When Liang Hong returned to her village after spending a decade away, she discovered that the small truths at home painted a larger picture of China’s economic and societal trends.
Editor’s note: After a decade away from her ancestral family village in central Henan province, writer and literary scholar Liang Hong returned in 2008-2009 to conduct interviews and see for herself how the seismic changes in Chinese society had played out in this particular community. The resulting book, “China in One Village,” was first published in 2010 and became a classic in Chinese literary nonfiction.
In the following decade, Liang continued her journey in “Leaving Liang Village” and “Ten Years of the Liang Village,” which respectively traced the stories of those who left the village for cities and her subsequent return later on. This June, Verso published an English translation of the book that started Liang down this incredible path. The following is an excerpt taken from “China in One Village” about farm life and the flow of people to and from the place they were born.
My brother had arranged with some people in the village to come over tomorrow to talk about fluctuations in the village population and the general economic situation. He said: I thought long and hard but could hardly come up with anyone who could talk about these things.
It was 10 p.m. by the time we finished dinner, and the few Liangs whom my brother had invited came over. One was the village head. He’s in his 50s, the son of a storekeeper. Like his father, he has a light complexion and is pretty sharp. He watched me closely as we talked; he wanted to know what I was really up to, what my purpose was.
Another was my paternal uncle, a village accountant famous for his prudence.
Another, whom I call “Elder Brother,” left the village early on to work. At around 40, he came back to the village and hasn’t left since. He keeps to himself and is rather mysterious. He doesn’t drop in on other people, although he doesn’t object when others visit his place. One year all his hair suddenly fell out, and since then he’s worn a black woolen hat all year round.
Finally, there was a middle-aged man who lives outside the village. He’s known as somebody who can get things done.
A few hundred years ago, the two Liang brothers brought their seven sons here, established homes, and began to increase in number. Currently, there are 54 Liang households of substantial size.
The number of smaller families is less clear. For example, two brothers left to find jobs after getting married. Their parents stayed behind to help take care of the children. No matter how you divide the family, from an economic perspective, they are one small household.
Calculated this way, there would be around 150 households of more than 640 people. Young couples in their mid-30s have at least two children, and a few have three. Two families have left the village altogether. They moved to live in the cities in which they work (selling their houses and land in the village). One family’s final whereabouts is unknown because they haven’t been in touch with anyone in the village.
Seven families work outside the village and their children attend schools where they live. Their family homes are closed up, and they have not come back for several years, and aren’t likely to anytime soon. One family lives in town but they still have a house and land in the village, and they plan to build a house soon. Three families do business in other places and come back every year or two. They have built nice family homes in the village, so it seems like they’re preparing to return in the future.
Of the several dozen families who still live in the village, the younger members work outside the village all year round, and it is the elderly, the middle-aged women, and the children who remain at home.
A woman works while her grandchild plays nearby, Tangyin County, Henan province, May 2011. People Visual
In addition, there are eight or nine households whose members have never left but who eke out a living from the land. They are considered the most unworldly members of the village and are the most looked down on and overlooked.
In the late ’80s and early ’90s, a large number of people from Liang Village left to find jobs, and in the early years, Beijing and Xi’an were the principal destinations. In Beijing, many worked in factories, on construction sites, or as security guards. For a short time, they gathered at Beijing’s train station to scalp tickets.
In Xi’an, many worked around the train station driving pedicabs. The clan was the nucleus for them all; they exchanged leads and took care of one another. Later, some went to Qingdao and Guangzhou to work. A very small number did business, such as working as gas technicians and selling rural food goods in the city.
More than 320 Liangs work outside the village. The oldest, 60, is a construction worker in Xinjiang. The youngest is 15. He followed his uncle to a jewelry factory in Qingdao. More than 30 adolescents study at the middle and high schools in town. For the most part, they board at school and come home on the weekends. More than 30 children also study at the primary school in town. Their grandparents take care of them and bring them back and forth every day.
The village has more than one hundred people older than 50. They farm and take care of their grandchildren, and those who still have the energy do odd jobs in town, work on local construction sites or in the village sand-lime brick factory.
There’s also a subtle “returnee” phenomenon happening here. The earliest to leave for work left in the mid- to late-’80s, and when they were middle-aged, between 40 and 50, some of them came back to the village, where they raise crops and do odd jobs in and around town. The others are still working outside of the village, but it’s clear they won’t be able to keep it up much longer. A few of them don’t want to come back, but they’re too old to work and are just hanging on.
Like a cousin of mine, when he was young he returned from military service, and after his wife had a child he left to find work. He was one of the first to leave. He started as a security guard in Beijing, then pulled a pedicab in Xi’an. Every year he only came home for the Spring Festival.
A few years ago, I ran into him in the village and he talked and acted like a city guy who wanted to show what a big shot he was. He looks down on his own wife terribly because she’s never left the village. He’s gotten used to city life, even though he only pulls a pedicab. Yet it’s clear — when all is said and done, he’s going to have to come back.
During the busy season, a few middle-aged women form temporary work units to help villagers with farming, weeding, and harvesting. They can bring in 30 yuan in a day. Younger women, however, live like migratory birds. Both husband and wife go out to find temporary jobs and then use the money they earn to build houses.
The grandparents take care of the kids, who go to school in the village, and the parents come back at the Spring Festival or during the busy season. The village head said that over the past two years, the numbers of those coming back for the Spring Festival has gradually decreased.
Migrant workers make their way to the railway station after the Spring Festival holiday, in Xuchang, Henan province, Feb. 3, 2009. IC
During summer and winter vacations, the parents have the kids go to where they’re working, and when vacation is over, they send them back to school. Of course this is only for the parents who are working in the same place and live together.
There are also a few comparatively successful young people who have earned more money. They’ve come back home to do business, to sell sand, or open wholesale businesses. But these cases are extremely rare.
Liang Qingbao is one example. Last year he came back wanting to open a business selling solar power equipment in the up-and-coming rural areas. He thought the people who were building new houses would buy them and the market wouldn’t be bad. But after a year, he hadn’t earned any money and had burned through several years of savings. This year, Qingbao plans to leave again to find work.
People gone; buildings empty: this is the fact of daily life in the countryside. The majority of rural people who work in the city have built new homes. Indeed, they have gone to the cities just to earn the money to build houses and pay their children’s school expenses. They don’t plan to establish roots in the cities, to retire there (perhaps they simply don’t see it as possible). Their greatest hope is to work in the cities, earn some money, build a decent house in the village, and afterwards figure out some kind of business to do there.
An aerial view of homes in Qianchen Villlage, Xuchang, Henan province, 2017. Niu Yuan/People Visual
Husbands are separated from wives; parents are separated from children. This is the most common household situation. Even if a husband and wife go to the same city to work, only very rarely do they eat together or live together. And if they don’t work at the same factory or construction site, and eat and sleep in the factory, their ability to simply see one another is limited.
There are a few who don’t live too badly, like the younger brother of the village head, whose childhood nickname was “Bad Egg.” He used to be known as a troublemaker in the village and was almost sent to prison. He works as a gas technician in Inner Mongolia, where he started ahead of the game and earned a bit of money. He bought a house there and had his children sent to live with him. They haven’t been back for four or five years.
When the village head mentioned this, his tone was a little strained. It didn’t seem like he wanted to talk about him. After they left, I asked my brother about it. He told me why: apparently, the village head had sent his two sons to work with their uncle, but it turned out he was so tightfisted he wouldn’t pay them. In the end, the head’s two sons opened another business in a different part of the city.
The Han and Liang clans have approximately the same number of households and family members. However, many more Hans have gone to college and into business, and their overall standard of living is higher. There aren’t more than 30 or 40 households of the other minor clans in the village — a little more than a hundred people — and whether they remained in the village or left to work, none of them live better than the Liangs or the Hans.
It’s always been the case in Liang Village that “people are plentiful, while land is scarce.” In the ’50s and ’60s there was 1.5 mu (about a quarter of an acre) per person; now, each person has about four-fifths as much. There are two growing seasons per year: first the wheat season, followed by mung beans, corn, sesame seeds, tobacco, or other commercial products.
Because land is scarce, the harvests are rarely large enough to even feed the family. This is why, before the 1980s, nearly every family struggled on the poverty line. By the time spring came, the food would have run out, what we called the “spring panic.”
A couple on their way to their field in Luoyang, Henan province, 2010. Lü Guangwei/People Visual
After reform and opening up, finding work in the cities created new avenues for earning. No matter what you did, every year you could bring home a little bit of income. It was a way to pay both the larger expenses and the daily expenditures.
Because you had to pay tax on farmland and had to come home during the harvest season, many people simply rented their land to other villagers, on the condition that the tenant would pay the taxes and give the owner 200 jin (about 220 pounds) of wheat per annum. It was a way for families who stayed in the village to earn money. Even if the early wheat harvest only covered the taxes and the landowner’s share, the autumn harvest would be profit.
By the 1990s, it was rare to see hungry or poorly dressed people in the village, but the ability to build a new house and live comfortably — that was something only for the village cadre and other successful people, the few families who worked in business or who bought their food instead of growing it.
For the past two years, rural taxes have been suspended around the country, and according to the village head, several families have wanted to take back land they haven’t worked for years to grow wheat or corn. They don’t come back themselves, but ask relatives to do the planting and harvesting for them and then pay their wages.
There are also those who don’t want to bring the land back into production, and this has caused disputes. These disputes have nothing to do with what Fei Xiaotong (a renowned Chinese anthropologist and sociologist specializing in rural issues) called the “farmers’ rootedness in the land.” The emotional connection between farmers and the land has weakened; all that is left is a relationship based on benefit.
New houses are more and more common in the village, yet one by one, without exception, their locks have grown rusty. At the same time, the people are fewer and fewer. Only a few feeble old folks totter down the lanes, rest on the edges of fields, or gather beneath the eaves.
All across the village, weeds and debris rule the land around the houses. They reveal the village’s inner desolation, its decay, its exhaustion. Internally, the village is no longer an organic, living entity. Or perhaps we should say that its life, if indeed it has a life, has reached old age and that its very vitality is ebbing away.
The cover of “China in One Village: The Story of One Town and the Changing World.” Courtesy of Liang Hong
This article is an excerpt from the book “China in One Village: The Story of One Town and the Changing World” by Liang Hong, translated by Emily Goedde, and published by Verso. It has been edited for clarity and is republished here with permission.
(Header image: Children fly a kite in a field in Yichuan County, Henan province, 2011. Lü Guangwei/People Visual)