1970s, a few dozen yuan worth of betrothal gifts, plus some grain, quilts, cloth coupons and a pair of wooden chests were sufficient for a young couple to start married life.

Growing burden

But with market liberalization and the penetration of a consumerist urban lifestyle, betrothal money soared from around 1,000 yuan (US$152 at present exchange rates) in the 1980s to tens of thousands of yuan by the late 1990s, far exceeding growths in local income and inflation during the period. According to a CCTV investigation into exorbitant betrothal gifts in Qingyang, Gansu Province, some were shelling out as much as 150,000 yuan just in betrothal money.

There are a growing number of youths who, unable to afford the gift money, have had to make do with bachelorhood. What’s more, the number of female migrants leaving villages has also limited the potential for pairing off.

Before the 1980, there were two bachelors in Yabian. By late 2013, the number of bachelors among those born in the 1980s had reached 15 (in the countryside, one is generally regarded as a “confirmed bachelor” if they remain unattached by age 30).

Similarly, an oversupply of cheap labor has fueled explosive growth and development in cities, making villages like Yabian seem all the more backward and benighted in comparison.

As Yan Haijun concludes, the growing disparity reinforces the already strong faith in urban superiority. This perception is more unnatural and damning than relative poverty.

In 2008 Huazhong University of Science and Technology conducted a survey in 25 villages in 10 provinces and found an increase in the number of suicides among elderly villagers.

The study attributed this finding to changes in household structure, changing attitudes among younger generations towards the elderly, the loss of traditional faith and self-worth, as well as the weakening of social cohesion.

In Yabian, elderly people continue to work as long as their breath lasts, for fear of becoming redundant and having to live off the generosity of their children.

According to professor He Xuefeng from Huazhong University of Science and Technology, in traditional households the dominating relationship is between the father and son.

This is being replaced by the more modern notion of husband-wife. This is disruptive for traditional order.

At the heart of this change is the weakening of traditional ethics.

According to Xu Zhuoyun in his “A Comparison of Chinese and Western Civilization,” ancestral worship, evolved from worship of the dead, is based on a shared recognition of kinship, and is designed to invoke the ancestral blessing through the clan system, which is essentially cooperative and protective.

The existence of this concept relies on its being passed down from generation to generation.

But there’s hope.

It is comforting to know millions of migrants still go home for family reunion during the Spring Festival, to see the living, and to offer sacrifices to the dead. This massive migratory journey, while suggesting the dislocations that have been taking place, also shows that our faith remains formidable.


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