HomeBiography Xiakou Village

Xiakou Village

1958 looked like a bumper crop for the villagers of Xiakou. The weather had been exceptionally good, and the progressive collectivization of labor over the last few years, from the first mutual aid teams of 1955 to the larger chujiishe (lower-level collectives) begun the year before, seemed to be working out well. In fact, most people felt that life had never been better. The endemic banditry that had so plagued their mountain village just a decade before was now just a bad memory. On taking power with the new year of 1950, the Communist Party had worked swiftly to break up the local paoge bandit gangs, execute their duobazi leaders who had worked hand-in-glove with the corrupt Guomindang regime, and eliminate the opium trade that had supported the bandits but reduced some village families to ruin. Under the rhyming slogan "Clean out bandits, oppose local tyrants; reduce the rents, relieve the pressure" (qingfei fanba; jianzu tuiya), the new Communist government brought peace and an appealing message of social "egalitarianism" (pingjun zhuyi).

Land Reform had also been carried out successfully, with hardly any violence in the village after the failed attack on the hydroelectric station by the local duobazi and big landlord Yang Yunzhong, and his subsequent execution. Besides Yang, there had been little difference in wealth between the landlords, the rich peasants, and the middle and lower-middle peasants; they had all been poor compared to the rice growing villages further up or down the valley. The real winners were those with nothing who had been forced to sell their labor as porters on the steep mountain paths connecting remote villages to the city of Ya’an. Now they had land.

Not everything had gone smoothly, of course. Investigations into class backgrounds by outside workteams had, on several occasions, served as catalysts for feuding between the dominant Wu clan and the rival Yangs. Nor had everyone greeted the higher levels of collectivization in 1956 and 1957 with enthusiasm. Still, villagers saw that the Party officials had carried out the building of the new system conscientiously, gathering information on local conditions and connecting with the people through "consultation with the masses" in a way that they had never experienced before. The Party itself had kept its word to reconstruct China, felt locally by the construction of a road linking Xiakou to the Taiping township and on to Ya’an.

Perhaps even more important to villagers looking back from the vantage of 1958 was the sense that, as a song of the period put it, "the people’s status is high" (renmin diwei gao). The whole period since Liberation had been one of unfolding possibilities. Liberated from the terror of bandit raids, from forced conscription into the Guomindang forces or the army of warlord Liu Wenhui, and from ruinous addiction to opium, Xiakou villagers by 1958 had begun to move beyond survival to the point of actually enjoying life: they could go to Ya’an to see a performance of Sichuan opera and stay overnight in a hotel, if they chose; when hailed by a passing group from another village, they could set down their hoes and spend the afternoon trading "mountain songs" under a shade tree; even small but significant improvements, like the introduction of rubber-soled shoes, could make the difference between comfort and misery. Together these possibilities had made the villagers’ lives more worth living, and given them the feeling of being "masters of the house." But then, in 1958, things began to go wrong.

Just before the harvest of that bumper crop, in the eighth lunar month of 1958, villagers were ordered to "invest" their grain and pork into a communal kitchen (heshituan), where they would all eat from "one big pot." Then the order came from the new gaojishe (advanced collective) that the able-bodied villagers age fifteen and over would be sent to work in the coal mines of Yunjing, a day’s walk southwest of Ya’an. It seemed that, in a stroke, the villagers would "change skins" and become workers contributing to the modernization, industrialization, and national reconstruction the Party had promised. But when the time came to go, many villagers had misgivings about leaving on the eve of the harvest and made excuses until they were forced to leave under the gaojishe leadership’s threat of calling out the militia.

With nearly all the village’s labor power called away to the mines and blast furnaces of Yunjing, only the elderly, children, and pregnant women were left to bring in the crops. As a portent of things to come, it rained on the harvest and much of the corn rotted in the fields. Despite this disaster, those few left in Xiakou ate better in the heshituan than they had ever eaten before. Every day was a "nine-bowl feast" (jiudawan); they consumed the resources invested by the entire village before the conscription of labor to the mines: a pig each week, and chicken or duck every three days.

In the dachun planting period of 1959 (the third and fourth months of the lunar calendar), the labor shortage continued to hamper agriculture, as did the "new methods" of dense planting designed to increase production and make up for the loss of labor. Even as the amount of land planted was greatly reduced, villagers began to trickle back from the mines with harrowing tales of starvation in Yunjing. While those working in the mines were fed, the surrounding countryside had been drained of its grain reserves to support the influx of workers. By late 1958 Yunjing farmers were taking table scraps and dishwater from the mine’s kitchens to feed their families; children were seen licking the vomit from the sides of long-distances buses. An uprising in the township of Wuxian, led by a seventeen year old woman claiming to be the "empress" of a new dynasty, left a government workteam dead and had to be suppressed with troops called in from Ya’an.

In Xiakou, after the effects of another bad harvest were made worse by the return of villagers from Yunjing, grain began to be rationed in the tenth month of 1959. In response to this privation, the fervor to "send production up like a satellite" increased, and the new agricultural methods were imposed by the commune with added ferocity. The dachun of 1960 saw villagers dense-cropping corn, planting the early and late crops together, and leaving almost no space between rows. The fall planting that year (xiaochun, the eighth and ninth months) was a "chaotic sowing" of wheat wasted in the effort to "fulfill production targets." Failure to follow the commune’s orders implementing these "new methods" would result in a severe beating-- on two occasions resisting villagers were beaten to death. In the midst of this reign of terror, harvests were meager and the process of starvation began.

By dachun of 1961, production had ground to a halt, and villagers began to scour the mountainsides for wild food. Throughout that year, grain supplies became sporadic and rations were eventually reduced to between two to four ounces per person per day in what the villagers called the "low standard" (di biaozhun). The critical height of starvation was reached in the seventh and eighth lunar months of 1961, just before the harvest. This was the "grain gate" (liangshi guan) through which just half of the village passed. In production team two, of the 150 villagers alive in 1958, only 72 were left at the end of 1962. For those who survived, life would never be the same.

Memory and Interpretation

The Great Leap Forward (GLF) and subsequent starvation constitute the most vivid and painful collective memory for Xiakou’s people, including those born after the events, who have only experienced them in the stories of their elders, but who have inherited the world changed by those events. The "grain gate" marked a historical watershed between the "old society" (jiu shehui) and a new social reality. On the other side of that divide, the patterns of social inter-action, and the moral knowledge underlying them (what might be termed, "tradition"), were fundamentally challenged by the Party-state’s unprecedented penetration of outside authority into village life.

One interpretation of how the Great Leap could have happened might lie in the power relations encoded in the discourse of peasant consciousness. In other words, the discourse of peasant consciousness constructed an infantalized ‘primordial peasant’ incapable of making his own way from feudalism to modernity without being forced along that path by enlightened leaders. This constructed peasant identity was the conceptual ground from which Party leaders launched the Great Leap Forward’s imposition of universal "scientific" agricultural techniques and the industrialization that would turn peasant into proletarian, and thereby transform feudal Chineseness into modern Chineseness. This explanation is worth considering if only to counterbalance the view from within peasant consciousness discourse itself, viz that the utopianism, radical egalitarianism, and blind worship of authority of the "peasant personality" explain the Great Leap Forward, thus making the peasants victims of their own essential nature.

By looking at villagers’ reflections on their changing society, it is possible to get a glimpse into their stance on the very issues that are at the core of the peasant consciousness typology. My aim is not to reveal how the peasant consciousness typology misconstrues the villagers, although that will emerge in the course of the argument, rather it is to demonstrate how those qualities the intellectuals point to as the problem are themselves at the core of a very different construction of Chinese cultural identity in the village, and there given a very different evaluation. In this sense, the villagers’ viewpoints represent a different voice in answer to the issues raised by the intellectuals.


This approach is, in a sense, paradoxical: it seeks to demonstrate the variability of perspectives to be found in a Chinese village, while, at the same time, it sets up an opposition between villagers’ discourse on social values and the mainstream of discourse found among their urban intellectual contemporaries. The axis along which these different conceptual worlds break can be defined using the heuristic trope, introduced by Tu Youguang, of universal versus particular social values. The particularistic descriptions of social problems and their solutions put forward by the villagers-- in contrast to descriptions which rely on a posited peasant consciousness-- tend to give a more positive valuation to ideals and institutions identified as "traditional," and they rely on the possibility of a "cultured" peasant. The apparent paradox is methodological: the goal of contrasting universal (intellectual) and particular (villager) modes of discourse seems to run counter to the goal of demonstrating the "messy" variety of opinion in the village. Just as the poets served to undermine the notion that all urban intellectuals are alienated from the countryside, at least one villager in the portraits below adopts the discourse of peasant consciousness in order to distinguish himself from the "real peasants" in the village. This is not so much a contradiction as a qualification, one that raises an important point: the distinction between universal versus particular values is not so much a question of urban or rural geography as it is a mode of interpretation defining identities-- identities that serve as a basis for widespread discrimination against villagers with real and tangible effects. A closer look at villagers’ viewpoints demonstrates that there exists an alternative way of analyzing the modern problems of China, a viewpoint with wide currency in the countryside, which is worthy of respect.

But the distinctions between these two conceptual worlds should not obscure their significant areas of common concern. Rural people even more than their urban counterparts suffered under the excesses of state collectivist policies, and, no less than city people, felt disillusioned by the political struggles of the Maoist era. Most striking of all, the villagers of Xiakou, like individuals in the Chengdu salon, were concerned about the lack of values in today’s society, and the connections between the new socialist market economy and rampant corruption.

It is in addressing what to do about these commonly understood problems that particularist versus universalist interpretations diverge. Particularism is an important element in the typology of peasant consciousness which intellectuals reject. Particularist ethics focuses on the grounding of human relationships in direct concrete affective exchanges (both symbolic and material) between individuals. They are rooted in li (ritual), the actualization of potential bonds through the correct practice of ritual. Universalist ethics, on the other hand, are impersonal relations based on a concept of autonomous individuals who internalize the interests of the good of the whole. The construction of a universalist intellectual identity rejects particularist peasant ethics, and the traditions in which they are rooted, as the cause of corruption and as subversive to a modern Chinese cultural identity.

Mayfair Yang (1994) asks her readers to re-examine this universalist stance, by arguing for a relativistic appreciation for the role of particularist guanxi relationships in developing a "civil society," which she defines in opposition to the state rather than as concern for a public (defined as universalist) good. Through guanxi Chinese people surmount bureaucratic obstacles and "subvert" the normative hegemony of the socialist state. Rather than positing a boundary between state and society, it is the very dispersed and fluid nature of guanxi, spreading across and through state organs, that is subversive of state power and its universalist ethics. Despite the broad strokes Yang uses to contrast the minjian "realm of people-to-people relationships which is non-governmental or separate from formal bureaucratic channels" (1994:288) and "state redistributive" modes of social relation, (which, along with the idea of subversion, seem to reinforce the idea of state versus society rather than their inter-penetration,) Yang's conceptualization of a Chinese civil society based on networks of affective ties is a useful corrective to theories that emphasize economic interests alone.

Yang's use of universalist and particularist ethics lends support to my argument that intellectual's adoption of a universalist stance, their desire for an abstract transcendent grounding for moral behavior in society, align them more closely with state interests than with the viewpoints espoused by rural inhabitants, who Yang see as the source-bed for particularist/affective social relations. Nevertheless, rather than perpetuate the state/society opposition, my own aim is to focus on the contested field of culture and its spontaneous manifestations in order to highlight inter-relations between group identities, below the state, and within society. While poets, intellectuals, and villagers, each define themselves in opposition to the state, giving priority to that opposition obscures the differences between the groups and oversimplifies their objectives vis a vis the state. That is, I found it useful not only to look at what people did not like about the state, but also the potential positive role they thought the state could play. This difference in perspective leads to some significantly different judgements.

Because Yang sees in the art of guanxi an opposition to the universalist ethics of socialist nationalism-- an opposition she would like to support-- she gives relatively light treatment to the relationship between guanxi and corruption. While she acknowledges the role of instrumental motivations in guanxi, and that Chinese distinguish between guanxi and bribery, Yang lays emphasis on guanxi’s "relational ethics" (1994:145). That is, she perceives the moral principles guiding guanxi as located in person to person relationships, which are themselves horizontal relationships of friendship and equality. While Yang acknowledges vertical relationships as part of the traditional moral teachings which underpin this system, she brackets them off as having been subsumed by state discourses which rely on universal morality, thus her conception of civil society based on particularist ties has nothing of the idea of public good. I am not prepared to bracket off villagers’ concern with the ethics of vertical as well as horizontal relationships, and their moralizing critique of guanxi relations conceived in terms of fairness and reason (daoli). By focusing on what people say about social relations and their ethical dimensions, I will suggest a reading of Chinese (civil) society that emphasizes a sense of moral community and local identity that cuts across the boundaries of kinship and state, which can incorporate vertical as well as horizontal relations, and whose shared meaning is constructed through historical memory.




"The Village Setting

Xiakou is one of eight villages in Longxi township, 100 kilometers (or three and half hours by bus) southwest from Chengdu and ten kilometers from Ya’an city. The village area has always been considered a poor "mountain district" with a topography of steep mountain slopes, upland valleys and deep rocky gorges. There are terraced rice paddies in the valleys, but the main crop of the village is corn, planted by hand on the steep hillsides. The population of the three teams that are traditionally referred to as Xiakou was registered as 352 in 1992. Each villager is allotted a minuscule amount of rice-growing land (there are only 52 mu of low grade paddy for these three teams); rice must be purchased or traded for corn each year. In the past twenty years subsistence agriculture has been augmented by wage labor (mostly stone masonry) and sideline occupations such as raising dairy goats. Once prey to famine and chronic shortages of rice, the village has become much more prosperous since the decollectivization of 1981, although with a median per capita income of 330 yuan in 1992, it is still poorer than the rice-growing areas and suburban villages closer to the provincial capital of Chengdu.

Xiakou is also located in a mental landscape, defined by the villagers’ horizon of historical memory, very roughly divided into jiu shehui ("the old society"), jiti ("the collective"), and xiahu (the post-Mao reform period). Lived by few but preserved in the village’s collective memory, jiu shehui is remembered as an idealization of both the good and the bad. The period serves as a kind of mental storehouse of archetypal values, and, as such, is an important source for values in the present. Although the official event dividing jiu shehui from the jiti period was the village’s "Liberation" by communist forces in 1949, by far the greater historical watershed was the Great Leap Forward and subsequent famine (1958-1961). The villagers who survived lost not only family members but also their faith and trust in the Party. This loss of faith was a painfully long process of deepening disillusionment over the course of the collective period, when villagers were denied the power to make local decisions, exploited to supply urban industrial development, terrorized by political campaigns and irrational production targets, denied local institutions, customs and beliefs, and stripped of their local identity. The next remembered turning point was the concatenation of events occurring in 1976: the death of Mao Zedong, the bad harvest and mini-famine across Sichuan, and the simultaneous political crackdown on private production that once again reduced Xiakou’s residents to scouring the hills for wild food. This time the villagers voted with their feet. The decollectivization of the xiahu period that in the early 1980s returned agricultural production to farm families under the "responsibility system" was actually official sanction of a process already well underway at the local level. We might think of this horizon of historical memory as the tableau upon which villagers superimposed contemporary events, a background of experience coloring (sometimes shading) their understanding of the present. The main theme of the tableau is chaos, disillusionment, and moral loss. Within this historical context and its legacy of anomie the economic transformation of the village in the reform period prepared the ground for the villagers’ construction of Chinese cultural identity in their reassertion of moral order.

In the historical foreground of this tableau, the villagers welcomed the reform policies, but the disillusionment they felt toward the Party -- or what intellectual social commentators began to call the "crisis of belief" (xinyang weiji)-- was too deep to be reversed; indeed, the economic context of the reform period has only reinforced their loss of faith, especially after the first blush of post-decollectivization prosperity grew wan. While the village’s standard of living had improved sporadically since Liberation, decollectivization brought rapid progress to Xiakou as farmers were able to take fuller advantage of new hybrid variety crops, develop a new sideline of dairy goats, and, especially, pursue opportunities for wage earning. But these real gains made after decollectivization actually began to erode after 1986, as inflation ate away at stagnating incomes.

Although Xiakou has always lagged behind the prosperity achieved in rural rice growing regions and suburban villages close to large urban centers, the reform economy exacerbated these disparities, making Xiakou’s farmers feel relatively even more poor and left behind. At the same time villagers began to feel the pressures of inflation, they also saw the tremendous economic boom in urban (especially coastal) areas, and the rise in waste and corruption that accompanied loosening government controls on the economy. Resentment of official corruption and of increased taxation began to crest after Deng Xiaoping's December 1991 "trip to the south" to investigate the effect of the more liberal opening-up policies being tested in the coastal development zones such as Shenzhen in Guangdong Province. Following this trip, the government issued the important "number two document" (erhao wenjian) of 1992 which sought to implement his conclusion that the benefits of this brand of "socialist-market economy" should be made more widespread. As described in chapter three, this document opened the door for government work units to become financially more self-sufficient and even encouraged government employees to seek "second jobs." Even more important than the specific policy measures was a widespread fever to "jump into the sea" (xia hai) of the market economy and get rich. In the eyes of the villagers, the general picture was one of a shift of resources from public welfare to private gain, of decreased opportunity for rural areas to increased corruption yielding benefits to some urban dwellers.

Provisions in document number two also led to a restructuring of government to give more weight to township or zhen administrations. The effect was dramatic. In Ya'an the Prefecture government used the opportunity of restructuring to takeover some of the tax base of the county government. The county government, as a result, had to decrease the incomes of its standard employees by twenty-five percent. This was somewhat compensated for by allowing the bureaus and individuals to engage in business to make money.

Due to these two changes, the employees of the county government service bureaus (the forestry bureau, the bureau of animal husbandry, the bureau of agriculture etc.) almost overnight ceased to dedicate themselves to their former roles. Offices were increasingly empty and people spent more office time drinking tea, chatting, reading the paper and even playing cards. Small businesses run by the bureaus sprang up all over, but, in general, rather than increasing productivity, they sought to further divide up the market. Work units commonly opened restaurants and convenience stores or even ran lotteries. Some invested in real-estate and built luxury hotels. Worse still, they sought to convert old networks and official powers into leveraged profit-making schemes. Use of gifts to win favor of patrons in the provincial bureaus expanded, and became the mode to gain access to program funds to be used for specific projects. The money to fund these investments--in stores, businesses and gift-giving came from whatever funds the local government could access (in whatever way) and led to a severe credit squeeze by the end of 1993. The cycle of spending also resulted in severe inflationary pressures.

Farmers in Ya'an felt the inflation most severely in the basic commodities on which they depended, fertilizer and grain. These essentials became more costly as the prices they received for their products and their labor remained relatively stable. Meanwhile, in the cities and towns electronic merchandise, foreign cars, and expensive restaurants-- much of it the loot of government corruption-- were plainly visible, further fueling villagers' rising expectations for material wealth, and frustration at their loss of social standing. Xiakou’s residents saw the contradictions clearly, as did rural dwellers elsewhere in Sichuan; there were many tax revolts and uprisings throughout the province in this period of growing discontent.

The political and economic changes that ensued from Deng's Southern Tour directly affected agricultural production in Xiakou. With the changeover in local township personnel, part of the general bureaucratic restructuring initiated by the shifting winds, there was a period of adjustment during which local infrastructure was poorly maintained. For example, the township failed to pay for routine repair of irrigation canals. Leakage from the canal resulted in water shortages when the rice shoots were planted and soil erosion on hillsides below the canal. The officials’ extensive and unregulated use of public funds to start new businesses resulted in a severe banking crisis; farmers' loans were called in and many villagers found themselves short of cash. Reorientation of government-owned factories interrupted the supply and affected the quality of basic inputs such as fertilizer and seed. A retaining wall was built in front of the village along the public road following a severe flood in 1992, but due to corruption in the traffic bureau sand was substituted for cement and the first high water in the spring of 1993 obliterated the entire construction. The resulting road blockage seriously hindered the collection of milk from the farmers during the peak production season.

All of these examples point to what villagers saw as an alarming trend toward "chaos." Mismanagement and corruption by government officials were commonly compared to the situation under the last years of Guomindang (Nationalist) rule. Many villagers complained about inflation and an increase in crime. Higher taxes and pressure to pay back government loans were also contributing factors to growing dissatisfaction. Against the background of an eroding standard of living, villagers saw the changes brought by the socialist market economy as, at worst, a threat to the infrastructure of government service on which they rely and to which they contribute ever higher taxes, and, at best, as an economic boom in which they could have no part.

This description of the social and economic climate in and around the village is drawn from conversations as well as my own observations. While my early visits to Xiakou were intermittent, from the fall of 1992 through the fall of 1993, Xiakou was my primary residence in China. My partner, Pam Leonard, and I were attached to an international non-government organization specializing in livestock development which operated a dairy goat development program through the local bureau of animal husbandry. It was understood by villagers and officials alike that we were in the village in the capacity of social investigators (shehui diaocha) for the goat project as well as for our own independent Ph.D. research. While we were assigned a full-time "escort" by the Ya'an bureau of animal husbandry, Chen Naxin was nothing less than an excellent partner in our research efforts; he did not try to control our research, but instead became involved in pursuing the questions we raised, and raising questions himself. We were widely perceived as a "work team" of sorts by the villagers-- an often comical group squabbling among ourselves over who had to face the guard dogs at the next house, who would cover the rear, and who could enjoy the safety of the middle! While the more or less continual presence of a city official, albeit a young one, may have, at times, colored how we were perceived by some villagers, let alone the fact we were foreigners, our stay was sufficiently long for us to get to know at least the main characters presented below through one-on-one conversations in their homes and courtyards. Furthermore, we found the villagers more forthcoming than many groups we met in China, perhaps because they felt they were already at the bottom of the social ladder and had less to lose, or put another way because their livelihoods came more from their own resources rather than from the discretions of workunit bosses.

The villagers I spoke with each saw the basic set of social problems outlined above somewhat differently, but their divergent views generally fell within a common conceptual spectrum that focused on social relationships. It is from their reflections on these problems, on their personal histories, and on their relationships with fellow villagers and the state, that I have tried to draw portraits of their values. The likeness of these portraits is a rough approximation, only, but hopefully one the models would recognize as their own.


Wu Guangxing

Our host in Xiakou, an elder of the village, a person of some culture, Wu Guangxing saw himself as our teacher. Wu Guangxing was a small wiry man in his fifties, who labored extremely hard growing the crops and managing the livestock which constituted the major source of income for his family. His was a larger burden than many others in the village-- he had raised many daughters that were now gone; in the family of four which remained, only he and his last daughter did agricultural labor. His wife, An Niyu, suffered from poor health and so did not work, and his son was a full-time student. Wu Guangxing took his responsibilities seriously--that is, he demonstrated a quiet concern for those around him, and his actions always displayed a careful reasoning. He was a reflective man who struggled with the paradoxes of his time and place.

Most evenings, after the supper which he helped to prepare was finished and put away, if all was in order, he would sit on one of the low stools that were the ubiquitous social furnishings of village life. There in the kitchen, placed in front of the open hearth that held the dying embers pulled from the guo, he would pull out a cigarette, light it, and begin to talk.

Wu Guangxing had been reared in the years before Liberation. He had studied the "four books and five classics" and had a great respect for education and learning. He was proud of his education, and his son was one of the few children in the village to attend high school. He took pride in filling the role of scribe on ritual occasions, and by all accounts he had been a capable accountant during the collective period. Wu Guangxing’s pride in learning extended to his considerable knowledge about farming. His conversation drew on his traditional education, his experience of farming and his reflections on the political and economic doctrines and realities that formed his life experience.

The struggles of his life infused his household, and in a more subtle way, his narratives. He was a controversial figure in the village and had been from birth. The late son of a second marriage, he was the youngest member of his generational designation. Because his father died when he was very young and there were competing heirs from his father’s first marriage, there was a group in the village who had an interest in questioning his paternity. Thus while his name flagged him as an elder, a lifelong history of circumstances made his status more ambiguous. Wu Guangxing was at the center of a large web of very complex antipathies within the village, and he and his wife had uneasy relations with the majority of people in the village. From his adversaries’ perspectives, Wu Guangxing had always had an advantaged position. He was a "worker" during the Great Leap Forward and famine, staying on in the Yunjing mines until after the "grain gate." This experience not only set him apart from a stigmatized "peasant" identity, but since his work had been for the cafeteria of the coal mine, he did not suffer as much as others during that ghoulish rite of passage. When he returned to the village after the famine, he brought with him a wife from the plains, a geographical anomaly that gave him access to rice when others had to eat corn. Perhaps even more importantly, his wife did not work (there were those who questioned the seriousness of her claims of poor health) , and nothing was more important in defining a good person in the village than one’s ability to do work. Instead, An Niyu stayed at home and, as a result, their house was physically the cleanest and their food was the best in the village. With a clean house, good food, and general ability (including that he was literate), Wu Guangxing had always been a favorite point man for higher officials in need of a villager to work with.

In collective times, this meant he and An Niyu were given the village store to run, and he had served as village accountant for many years. At the time of our own visit, this was the grounding for his status as model villager of the bureau of animal husbandry and his selection as our host. The very conditions that made him a favorite with higher officials-- his clean house and good food-- made him a target of antipathy for the village majority. Perhaps it was these issues that made the subject of equality and difference a favorite area of reflection for him, but ultimately he saw the problem of his stressed social relations in terms of the unreasonable behavior of others, which he characterized as a "lack of culture". The culture to which he referred was education in the sense of both a pragmatic literacy (the ability to write Chinese characters) and the particularized moral learning of a traditional "self-cultivation." Traditional learning represented something that was fixed and certain, an important palliative to the chaos of today’s society.

The connection between literacy and morality in Wu Guangxing’s conception of "culture" was clarified in an after-dinner debate I witnessed one night between Wu Guangxing and a young man in the village. It all began when the young man asked me whether an, "industrially advanced country like America has any superstitions? Do you tell fortunes?" No doubt he was sensitive to the fact that the government decried such behaviors as feudal superstition, and was checking out where I stood on this contentious issue. I replied the we did in fact have superstitions, and he began to tell of his experience with a fortune teller at the Mingshan bus station:

He was really great. He asked ‘how many strokes were in your name’. He had a book this thick and could tell your fortune and your luck on the basis of the writing of your name--what he said was right...He only wanted one yuan but I gave him 5 yuan...I think that it was quite logical and reasonable (you daoli).


Wu Guangxing took exception to this ("Aiya!"), claiming that fortune telling was "all just superstition." This is how the debate began. The young man argued that the fortune telling worked because of the basic relativity of existence (xiangdui er yan). Not surprisingly, Wu Guangxing felt that his territory was being tread upon (Chinese characters) and he defended the absolute (juedui) and fixed (guding) nature of things in general and of written characters in particular. The argument went back and forth and got more and more acrimonious. The young man used an analogy:

You see this cup. We say that it is round, but is it absolutely round? Of course not. We only say that it is round, agree that it is round. Everything is like that, Chinese characters are like that too. We say that they have a certain number of strokes, but there is no reason for it-- it’s all relative...it’s just what we agree it is.


This challenge to his strict Confucian upbringing was more than Wu Guangxing could take. His voice rising, he declared:

The characters are fixed. They were fixed a long time ago by Confucius! If a character is supposed to be written one way its written one way---there’s nothing relative about it; its absolute! I’ve read the "four books" and I know about the ‘rectification of names’. Our ancestors are smarter than we are today. Your analogy is wrong-- a cup may not be absolutely round, but Chinese characters are fixed and absolute!


It was significant that his example included correct naming-- and that he was so emotional over an apparently semantic debate. Included in the category of traditional learning for which Wu Guangxing had respect was the very particular knowledge of naming people correctly. From his perspective, the fact that his own paternity had been unfairly disputed, and thus that people did not "call" (han) him correctly, was the original sin of his problematic social relations:

Everyone should call me ‘waigong’ or ‘laobeizi’ but they don’t care. It does not matter to me. These are our old rules and I understand them; they do too, but they don’t call me that. Some people have no culture and no sense of morality (meiyou wen hua; mei you daode). They don’t understand and they are unreasonable (bu jiang daoli). It’s perfectly natural for a woman to remarry after her husband has died, and also common for siblings to have the same mother and different fathers...my father was a teacher and wrote the best characters of anyone-- he wrote a big inscription that stood for years in the Chuanzhu temple. He had a lot of culture, but Wu Guangjun’s father had even more learning. But he didn’t like his son, didn’t care about him and pass on that culture. That’s why Wu Guangjun has no culture and is unreasonable. People should be straightforward and speak directly, if they don’t they are being unreasonable.


Salutation is an important part of traditional village culture and is very much at the core of defining social relations along generational lines, which also defines the political hierarchy that kept the ‘social order in order’ in the old society. Correct naming, a ritual act that actualizes one’s potential web of kin relations, would seem to be the very essence of the particularist ethic that is such a critical part of peasant consciousness discourse. But where many intellectuals have seen particularist ethics at the root of guanxi, and thus corruption, for Wu Guangxing ordering social relations was not the cause of corruption and chaos, but the solution to them. Calling someone by the right name is even more fundamentally the way of defining identity and according respect. In Wu Guangxing’s construction, culture (wenhua), morality (daode) and reason (daoli) are core values defined in terms of particular relationships.

In his own reflections on the traditional system, Wu Guangxing pointed out that family property disputes in the old society were "simpler; nothing so complicated." The reasoned judgement of village elders (lao beizi) successfully negotiated conflicts; what they said counted. "Now nobody listens to the older generation, nobody cares." This last point is manifestly true. In fact some of the deepest and most far reaching changes of the revolutionary period stem from the break it affected on the generational hold on power. In the old society, the lao beizi could control not only family affairs, but also disputes involving different clans or outsiders that were adjudicated in the tea house-- a forum for everyone to "speak reason" and negotiate satisfactory compromises.

It is important not to exaggerate Wu Guangxing’s traditionalism. While he found things of value in tradition, he was also a reflective individual grappling with social change and conflicted values. Wu Guangxing did not advocate a simple return to tradition, as in the model of a ‘conservative peasant’ viscerally resistant to change, far from it. Rather he saw aspects of traditional culture as relevant to contemporary problems. Wu once corrected me when I posed a question in terms of the benefits of "preserving" (baocun) tradition... "we do not need to preserve tradition, we need to use (shiyong) tradition." While he was open to methods of farming, and new sources of income, and even new lifestyles-- he hoped that the investment in his son’s education would mean that he would one day leave the village-- he also found aspects of traditional knowledge useful. The agricultural calendar was a form of encoded knowledge passed down from his ancestors, finely tailored to their environment, which formed the guideposts of his daily activities. The traditional forms of naming people were analogous; they were forms of knowledge that were extremely useful in structuring social relations, but not mystified or so rigid as to foreclose negotiation.

Wu Guangxing’s pragmatic appropriation of tradition-- choosing values to negotiate social relationships-- was based on the criterion of "reason" (daoli), just as intellectuals judged traditional culture against the criterion of "rationality" (lixing). The distinction between daoli and lixing thus reflects two different ways of constructing cultural identity. Where rationality reveals an absolute universal essence (xing) of principle (li), the inherent principle in daoli is a particular manifestation of the "way," (dao) and, as such, it is flexible, negotiable, developed in relation with other people. Lixing’s power is that of universal authority, daoli’s power is persuasive. One "speaks reason" (jiang daoli), an assertion or question directed to others; one appeals to rationality. The implications of these distinctions for defining culture lie just in this space of negotiation: to those (like the Chengdu salon intellectuals) defining cultural identity in terms of universal rationality, Wu Guangxing’s pragmatic sifting of particular cultural values could only appear contradictory and unprincipled; Wu himself was sometimes unconcerned by these contradictions, sometimes almost obsessed by them.

The limits of Wu Guangxing’s traditionalism can be seen in his approval of some of the changes brought by the revolution. Like many other people in Xiakou, he had some good things to say about Mao Zedong. Mao was a "great leader" who "left a deep impression on people" mostly because of the contributions he made to improve their lives. Chief among these in Xiakou were the advent of electricity, the building of a public road where there had only been a foot trail, and the construction of irrigation canals. But Wu Guangxing was also given to commenting on how Mao "fixed the problem of class divisions." Wu remembered the problem of class divisions in the old society in terms of the abject poverty of a few families in the village, and as a kind of haughty behavior on the part of some of the wealthier families, for example an occasion where one family of the village, in ‘inviting’ people to help them with their crops, fed some of their kin a rice meal, while others were segregated off to receive only corn. Wu Guangxing’s reflections on the old society were very much rooted in coming to terms with the re-emergence of class differences in the post-reform economy.

The re-emergence of difference seemed to be the central paradox in his reflections. On the one hand he believed that hard work should be rewarded (qinglao zefu) and that people naturally possessed different levels of ability (benshi). Wu Guangxing had witnessed the failure of a system of agricultural production whose rewards did not reflect the quality and amount of labor given on an individual basis, and he was glad that ‘unnatural’ system was gone. On the other hand he spoke approvingly of the revolutionary period’s egalitarian social structure-- both within the village and with other social strata-- when a farmer’s "position was high" (diwei gao), and when officials and urban dwellers accorded the farmer respect. The question for Wu Guangxing was how to balance differential rewards with a system of fairness and mutual respect. Accordingly, his various explanations of the old society’s resurgent class structure reflected the paradox he confronted. For example, An Niyu, Wu Guangxing’s wife once said to us:

Look around, the families that used to be landlord are all the richest families now. There are even more landlords today than before because you also have other people getting rich (like the labor/rock contractors)...It is good, they work hard and deserve it...

While An, echoing Wu Guangxing, ascribes to the qinglao zefu ethic that hard work deserves reward, there was an ambiguity in her parallel between today’s wealthy and the dreaded "landlord’ category of old. It was the tension between the qinglao zefu ethic and the ideals of egalitarianism that made the re-emergence of old families a favorite topic for Wu Guangxing himself:

Look who has money now-- the same families that were wealthy in the old society, the [bad] elements. There is a very practical reason for this. During the collective, the elements got more workpoints than other people. When everybody was a the meetings they stayed behind and worked. They also got workpoints for doing high-point jobs that nobody else wanted to, like hauling manure. When it was raining and you didn't want to go out and work, you could just call out, 'Hey, you bad element there, you go out and do this or that job', so they got more workpoints...They couldn't do anything else in those days, so they just put their noses to the grindstone and worked...When the reform came, the collective's debt was divided up among all the families, but the elements had saved enough from all their workpoints so that they could pay off their debt and start out at an advantage. But you know, it is also a matter of personality (xing ge). Who's rich now? In this team landlord and rich peasant families are getting rich again, and in team four, Li the branch secretary-- his family background is landlord and he is rich again...There is nothing strange about it; its natural, just compare their personalities with the poor peasants-- Wenquan, Wenxue --of course they are rich! Chairman Mao once said that "a phoenix without its feathers is not as good as chicken" but some people at that time had another saying "a phoenix is a phoenix; a chicken is a chicken".

Wu Guangxing felt that ability and hard work deserved reward; but difference was also an outcome of people’s fate and destiny, and a natural result of their differing ‘quality’ (suzhi) as individuals. These attitudes were common enough in the village, and others even went so far as to put forward a more explicitly blood-line related hypothesis of intelligence and ability. From the viewpoint of peasant consciousness, such statements could only be interpreted as demonstrating the dual nature of peasant thought-- Wu Guangxing is jealous of emerging difference and yet has a hierarchical understanding of individual worth. Nevertheless, it is difficult to see how his views could be seen as undermining the development of economic competition in the marketplace, since he gave explicit affirmation of the principle that hard work should bring reward. If Wu Guangxing was irked by the re-emergence of difference, what bothered him most was unequal opportunity and the unfairness of corruption. His concern was that,

The development of the countryside and the cities is too unequal. The peasants have it the worst. Prices are going up, but the money we earn stays low. Take these sneakers, they cost over 10 yuan, that is 30 jin of corn. The price of grain does not change much, but the price of everything else goes up and up. What can you do? You still have to buy things. It used to be that you could take the whole family to Emeishan for 100 yuan; now with bus tickets, entrance tickets, meals and lodging it costs 3-400. That is impossible for a peasant to pay, so our opportunities to have fun are also reduced. The average peasant family here can only earn several thousand yuan a year, but rich people in the cities spend more than that on one meal in a restaurant!


Part of the inequality that Wu Guangxing resents is that between city and countryside, and he is skeptical of the "let some get rich first" strategy of the economic reforms. To Party planners promoting economic development from agricultural surplus (with the end, to be fair, of overall prosperity) Wu’s misgivings would be seen as the same "shortsighted egalitarianism" that made peasants wary of the aims of collectivization, and inspired the Party to author the "worker-peasant alliance." Farmers see that agricultural prices are kept low and so they are left short. To Wu Guangxing, differences in income between those in urban work units on the one hand, and farmers on the other, is galling because it does not reflect differences in the amount and quality of labor put in. Rather, Wu saw officials and city workers "earning" money by appropriating it from the public coffers, and, in the process, not taking their official responsibilities seriously:

The most profitable businesses are those that involve ‘national construction.’ Everywhere is under construction now...and those people [responsible for the construction] are earning lots of money through kickbacks and corruption. This is very dangerous. Why? Because now no one is in charge of quality--buildings and highways are dangerous because whether you build something well or not you still get the same money. Take the road as the perfect example. It is all about crooked deals and kickbacks (waishi, huikou). Say the duanzhang (person in charge of that section of road) makes a budget of 9 wan for that section of road, but it really only takes him 7 wan to do the work. He uses part of that money--maybe one wan, maybe less-- as a kickback to higher levels so that they will agree to his budget; the rest of the money he pockets. It is dangerous, too, because it does not matter if you do the job right or not, you still get the money. That section of wall we are repairing won’t have a good foundation now because of the high water we are having these days. But it will be built anyway, and when it falls down again, it will be contracted out and we will rebuild it. That is why that piece up the road always collapses; it is not built right the first time. Buildings are the same problem-- they don’t use enough mortar and the buildings are unsafe. The money to buy cement goes into the baogong’s pocket. Now the government does not care about quality. Money should be put into roads and buildings, but it is being pocketed instead. After "reform and opening" (gaigekaifang) things were better for everyone, but now it has all gone bad. Only a few officials, like party secretary, bureau chiefs, factory heads, foreman are getting rich-- really rich. Class differences are getting worse and worse-- in a few years it will be just like the Guomindang.


Wu Guangxing’s understanding of these developments existed in a framework of historical memory and his values were not just an abstract distillation from some passed down tradition but have been developed in reference to his historical experiences. He has experienced the waxing and waning of class difference, corruption, and social chaos, and of particular importance in this regard were his memories of the period between 1946 and 1949 when corruption and factionalism within the Guomindang government was the background for the extreme bullying that dominated social relations in that period. The years 1946-49 stand as the very prototype of social chaos and "anarchism" (wuzhengfu zhuyi), a time when bandits stole from people within their own lineage and village, when opium smoking and the opium trade affected the village economy, poverty was severe, and the army took people away at will. Thus his criticism of government weakness and social chaos in the present was given added significance in its relation with the past:

Today it’s just like the days of the Guomindang; disunified and corrupt. Now if they catch you doing something wrong you don’t have to go to jail if you have money--you can go out the back door (zou houmen). Some people break the law and should do 2 or 3 years, but they get off with one month or nothing if they have money or connections. Then there are people who should get caught but are not because they are the children of powerful people. Now with things so un-unified people at lower levels are powerful because they don’t have to worry about their leaders. The most powerful people in Ya’an today are the traffic cops. They can fine you whatever they want and stop you for nothing. But if they see a leader in the backseat, or a leader’s children, they let them go. Its just like the Guomindang.


Urban intellectuals have seen peasant consciousness, with its particularist ethics, as the root of corruption, Wu Guangxing found nothing contradictory between developing a society based on social relations and controlling corruption. In fact, it was the lack of quality social relations that were the fundamental cause of corruption in his mind. Particularism defines rural life and ethics to the degree that it incorporates the idea of li (principle) concretely embodied in moral behavior. While one might be expected to prioritize filial piety over vigilance against graft, there are nevertheless standards for what constitutes corrupt behavior. Therefore, the "lack of quality relations", rather than a relative moral standard, are the problem from many villagers’ viewpoints, and the problem is conceived in terms of the particular relationships-- both horizontal as well as vertical-- they experience.

Thus one of the main problems many villagers brought up was officials who do not live up to their responsibilities, including their responsibility to "respect the people." This attitude toward authority is a far cry from the blind "worship of power" as in the peasant consciousness typology, and it is an understanding that is logically derived from villagers’ historical experiences. Villagers of Wu Guangxing’s generation have lived under a wide variety of political ideologies, but their views often express the idea that it has not been the ideologies themselves so much as the quality of their relationships with officials that have affected the fairness of the systems. Moral leaders are leaders who understand and respect the particular; they cannot exist in a weak system where selfish desires are the rule of behavior and they do not exist in a dictatorship where middle level cadres demonstrate blind loyalty to the center. It is a question of balance, as in the saying fang er bu luan, shou er bu si (loosen control, but not to the point of chaos; tighten control, but not to the point of death). If chaos is represented by the period 46-49, the indelible experiences of 59-62 represent its inversion, the steely imposition of the universal, where all work had to be for production, and production was defined as not feeding yourself. If Wu Guangxing wants a unified system, he also wants a role in defining his own identity; he does not want representatives of the state to run roughshod over his sense of self.

After a changeover in township officials resulted from "document number two," some of the new officials came to Wu Guangxing’s house to say ‘ hello’ to us (da ge zao fu). They made a small speech, in the course of which they asserted they knew Wu Guangxing and his good works so they trusted we were in good hands. After they left, Wu Guangxing was indignant: "Huh! They said they knew me, but they don’t know me! I have barely ever seen them!" From Wu Guangxing’s perspective the core problem in the countryside was that the officials do not understand the grassroots; they are too busy fattening their own pocketbooks. The officials’ assertion-- "we know you"-- denied Wu a say in negotiating his own identity, denied him respect. Wu Guangxing’s construction of cultural identity drew on the revolutionary ideal of "serving the people" (wei renmin fuwu) and traditional ideal of following from the will of the people (shun cong minyi). If Mayfair Yang’s interprets the relational and particularist ethics of rural life as subverting the state by creating horizontal ties where there should be vertical ties (according to the ideology of the state), Wu Guangxing’s intention in knowing these officials was not to subvert their power-- that would be corruption-- but rather to engage them, and be engaged by them, in a relation of mutual respect.

Thus Wu Guangxing expressed a belief that both horizontal (local identity) and vertical ties need to be re-established in the loose (fensan) condition that has resulted from the atomization of local society in the Maoist era. But in his view, this means re-establishing "accountability" and "responsibility" as values guiding vertical re-integration:

In Chairman Mao’s time there was not that kind of corruption. Lower levels were held to account for their actions by higher leaders. If there was a contradiction between people, then the commune would decide the matter according to whether the principle was correct or not. (daoli zheng que). The whole system was unified by leaders and principles (yuanze).


Unification is a precondition even for particularist reason (daoli). In this sense traditional culture and Maoist socialism shared a common ground that Wu Guangxing found lacking in contemporary society. The ideal of unity (da tong) constitutes a stability which is the necessary foundation for particularist ethics. Perhaps that was why Wu Guangxing felt so strongly about the fixity of Chinese characters in the debate with the young man-- feelings that were amplified by the fact that the young man was a baogongtou labor contractor, a modern day landlord, who manifested a haughty attitude Wu felt as disrespect. As I wrote in my notes of the debate:

The argument went on for some time and then turned more bitter. The young man gave up first by saying, "were speaking different languages; its no use talking to you about this." Wu Guangxing took some umbrage at this ( he clearly didn’t like this guy at all), "Right. I’m just a peasant who grows crops and cuts firewood. You’re a big shot foreman." The young man, in turn, took great offence at this and said, " Aiya, we are all the same. We are all friends, brothers. You’re an intellectual, you’ve read more books than we have!" From the emperor down to the common people, its all one process (Huangdi dao shibing shi yi ge guocheng)."

Well, despite the possibly good and egalitarian sentiment behind this remark, it also could be interpreted quite hierarchically--and was. Wu Guangxing felt that this young man was putting himself above everyone and they started in on it again. Finally, the young man’s brother intervened with the Confucian-hands-clasped gesture of friendship and tried to make peace. This made them both agree to not talk, although there was no reconciliation


The paradox Wu Guangxing confronted was his acceptance of difference within his desire for unity. He was ambivalent toward the changes in local society-- the resurgence of class differences-- that seemed to herald a moral relativism and the possibility of social chaos. But Wu Guangxing’s "egalitarianism" and "traditionalism" bore only a superficial resemblance to the caricature of peasant consciousness. His was not the stereotyped egalitarianism of "equally poor" but of equal opportunity, and his appropriation of tradition-- as well as revolutionary values-- put mutual respect as the source of social unity.


Yang Zhenggui

There was a sad irony in the fact that Wu Guangxing referred to his peasant status as ‘a man who just grows crops’, feigning the low status he felt was being imposed on him. An ability to grow crops was a particular point of pride for Wu Guangxing, but he was aware of the stereotype-- a lamentable lack of self-worth in the thing he took most pride in. Yang Zhenggui also carried a peasant label, an official household registration of nongmin, but he wore it very differently. He was one man in the village who made a point of never carrying manure buckets; as a point of pride, he did no agricultural labor. Yang Zhenggui presented himself as ‘spiritually connected’ to urban and intellectual values, and bored by village life. My presence in the village offered him some relief from what he deemed the "low cultural level" of agricultural society, and so he befriended me, frequently inviting me to dinner in his home and taking me on outings to meet his more worldly friends.

Zhenggui was one of those ‘new landlords’ to which Wu Guangxing referred, a baogongtou whose projects included contracted stone-cutting for construction projects in Ya’an, as well as the retaining wall in front of the village that Wu Guangxing used as an example of corruption. Zhenggui relished tales of guanxi, and explained to me in some depth his clever manipulations of contracting guidelines, billings, requisitions-- the whole gamut of "policies" (zhengce) to which he found "countermeasures" (duice). From what he told me, none of his manipulations actually endangered public safety (pace Wu Guangxing). While they flirted with "corruption," the most striking thing about these manoeuvres was his own undeniable ingenuity, which, along with his charismatic affability, he was said to have inherited from his father, Yang Yunzhong.

Before Liberation, Yang Yunzhong had been perhaps the most important local personality. He was the richest of local landlords, and duobazi (mafia Don) of the local paoge secret society. Yang had good connections to Liu Wenhui, the Sichuan warlord, as well as to a host of local bandit (tufei) groups. One of Yang Yunzhong’s four wives had been an important bandit in her own right, a trader in opium, and was killed by a rival bandit group. An older man of the village once told us that if we wanted to know what Yang Yunzhong was like, " just look at Yang Zhenggui." He was a man of unassuming confidence who liked to mingle with the people, with pipe in hand, without bodyguards. Yang Yunzhong held the position of local headman under the Liu Wenhui/Guomindang government at the same time that he maintained his connections with the "underworld" of the paoge, and was called a qingshui duobazi, a boss who kept his ‘hands clean.’ As communist forces moved in to liberate the Ya’an area (with the complicity of Liu Wenhui), local forces under Yang Yunzhong attacked the hydro-electric station downstream from Xiakou, for which he was executed.

Yang Zhenggui’s mother, Wu Wenzhen, was left widowed with an infant son. In 1950, she married a worker from outside the area who had been brought in on a crew to build another electric station near Xiakou. When the work was completed, they all moved to the Sichuan city of Xichang, where Zhenggui’s step-father, lao Wang, worked in a foundry. But because of Wu Wenzhen’s bad class background, the whole family was reclassified as nongmin with a landlord label and sent back to her natal home in Xiakou. For Zhenggui, the return to Xiakou was equivalent to a life sentence of second-class citizenship. His felt his nongmin identity like a prison, and his own self-definition was constructed against the one imposed on him.

Zhenggui identified with intellectuals, and saw himself as deprived of the opportunity to become the ‘true self’ locked inside a peasant skin. Like his urban brethren, Zhenggui was given to reflecting (fansi) on his experiences during the Cultural Revolution and how they were the source for the disillusionment he now felt. As he told it, his intellectual autobiography is a story of idealism, bitter experience, independent study, doubt, and apostasy:

I was smart in school and my teachers liked me because I was bright. But during the class struggle, we were discriminated against. I should never have been a peasant. We were living in Xichang and I was going to school there when, in 1962, they made us come back to the village. At that time the education was, how can I put it?, "serve the people", follow the Party and Chairman Mao"; they put that kind of political propaganda into our heads. I really believed in it, and I thought that even though I was the son of a bad element I could change into a good person, but then, after I entered society, I began to see that reality was not that way at all. I realized that I had no future, that there would be no opportunities for me-- bad class elements were discriminated against...older bad elements would have to wear black arm bands identifying themselves; my mother wore one. I remember things got bad around the Four Small Cleans and the Four Big Cleans-- that was the ‘Socialist Education Movement’ starting around 1963...I’ll never forget, as long as I live, when I was around 14 years old, I was told to carry some firewood down to Taiping; sell it and come back with some salt... a township Party official caught me and hit me-- then they struggled my mother for what I did-- "capitalism"...The class struggle was fierce after that. When I was 17 or 18 [1967-68] I began to see that I had no future, and gradually I began to lose my idealism. I looked around and I saw that so many leaders were disloyal to Chairman Mao, so many had been toppled from power. I began to have doubts (huaiyi fangan). I kept studying on my own all through the Cultural Revolution, I read all of Chairman Mao’s works and Marx and Engel’s "Kapital", I also read Lu Xun, who influenced me a lot... The more I read the more I saw the contradiction between the propaganda and reality. Then I started to read a lot about Chinese history-- the Three Kingdoms, Outlaws of the Marsh, Dream of the Red Chamber-- but the books that influenced me the most were novels from the late Qing that criticized society: the Revelations of Officialdom (Guanchang xianxing ji) and Twenty Years Witness of the Grotesque (Ershi nian mudu zhi guai zhuang). Reading these made me realize it was all about power. After reading them I had no ideals at all. Then, after Chairman Mao died and there was the movement against the Gang of Four, I really realized that it was all about power and getting power. My philosophy and personality comes from that experience.


Zhenggui’s account of "seeing through" (kantou) the political cant of the Cultural Revolution, was virtually identical to the experience of many intellectuals, a point he underscored by recalling the enlightenment he received from books and "self-study." Zhenggui was a zhiqing who did not have to be "sent" anywhere. His political nihilism also reflected a stance that was very similar to urban intellectuals of his generation. Zhenggui often manifested a kind of cold cynicism in viewing his own predicament, and frequently declared his own lack of belief in politics, in religion, in ideals. He was given to such statements as, "We’ve got nothing to do today--just kill time. It’s really boring." Or "Why are we poor? Because we have got too much time to hang out and not enough work--it’s such a big waste." and even, "Work is no fun, being at home is no fun. I have no hopes, no ideals, and no belief." In many ways, his attitudes stood out from those of his fellow villagers-- quite intentionally, since he felt himself to be different.

One source of this sense of difference came from his experience of suffering under a bad class label. As he observed, "At that time the distinction between a poor and lower-middle peasant (pingxia zhong nong) and a rich peasant/landlord (dizhufunong) was really big; it was absolutely impossible for these two classes to marry-- not a rule, but a way of thinking that was very strong." Zhenggui married his first cousin Wu Guizhen, a member of his same household, since her own parents were dead. This was one solution to the difficulty of marrying off the son and daughter of bad elements. What truly scarred him, however, was the closing off of educational opportunities in spite of a deep heartfelt interest and aptitude. Other forms of discrimination, such as not being able to join the army or go to the hospital, paled in comparison to the denial of education. Zhenggui recalled the plight of a fellow bad element his own age, "they wouldn’t let her go to school because of her class background so even now she can’t read or write-- what do think; is that cruel or what?" Zhenggui considered the depravation of "culture" to be the ultimate prison of the nongmin fate.

Another source of his difference from other villagers was his relative wealth. As Wu Guangxing observed, the richest families in the village were of rich peasant and landlord background, and Zhenggui in particular was a kind of historical echo of his father’s status-- from duobazi to baogongtou. He did not think much of the extra workpoints he admitted he had at the time of reform. He allowed that the distribution of grain and workpoints was not affected by the class struggle, and he even admitted that they got more workpoints because of all the work they had to do, some of it distasteful but high paying (relatively). Zhenggui saw this as no blessing-- he hated the hard work and still looks on it as punishment. In looking back, he dwelt more on the suffering they went through, and on who put them through it. The collective period’s climate of poor relations, which took the old markers of status and inverted them, cut short his opportunities. Zhenggui was embittered by this lack of opportunity in the countryside and by the twist of fate that made him what by his reckoning he should not have been: a peasant. He made some comparisons between city people and peasants:

City people-- workers and ganbu-- they have security, the "iron rice bowl" they get all kinds of advantages from their work units. For us, its the same old story: workers are "big brother" and we are always the "little brother" (nong erge).


Zhenggui often sardonically referred to himself as nong erge, a category underscoring villagers’ low social status, but he accepted the label in order to distinguish himself as one who should not be in such straights. This process, of identifying with the label of peasant in order to separate himself from it, carried over into a more general identification with intellectuals, even to the point of using the discourse of peasant consciousness. Zhenggui blamed his own suffering during the Cultural Revolution, and the problems of contemporary society, on a "national character" (minzuxing) with a tendency toward "jealousy" (jiduxing). As a result, his reflections on social change expressed the same basic values as those held by many intellectuals:

The changes in Chinese society recently are really big. There is a good side to this and a bad side. The good side is that we are destroying our traditional culture and studying science and competition from the West. Look, even young people who don’t know anything about tradition are still influenced by it, by things like the four relationships and three bonds. The bad sides are many; there is lots of crime and corruption now.


Also like intellectuals, Zhenggui frequently spoke in abstractions, using the essentialist trope of xing (essence, nature) in many of his reflections. Thus he connected corruption with the minzuxing (national character), and was given to making contrasts between "the West’s competitiveness (jingzhengxing) and China’s jealousy (jiduxing)," or assertions such as "the secret to success is professionalism (shiyexing) and responsibility (zerenxing)."

From his intimate view of the countryside, Zhenggui saw the problem of the national character as rooted in the thinking-- read peasant consciousness-- of pingxia zhongnong (poor and lower middle peasants), and he was at pains to separate himself from them, considering himself to be on a higher plain of consciousness than they were:

Once a pingxia zhongnong, always a pingxia zhongnong... it’s the same today as it was back then. They used to believe that everything they saw in print, everything the government told them was true! I used to too, but now I know better-- it’s all false, all propaganda


Zhenggui frequently talked about the problems of such a "low cultural level" for Xiakou. Once he explained how Wu Guangxing came to dominate the post of accountant for so long, bringing out a concrete form of his own "enlightenment":

You know how Wu Guangxing became accountant? He was an upper middle peasant, and in other teams there was no way he could become accountant. The problem here was that all the people who were capable of being accountant were bad elements. Look, at one time or another, every pingxia zhongnong in this team has been a ganbu [cadre]-- they are just no good at it, not capable! Wu Guanghong was accountant for a while, but he was putting money in his own pocket so they got rid of him... Every time there was a movement they would change ganbu. Wu Guangxing was chosen because he could do the job and was cleaner than the rest-- but he got advantages from it. The others are too stupid to see how he did it, but I can see how he would juggle figures and make different sets of receipts...


In both concrete and abstract ways of constructing "peasantness" Zhenggui used the discourse of peasant consciousness to carve out his own separate-- and alienated-- identity. In fact, his elitist disdain for the nongmin identity was heightened by his suffering under it; the more he felt victimized by the nong erge label, the more he identified against his fellow villagers and with the peasant consciousness discourse of intellectuals. This dynamic of alienation suggests both the psychological implications of peasant consciousness discourse for all rural Chinese-- the blow to nong erge’s self-esteem-- and way identities form around that discourse; Zhenggui was an intellectual in all but name and its implicit status.

His alienation from other "peasants" belies the common ground Zhenggui shared with them (again, analogous to urban intellectuals). In accounting for the resurgence of class status, and his own "return" to prosperity, Zhenggui contrasted the work ethic of pingxia zhongnong villagers "goofing off" and "enjoying life" to his own habits of "always planning something in the back of my mind" and his moral judgment that "success from effort (qinglao zefu) is correct."

The theme of "success from effort" put Zhenggui in firm agreement with Wu Guangxing’s outlook. Like Wu Guangxing, he characterized the problem of unequal opportunity between city and countryside as unfair, and was galled by officials who selfishly pursue their own interests. The two villagers also shared broader concerns. I have characterized Wu Guangxing as reflective and concerned about growing chaos in the new culture. Like Wu Guangxing-- and the urban intellectuals I have described-- Yang Zhenggui was very much concerned with the same problems he, too, saw developing in society. Despite his alienation from other villagers and cynical sense of nihilism as a member of the Cultural Revolution generation, he agreed with many of their assessments of social chaos, especially what he saw as the contradiction between officials and the people:

Everything looks good on the surface but there are deep problems in society. There is a new class system (jiejixing) and officials are just like landlords. There is a mutual contradiction between officials and the people.


Like other villagers, Zhenggui used historical memory to construct his understanding of social change and politics. Perhaps surprisingly, considering the emphasis his self-representation placed on his own suffering under the collective (jiti) system, his reflections were not a simple iconoclasm, but a more balanced accounting of the village’s experience:


Everything has a good side and a bad side. Take the reform for example; the first year of tudi xiafu the production doubled. That’s good for everybody. But the best thing is that we have absolute freedom (juedui ziyou). I work when I want and rest when I want and do what I want. The bad side is that it isn’t safe in society any more--robbery and murder and that kind of thing...The collective also had a good side and a bad side. The bad side was we didn’t have money and you were called "capitalist roader" or "capitalist tail" if you had nicer clothes or a bicycle. In those days we had social equality--everyone was equally poor! There were some good things, I agree that some of the public works like the road and the electric power stations and even the terracing of the fields had some good results...Also, in those days things were cheap and you could get by. People had better relations then, there was a kind of empathy (tongqingxing) in society that you do not have now---now everything is based on money--up front!


Compared to others in the village, Zhenggui was a "winner" in the reforms. With no debt to carry over into the reform period, and even a small amount of savings, his family was able to purchase the collective’s small grain mill and build from there, first purchasing a tuolaji (the ubiquitous walk behind tractors that are the main form of motorized transport in the countryside), and then a dilapidated but serviceable pickup truck. Their home was much like the others in the village, but they had a washing machine and a color television. Zhenggui was saving for a VCR. In light of this relative prosperity, why was Zhenggui nostalgic for the "empathy" of the collective period, and critical-- like so many of his fellow villagers-- of the commoditization of relationships of his own day?

Part of the answer lies in the value he placed on "absolute freedom," that reflected at once a contrast to the collective, and a fear that state interference in local affairs would lead to higher taxes and more fees, and would curtail the opportunities available to villagers to get work. Zhenggui expressed criticism of the jealous nature of the peasant personality, but it is clear that from his experience, the larger threat to developing the market economy comes from the politics of privilege. With so much privilege, a little ‘negative egalitarianism’ seemed justified. He had no interest, however, in personally getting involved in politics. He said that although he had been invited to be a Party member, he saw it as no use. Party members don’t get rich and they were not much use in serving the people. Zhenggui claimed that he wanted to serve the people, but he wanted to do it in his own way. His ideal was to get rich, but his intent was to use his money for a higher purpose, to build schools, to do good things for local people in difficult straits, and to educate his grand-daughter. The biggest obstacle to these goals was official corruption:

The thing people complain most about is corruption. It’s bad when high leaders pocket money, but the situation is even worse at the local xian (county) and xiang (township) level. There the corruption is really bad. Officials use their power to get rich, if you have power you can make it. Officials and factory heads have no sense of responsibility; they are just out for themselves. Who is Communist Party trying to fool? Whatever they want they just write their own ticket. There is a joke now; it used to be "workers of the world unite, struggle for communism, now it should be "struggle for money". The more power officials have, the more they use it to make money...


The problem of corruption, to Zhenggui, was a problem of moral responsibility (zerenxing), not simply in the sense of officials’ failure to live up to the ideal of "universalist ethics," that is, their vertical incorruptibility and resistance to horizontal subversion. Zhenggui defined responsibility in relational terms, it meant having "good relations with the people" (gen laobaixing gaohao guanxi). Corrupt leaders were not so much guilty of fraternization as isolation. As Zhenggui expressed it "Good relations" was not just a way of smoothing out differences between city and countryside; he maintained, from his experience, that good relations between individuals, and a sense of responsibility for official duties, would also get the more general business of national construction moving forward:

The work in Yaoqiao is good-- really good. The officials there are from the Transportation department and they have a good sense of responsibility. If there is a problem on the site, they know about it and take care of it right away. But the work here in Xiakou is terrible because the official in charge-- from the Road Maintenance Department-- is no good. He has just been sent down here, and he is supposed to be responsible for protecting and maintaining and management of the road. Practically speaking, this means the things like the walls above and below the road and planting trees along the road, and maintaining drainage. But he’s never on the worksite. He doesn’t know what it is going on, and he has no sense of responsibility. He also has bad relations with people. You need good connections to get things done, because there are so many different departments that have to cooperate on the building and maintenance of a road. Well, the other day we needed more cement to pour the wall foundation, but this man was not around. I went up above to the Transportation Department road repair crew and they sent down the cement--and did not even make out a ticket! I have good relations with people, and I also know how to think up ways to get things done.


In response to what he perceived as officialdom’s lack of accountability and responsibility, Zhenggui proposed a kind of iconoclastic democracy. I found his approval of democracy and his own personal value of responsibility to be an important connection. One night we ate dinner with his family, and afterwards everyone was sitting around watching TV. Coverage of the Fourteenth Party Congress came on and incited some observations. The main conversants were Zhenggui, Zhenggui’s nephew, Yaoyun, and Chen Naxin, our "handler" who had taken part in the demonstrations in 1989:

Yao Yun: I’ll bet there are places in China-- places with no TV or radio or newspapers-- where they think Mao Zedong is still the leader in China!


Xiao Chen: I’ll bet you all do not know who the leaders are today. Look--who is that talking right now? Do you know?


Zhenggui: Aiya, we did not choose them, how should we know who they are? Why should we care? Does the Sichuan representative represent me? America has real elections, we should have elections like that. If we don’t want them, we don’t elect them! There are too many people in government who don’t do anything. We don’t need all these government employees. In the old society, under the Guomindang, there were only two officials in all of Xiali-- a township head and an accountant. They got by fine, but now there are thirty some people in the township government! I say we choose them ourselves; if we don’t like them, forget them.


Yao Yun: No good! We have the higher levels choose the lower levels. Peasants are not ready for democracy. China is too big, there are too many people...if we had elections there would be chaos. The government still has to manage things.


Yaoyun’s father (Zhenggui’s brother) agreed with his son. There was more back and forth but following these same general lines. It is interesting to note the reasons for each position. After he made the conclusion above, Yao Yun went on to compare the government today with that of the old society under the imperial system, noting that in the old society the county magistrate had all the power-- a "local emperor" (tu huangdi) with more power than the real emperor. Things now were better because all that power in one person’s hands could never happen; the central government acts as a check. Thus it seems that his biggest objection to democracy is that it will cause chaos (hunluan); strong central authority is what prevents chaos and the abuse of power by local officials and so central authority is acceptable, so long as officials are clean and not corrupt (‘qingguan’ not ‘hunguan’). The catalysts for Zhenggui’s call for democratic political reform were local--even personal. One of his persistent complaints was that the local government had too many useless personnel, and one way he approached democracy was as a method of clearing away the deadwood and corruption from the local community. It is less clear that he saw democracy as a viable way of changing the central government-- although he had no real respect for those figures either, and mocked them openly on several occasions.

On another occasion, Zhenggui and I began talking about the great changes that have taken place over the past ten years, first about the change to a market economy and then about the necessity of law (falu), which led to a discussion of politics. As he often did in our conversations, Zhenggui turned the tables and asked me to "explain human rights"-- then, as now, a bone of contention between our respective governments. I fumbled out an explanation of inalienable rights being the freedoms of speech, religion and assembly ("politics"), and then Chen Naxin came by to add the fundamental proposition that all people are created equal. This last brought out a reaction in Zhenggui that put many of his deepest concerns together:

Oh...well that’s not adapted to the Chinese reality. People here are not equal-- city people discriminate against (qishi) nongmin... It’s a ‘systemic problem’ (tizhi wenti); the system can never change-- it’s tradition (chuantong)! For us to choose our own leaders is impossible. They say we have democracy, but you have to look at the context of democracy-- everything is ‘under the leadership of the Party’! They say there is the right to demonstrate, but only ‘under the leadership of the Party!...Power comes from above; no matter what changes occur, nongmin will always be the underclass (xiaceng).


Even as he complained, as do many urban intellectuals, about the restrictions on expression and lack of democratic freedoms under the "system"-- here conflated with "tradition"-- Zhenggui was in a deep sense motivated by the more immediate restrictions imposed by his nongmin identity. The "democracy and rule of law" (minzhu fazhi) Zhenggui championed were antidotes to the disrespect that tore apart the social fabric, disrespect that he, as nong erge, experienced every day in his encounter with "irresponsible," haughty corruption:

The Public Security Bureau (gonganju) are especially bad right now. They just pull people over and fine them, put the money in their own pockets... You have to pay. If you don’t, they won’t let you go and they might even confiscate your vehicle! Their power is too great and there is nothing you can do to oppose them...They are getting rich-- you figure it, 30 yuan per vehicle!... The worst thing is that they really insult your human dignity, (wuru renge) they humiliate you...And another thing, you remember what I said about everyone being equal before the law? Well, it’s not true. If you have connections, friends or relatives in positions of power, they you can get off easily ‘in the front door and right out the back door". It isn’t fair; there is no equality before the law.


In the emphasis he always placed on the "rule of law" as a check on arbitrary power, Zhenggui shared the attitude of his fellow villagers, as well as his intellectual peers. Like the latter group, his ideas were shaped to some extent by his experience of the Cultural Revolution, and like Wu Guangxing and other villagers, his conception of democracy was especially concerned with the "respect" and "human dignity" denied villagers by both the political system and the discourse of peasant consciousness. But while many, especially older, villagers wanted to re-integrate a relationship with the state through a "consultative" and "consensual" democratic process, Zhenggui was cynical about this possibility, again, based on his experiences. When officials make decisions which directly impact villagers, it is a ritualized practice to provide an opportunity for the villagers to "raise an opinion" (ti yijian). While this opportunity is still valued by some, Zhenggui saw it as an empty ritual, evidence of the Party’s lack of responsibility, disrespect toward nongmin, and moral bankruptcy; as he put it, "Everything is ‘under the leadership of the Party’ and decisions are made regardless of ‘public opinion":

They had a meeting in Yaoqiao to decide on the compensation for land condemned to build the road. They decided on a value based on present production of 8,000 yuan per mu of rice paddy. They asked if anyone had any opinions or objections, and both the township head and the local Party branch secretary had objections. They told them, ‘It does not matter if you have objections or not; we are still going to do it this way’... opinions-- you’ve gotta be kidding!


Zhenggui’s reaction could be construed as nihilistic disillusionment, and that was one aspect of his conflicted personality. But there was a deeply "principled" side to him, and an element of struggle and resistance to injustice. The people of Yaoqiao, whose representatives had their "opinions" stifled in Zhenggui’s account, put their own form of "democracy" into practice shortly thereafter by seizing the local government headquarters and holding a vice-mayor of Ya’an hostage until their demands to protect farmers’ interests were heard. These actions appealed to Zhenggui’s own "throw the bums out" attitude; he liked stories of resistance, of nong erge standing up, even in his weakest state:

There is this poor crippled guy who lives in a grass hut on the outskirts of Ya’an. He is really poor and the only money he gets is from the government for his disability, and from playing cards... He hasn’t paid any tax at all since xiafu-- he says, ‘I’m penniless (yiwusuoyou)-- so the Public Security Bureau grabbed him and threw him in jail for not paying taxes! After 15 days in jail, they wanted to charge him a fee for his food-- he said, ‘Go ahead! I won’t pay! Keep me here, I’ll stay as long as you want!"-- so they just let him go...


Zhenggui really enjoyed this story of the tax resister and told it with relish. Something about the way this character stood up to the system appealed to him. Still, Zhenggui’s ambivalence toward his own nongmin identity, and his search for his own, was not expressed in activism but in a self-respect to counter the respect others denied him. As he succinctly described his "philosophy of life,"

Nongmin have a bitter lot. We work hard, but we can never become rich. Still, I am optimistic and combative (pingbo)-- not like that one over there! [points to Wu Wenxue]. Why do I work? I work to eat and I eat to survive. Why do I want to survive? I survive for my family: the purpose of work is to be able to face your parents, face your children and face yourself (dui deqi fumu, duideqi ernu, duideqi ziji).


Wu Wenxue

On a sunny afternoon we stopped by the small village store for refreshment and there we found Yang Zhenggui. He was in a playful mood, and he took to teasing his distant uncle Wu Wenxue, the man in the village whom he always saw as his personal antinome:

This old-timer (laobeizi) is the person in Xiakou who most knows how to enjoy life. Really! He takes care about what he eats: he’s really picky. He washes his noodles twice before he eats them because he says that they are poisonous if you don’t. When we used to make corn cakes he would carefully separate the first and last meal to come out of the grinder and feed it to the pigs. He even separates the stem and only eats the leaf of the cabbage! Yes, he really enjoys all the four flavors: hot and salty, bitter and sweet. He only lacks one thing--fighting spirit (fendou jinsheng)! He’s lazy!


He then jumped up to avoid the blow and the ‘Aiya’ of Wenxue. They made an interesting contrast: Yang Zhenggui, the affable gregarious guy who makes his way through his social connections; Wenxue the righteous but lovable buffoon. Wenxue was a magnet for comments from people throughout the village on how not to be successful. On the surface, he appeared as a perfect fit with the "natural man" model of peasant consciousness, an exemplar of the small economy mentality, totally lacking in ambition and seeking only to maximize his leisure time. According to this model, Wenxue would be a product of the economics of a purely agricultural society, no capacity for forethought or planning, no sense that he could build his own personal fortunes without compromising his values, a desire to enjoy life by keeping his needs simple -- traditions that have lost touch with the new realities.

Although he is now in his late forties, people still remember-- with humor-- that he used to come to school late every day, and he would walk into class carrying a long fishing pole that reached to the ceiling. In keeping with this Huck Finn spirit, Wenxue was described as neither ambitious, nor especially concerned about (or responsible with) money. In one story, Wenxue got a loan from the bank to buy some fertilizer, but as soon as he got the money, he went down to the restaurant in Taiping and used a fair portion of the money to buy himself a big meal on the spot. This theme of instant gratification and ‘absolute freedom’ is echoed in Wenxue’s own words. He once told me about how during the period when food was scarce in the 60s, he would take a basket of cabbages, and carry it to Ya’an to sell. Sure it was "capitalist tail wagging," he said, " but then we did not care about our ‘isms’ -- you had to survive somehow!" Sugar was very cheap at that time, he said, and so he would take the money from selling the vegetables and buy sugar with it. By the time he walked back up to Xiakou he’d have eaten it all! He explained that this was like the rhyme: "high class cookies, high class sugar; eat your trousers, eat your shirt," which he interpreted as meaning that eating is the most essential thing.

I witnessed first hand his love of leisure. When Wenxue went down to Taiping to turn over his paddy land--just a little piece there by the side of the road--it took him three days to do it. The first day he went down with a shovel and went straight into the tea house where he stayed all day. The same thing the next day, where our presence might have been the proximate cause of his indulgence, and then finally, at the end of the third day, he got it done. Wenxue loves to sit around, drink tea, and talk.

But Wenxue is not so simple, nor is he considered ‘just a screw up,’ like his nephew yellow dog (the younger heir apparent to the ‘town clown’ title who, when entrusted by the township with the care of several dozen ducks, somehow managed to kill off the whole flock--and he not even able to cut rock like the other young men!) Wenxue is capable, even manually dextrous. He has been given the moniker ‘tinker’ (buguojiang) in reference not only to his manual abilities, but also as affirmation of his willingness to help others who have things in need of fixing. We often saw him helping out a neighbor with this or that task-- repairing a roof, fixing a tool. Wenxue was one who chose to live his life in a way more consistent with his own principles of independence and ‘simple pleasures’.

Wenxue said that his requirements were few: basically he just needs a little grain for his belly and his family, and the freedom (ziyou) to sit and drink tea in the teahouse when he sees fit. This attitude brought Wenxue into conflict with his only son, Wu Guoming, and during my time in the village there was an ongoing controversy surrounding their relationship. The son’s first ‘intended’ was arranged by a matchmaker who saw Guoming working in Xiali and admired his workstyle. In the end, the young couple had a falling out because the girl wanted Guoming to build a house in Qipan (where the boy’s aunt lived-- a wealthier area) before she would marry him. Guoming got angry and broke it off, but at the same time he began to blame his father for being poor. A second match was arranged by Wenxue’s younger sister in Ya’an who introduced him to a girl working at the leather factory in the town. They married, although she is older and has more education than Guoming. Wenxue’s daughter-in-law no longer works in the factory, because, they said, the money she would make would just go to her family in Yunjing. Guoming continued to blame Wenxue for their poverty although Wenxue argued back that his son should not blame him and should be more diligent himself--after all, plenty of sons whose fathers are just ordinary people (‘yi bande’) and have done quite well for themselves.

From Wenxue’s perspective, Guoming’s behavior was not filial, and he expressed, in despair, that he had, "no hope for his son." Guoming wanted to separate his household (fenjia) from that of his parents, but Wenxue did not want him to, maintaining that the son should not leave because he and his wife would then be left short of labor. While they had already separated in most practical matters-- cooking separately and the son getting the lion's share of the household produce-- Wenxue refused to give his blessing to an official break and so made a spectacle of his son’s lack of filial piety. When Guoming planned a wedding celebration for himself (nearing the time of the birth of his own child), Wenxue left town to go to work as a cook, a public demonstration of his disapproval. Guoming retaliated by omitting his father's name from the ritual money packets, ritually implying that his father was already dead.

Inter-generational strife was common in the countryside, and it was quite literally a critical issue, since old people depended on younger people for their livelihood during their waning years. Wenxue was not so old as to require his son's assistance at the time, but the old rules-- if not majority opinion-- supported his stance. While conflicts between young and old have surely always existed, there were new stresses on these relations. Young people are no longer as dependent on the land resources that were once controlled by their elders; they have wage labor opportunities and land rights now come from "the nation". As evidence of the breakdown of the old system, the use of generational names was falling out of favor with young people in the village, and many villagers connected the loss of respect for old people to the general disassembling of social values and growing social chaos. Wenxue was keenly aware of the impact of new more materialist values, and in his principled way he rejected them; because of his principled stance, he was particularly vulnerable to the breakdown of bonds between generations.

Wenxue's life seemed to be a continual struggle for principle, or as he most frequently spoke of it, for renyi daode, "humanity, justice and morality." the traditional Confucian formulation of "humanism." Wenxue struggled to make this universal concrete and particular in a changed world where principle seemed to be wholly lacking. If his family life was the antithesis of renyi daode, with the old rules ignored, so too were his interactions with the broader society. As a capable laborer Wenxue was given numerous opportunities for work. He had "principled" requirements, however, that had to be met before he would accept an offer, above all the principle of "freedom." Once his younger sister proposed that he work her paddy in exchange for rice and liquor. He refused because it is "someone else's plan and not free." On another occasion he was offered work cutting rock in the river in front of Xiakou, but he objects to this work--again--as "not free" (bu ziyou) and most especially as "not fair" ( bu pingdeng)’. He made the point that if he went to work for the rock contractor (baogongtou), he would be paid only five yuan a day when he should earn ten; he would be working to make the baogongtou rich, and "that’s exploitation." Even more disturbing to Wenxue was that he was not permitted to cut rock for himself-- the township had declared it illegal-- but he could see the big truck that was openly taking stone everyday for the baogongtou’s private house-- allowed because he had connections among the officials:

In jiti times there were rules to control quality and corruption, but now! Now everybody is out for money, and it’s kickbacks, kickbacks, kickbacks! (huikou)...All the deals are ‘heaven knows, earth knows, you know and I know’


In his own actions, Wenxue did what he could to assert ritual order against social chaos. The night before the Qingming festival honoring ancestors, Pam saw Wenxue burning incense and paper money in front of his family tomb. The next day, I asked him about the meaning of Qingming:

Qingming is mostly city people coming back to their old homes to burn incense to their ancestors. We're here all the time so we do it at different times of the year...Still, Qingming is important, we should still burn incense at their graves. It is a kind of remembrance (jinian) and should be done. At the meetings [in the old society] they would talk about the old rules and make clear family relations so everyone called people by their proper name (han duide). Proper address is part of renyi daode; it helps to order society...Now young people don't care about this; if they know you, they address you; if not, then forget it...Young people are not interested in Qingming.


Like Wu Guangxing, Wenxue expressed a belief that knowing how to manage human relations-- and to define those relations, and identities, through naming-- is something that comes from culture and from the "rules" governing fairness and respect. The renyi daode that was lost on young people was Wenxue’s model of "benevolence and righteousness," but, again like Wu Guangxing, the sources of this principle were not all "traditional," but were also drawn from the revolutionary experience. Some villagers even felt that Wenxue had principles to the point of being laughable, and sometimes Wenxue seemed to be laughing at himself. Was he serious or parodying himself when he quoted the slogan, "Three days without a meeting and one’s thinking begins to backslide." (santian bu kaihui; sixiang dadao tui) ? He was commenting on the absence of collective spirit of today, and comparing that situation to his own activism during the collective period. All in the village old enough to remember groan and roll their eyes at the memory of Wenxue’s voice calling them to another meeting.

His memories of revolution also had a serious side, and to a significant extent he developed his ideas of renyi daode in terms of those experiences. Wenxue would often discourse on this subject, tea cup in hand, in Wu Guangxing’s courtyard or by Guangxing’s hearth, where he came seeking shelter from the fenjia tempest in his own home. On one of these occasions, in the context of discussing the village in the 1970s, Wenxue explained his ideas in a way that, when he had finished, seemed to have particularly pleased him:

The year Mao died food was short and so many peasants cut wood to take into Ya’an and sold it openly. Of course this was capitalism, but people had to eat! Some officials had good hearts, they would closes their eyes to this and that was right. But others had no conscience, they would see you carrying wood to the city and criticize you and even turn you back...Aiya! So many movements it made my head spin (tou hun)! So many meetings! Practically speaking it was all about revenge (baofu)-- he gets me, I get him-- revenge!


What is the difference between "revenge" and "revolution?"

Revenge is revenge; revolution is revolution! The purpose of revolution is not revenge, it is to correct unfairness. Bad people, people who exploit others should be beaten, but good people, people with a conscience, they shouldn’t be beaten, they should be educated; we should use an educational method to improve them. Take land reform for example, some landlords were not beaten--do you know why? Because they were good to people; they would help them out when they needed help. Its like the doctor whose patient could not pay, but he wrote him a prescription anyway. Those kinds of people were not struggled. Besides, here there were no really rich dizhu or rich peasants, and there were not any really poor people either-- it was pretty equal...Things did not get too bad until the ‘class struggle’ began later...


What about the Cultural Revolution? How was that carried out here?

Oh, I don’t know. I did not take part in those things. I’d go to the meetings and sleep right through them. People would call on me to go somewhere and seize power but I never went. My principle is that I don’t want to offend anyone (bu yao dezui).


But isn’t that attitude part of ‘traditional culture’--not revolution!

Yeah, that’s right, during the revolution no one cared about morality...Now its still like that; people talk about morality, but its only a surface phenomenon. Now everything is for the individual and people don’t care about each other--they just mind their own business...morality means that everyone should be the same morality, you should respect people and be fair to them. Fairness (gong ping) is very important.


But was the old society ‘fair’? Is today fair?

No, thing weren’t fair then and they aren’t fair now. Unfairness comes from the top down (bu gong ping shi cong shang xialai de). When the upper levels are unfair it spreads through the whole society. Look at the stone cutting policy-- it is unreasonable (bu heli). If you have guanxi you are permitted to cut stone from the river and sell it. If you are like me, cutting a few stone slabs for my own house, you get fined! They are supporting what they should not support, and not supporting what they should! It is unfair. It’s unfair. If the officials are unfair to the masses then the relationships between people will also be unfair and unreasonable (bu jiang daoli).


What about conflicts between people; how do you handle those when everything is ‘for the individual’?

Look, if I see you beating your wife, I should say something because it is not right-- ’If the road is not level, shovel it’ (daolu bu ping you ren chan) or ‘If you see injustice on the road, reach for your knife to help’ (lu jian bu ping, ba dao xiang zhu). If you see injustice you should do something about it...if the wife is fighting with her husband over his gambling, both sides should be reasonable. He should not beat her, but she should not cause him to lose face by criticizing him in front of other people... There’s a way of handling relations between people and that is ‘humanity, justice and morality’ (renyi daode).


What is renyi daode?

Renyi daode means a kind of ‘good heart’ [conscience, liangxin] that everyone has--it just takes education to bring it out in people.


As an egalitarian ideal of harmoniously integrated social relations, renyi daode encapsulated Wenxue’s almost romantic construction of cultural identity. It was also an ideal that was lacking not only in horizontal relationships within society, but primarily in vertical relationships-- in Wenxue’s case this included both his disintegrating relationship with his son, and the decayed relationship with the state.

When added to his behavior as a "natural man," Wenxue’s traditionalist affirmation of the "weak" principle renyi daode-- with its emphasis on harmony, and "not offending" people-- seem to make of him the very model of the primordial peasant’s quiescent "worship of power" in peasant consciousness discourse. But Wenxue's deep sense of principle frequently caused him to resist the government. One day Wenxue came to visit and he was quite distraught. It seemed that a transportation bureau truck had driven over some of his corn, just as it was ready to be harvested. They immediately assured him that he would be reimbursed, but for Wenxue that was not the point. The behavior of the officials was disrespectful; it would not have been hard for them to find him--warn Wenxue so that Wenxue could have the option of gathering the corn he had planted.

It was a significantly bigger affair still when the township insisted on reclaiming his paddy land in order to build a new high school. His response was to spend several weeks constructing new paddy land out of one of his remaining dryland plots, building what one neighbor teased was ‘the great wall’. He resisted the loss of his paddy, even though the government promised to give him the amount of rice each year that the condemned plot was capable of producing, because as he explained, it was best to be independent from the government. He was concerned that the township would deduct ad hoc fees from his rice ration, or that a change in policy would result in a wholesale rescinding of the ration. Since he was a long time tax resister, he probably had good reason to be wary. Wenxue had not paid his head tax for the local government since the responsibility system took effect, but he always paid his agricultural tax. He explained that he was willing to pay his share of taxes to the nation (guojia), but that he refused to give money to support the administrative costs of the local ganbu-- they didn’t anything for him, so why should he support them? Wenxue’s renyi daode invoked old ways for a new time, but his use of tradition was not a return to the past; his principle asserted a new order by actively resisting the ‘old system’ that imposed its will on the individual, restricted his freedom, and showed no respect.

Zhu Congde

I ran into Yang Zhenggui at the store and he began to hold forth a bit in his cynical but sincere style. He sat down and announced that "some people say that the Guomindang was better than the Communist Party is today." This evinced a mild protest from the assembly, three older men in their early sixties. In turn Zhenggui commented to me:

We are different, two different generations and two different ways of thinking. I'm more open and progressive (kaitou) than they are, This is because we have had different experiences-- a different history...They can remember before Liberation and the 1950s, I remember being limited by my class label...


Zhenggui had no specific person in mind when he made his observation about generational difference, but the "different history" he brought up fit no one better than Zhu Congde. If Wenxue emphasized the values "freedom" and renyidaode, Zhu spoke about the idealism of social equality and "holistic community"; where Wenxue struggled for principle, Zhu Congde searched after "great unity" (datong).

It has always been difficult for me to write about Zhu Congde because he was a very good friend, and because he died while I was away from the village for a few months. He taught me, with much kindness, a great many things that I am still trying to understand. Zhu was an old man when I met him, with a well-known history in the village as an idealist and something of a character. They ironically referred to him, with some affection, as "Zhu De," the name of the Sichuanese leader of the Red Army, second only to Mao as an early hero of the Revolution. The irony was that Xiakou’s Zhu De was not a great man, nor a brave man, but he did show courage on occasion.

He had lived a hard life. Born into poverty and forcibly conscripted into the Guomindang army in his youth, Zhu Congde experienced the depravation and fear of the "old society" and was a great performer during the "recall past bitterness" campaigns. He became a local activist for the Party after Liberation, and loyally filled a series of village-level posts throughout the 1950s. during the famine his parents, his wife, and two of his children starved to death. The one son who survived later became for a time the village Party branch-secretary, but he only tolerated his father, and left Zhu Congde to do the farm labor while he went off to "do business." At 77 years old, Zhu Congde was neglected, malnourished, and had only corn cobs to burn for his fire, but his thin frame could still shoulder the heavy buckets of nightsoil up the steep path to the distant plots, and he still spent days at a time in a lean-to on the mountain, breaking new ground and gathering medicinal herbs from the mountainside.

Zhu loved to talk, for which he was sometimes ridiculed as "acting like an old woman" (but for which I was grateful). A man of some learning, he had been educated in the "four books and five classics" of the Confucian canon, and held a carefully hand-written transcription of the Sui Shen Bao into which he had copied his family’s genealogy (jiapu), as well as some local lore and legend. He could find New York, Washington, Los Angeles and San Francisco on his map of the world, and he talked about current events such as the role of China in the United Nations and the break-up of the Soviet Union. He could sing the old mountain songs, so well that a folklorist from the city once came to record him.

Zhu Congde was an inexhaustible storehouse of reflections on the past. His jiapu was the only one in the village and it contained the story of the Zhu clan’s forced migration to Sichuan from Hubei in the early Qing dynasty, but even more vivid were his own memories of the old society, and nothing made him happier than spinning those tales. Paradoxically, Zhu Congde was also quite sensitive about his past. This was understandable considering the organizations he once belonged to: the Guomindang army; a spontaneous local religious cult (the huangjintan) involving spiritual possession (ganshen); and the paoge secret society-- all of which fell severely out of favor after liberation! When Chen Naxin asked about the grades of the paoge, he indirectly confirmed them by raising a suspicious eye and intoning, "comrade Chen Naxin, you were a paoge?"

Zhu’s memories were the raw material of his value system, which had an egalitarian bent. He talked about the Qingmingdi of the Zhu clan, a common plot of land devoted to raising the food for the clan feast on the Qingming festival, and likened it to an ideal collective. He remembered the noblesse oblige public assistance practices for poor families in the old society, and the labor parties formed to help invalids and widows gather their harvests. Zhu especially approved of the "teahouse courts," where disputes were settled by "speaking reason" (jiang daoli), and he had great faith in the ultimate justice of their decisions. As he expressed it in a saying: : "If you are right you can walk anywhere; if you are wrong you can’t move an inch" (you li bian zou tian xia; wuli cun bu lan xing). Zhu Congde’s sentimental approval of the old ways contrasted with his assessment of the comparative chaos and isolation of the individual in today’s society where "...nobody cares about anybody else anymore," and everyone is "out for themselves" (geren guan geren). This idealization of the past, and critique of the present, reflected Zhu Congde’s strong valuation of community, and his sense that social unity was a thing of the past.

He never specifically traced this loss to the Great Leap Forward and "grain gate," but his stories led me to believe he did. As he told it, the most traumatic experience of Zhu Congde’s life stemmed from his actions during that period, and the story tells a great deal about the difference between particularist and universalist ethics, as well as about the kind of integrated relationship Zhu Congde and other villagers wanted to forge with the state.

During the Great Leap Forward, when Zhu Congde was one of the team leaders under the brigade, Xiakou continued to receive rice from the Taiping Commune and was expected to send its corn and wheat down to the commune seat. As the famine set in, this distribution system began to break down. In 1959, 1,000 jin of corn was not sent to Taiping but distributed among families in Xiakou. Zhu Congde claimed that he was "away" when it happened and that others were responsible. Other people said that Zhu distributed the grain, and considered it a good deed because people in Xiakou were beginning to go hungry-- at any rate, they said, he was responsible for and approved of the action even if he did not carry it out with his own hands.

For daring to distribute grain among some of the villagers against the commune’s orders, the commune authorities later brought Zhu Congde before an "anti-rightist deviation" (fan youqing) struggle meeting held to account for the mistakes of the GLF, a meeting Zhu remembered vividly:


They distributed fourteen jin of grain to me-- seven jin of rice, seven jin of flour-- for the meeting. I was sure they were going to beat me to death so I gave the grain to my family -- my father was very hungry-- and decided to commit suicide. I sat down at the table and started to write my ‘last will and testament’-- I didn’t say anything bad about the Party or any leaders, mind you! I just wanted to leave a few words for my family... Then-- a knock at the door-- Aiya! Two officials from the commune came for me! They saw what I was writing and said, "don’t worry, no one is going to beat you; come on now, let’s go!" We went for the meeting; it was held in a big hall, as big as a movie theater, and there were big speakers placed every four seats so that you could hear what was going on...One by one they would call out names, ‘so and so, rightist!’ and that person would run up to the stage-- he had to run because people would hit him as he went by! Then they would make you kneel on broken roof tiles and sometimes bind you and beat you; you could see the sweat rolling down their faces...Some people tried to protect themselves. They would shave their heads so no one could grab their hair, put cotton padding on their knees and wear bamboo skin on their backs...Every day we would eat eight to a table, and I was nervous and never said anything...One day the commune Party secretary called me over, ‘Zhu Congde, why haven’t you said anything? ’ I told him I was afraid of offending people and that I was afraid of being labeled a rightist. He said, ‘You’re not a rightist, your mistake is not that serious it is a ‘contradiction among the people’ (neibu maodun). You should be leading the masses but instead you are following them-- a ‘tail of the masses’ (qunzhong de weiba)...Aiya, I was very scared by this. Afterwards when they wanted me to be a ganbu I told them ‘you could make me Chairman Mao and I would not be a ganbu!


Despite his activist past, and his continued commitment to what he understood as egalitarian "socialist values," Zhu Congde never held another post after that meeting. From the commune’s perspective, Zhu’s crime was that of "following the people," but to put loyalty to the state (universal) over his responsibility to the people (particular) was not possible for Zhu, no matter how intimidated he was by the higher authorities. His understanding of universal principles and morality was realized in particular contexts and relations, and to deny that community would have been an "offense to" (dezui) his social world.

Zhu Congde was an idealist, an activist from another time, and some people resented his activism-- the Party disapproved of his particularist ties that threatened their control, and while most villagers approved of his actions during the Great Leap, some also made fun of him for being an activist, as others accused him for being an official. Still, from the experience Zhu Congde came away with an understanding of the official’s responsibilities:

People say, ‘Zhu Congde, you were a ganbu for so many years. The Party brought you in, used you, and then kicked you out when they were done with you!’ And they would say, ‘Zhu Congde, you were an official you ‘ate more and had advantages’ (duo chi, duo zhan). But I tell them, ‘I never ate anything of yours!’ I got ten workpoints a day-- that is 2.1 yuan a week-- and that was all. I was never corrupt; I always ‘served the people’, not like the corrupt officials of today... If it weren’t for the grain distribution business I might still be a ganbu-- I can speak well and have a little culture, and I was a good official...A good official is one that listens to levels above, but also protects the common people (baofu laobaixing). Some bad officials only listen to orders from above and do not care about the people....


Zhu never lost his faith in the values of the revolution he had experienced in the 1950s, which he remembered as a time when local officials (like himself) were "one with the people." His unshakable faith in datong (great unity) led him to see the ideal official as the mediator between the universal and the particular-- not by imposing the former on the latter, but by realizing communist goals in selflessly serving the common good of a particular place, and showing respect to its people. Thus, for Zhu, being one with the people-- datong-- should not be forced through absolute vertical loyalty to the Party, rather loyalty to the Party should be based on the degree to which it is "one with the people."

While some villagers mocked him for his belief, Zhu Congde never expressed disillusionment with the Party, he never turned apostate. Even after all the suffering of the "continuous revolution" of the Maoist era, he blamed only the moral failure of individuals, not the system, nor its symbolization in Chairman Mao:

So many people died in the ‘grain gate’ and the armed struggle during the Cultural Revolution; so many dead! Chairman Mao could not be responsible for it-- not the same man who liberated China and carried out land reform! Impossible...No, these things were caused by middle and lower-level officials, not by Chairman Mao...Mao Zedong did three great things: he unified China; exterminated bandits; and divided the land equally.


The factionalism of the Cultural Revolution itself "made no sense" to Zhu Congde and his datong beliefs: "Look, we could sit around a table-- you are from this faction, you’ve from that faction, I’m from another faction-- but in reality we’re all in support (yonghu) of Chairman Mao...why all the fighting?" He joined a ‘faction’, the Hong Nongbing (Red Peasant Army), but his time as an activist had already passed. For Zhu the Cultural Revolution was a lot of nonsense he really did not understand; the 1950s were his heyday, an era idealized in his memory from which he constructed moral standards for the present.

Zhu became visibly happy when talking about the "cooperativization" (hezuohua) of the pre-GLF revolution in the 1950s, and how "right" it was: "reward according to labor." The best part of this system, however, was the way they determined workpoints:

Everybody did it together...To tell the truth, that was real democracy. ‘Does anyone have any opinions? If there are no opinions...ok then’... Old Mao did it right-- ‘democratic autocracy (minzhu zhuanzhi)’... Then the nongmin’s social position was raised; we were ‘masters of the house’! (dangjia zuo zhu).


Zhu Congde’s vision of democracy was idealist; again, with a strong element of datong-- everybody together doing something as an ideal. Like other people, his conception of democracy included freedom of opinion (yijian)-- but it was not so much a right of dissent as a right of agreement. The important principle of democracy, for Zhu, was that the masses be consulted, not that the masses ultimately have the power of decision. This consultation was a point of pride; it was connected with ‘diwei’ (status), and the sense of being involved, if not the reality. Zhu talked about democracy as a relationship, a courtesy, a ritual, a tradition or guiju (old rules)-- an egalitarian community based in an ethic of respect, now lost, for which Zhu Congde never stopped looking.

It was with this spirit of searching and respect that Zhu Congde approached Christianity. Zhu’s grandson’s wife, who did not live in Xiakou, but came fairly often and seemed to care for the old man, introduced him to a spontaneous Christian house church movement in Heizhu, a town located an hour or so east of Ya’an. The experience impressed Zhu Congde; he went there several times, and he talked about it with me. Zhu’s appropriation of Christianity was very different from the understanding of it held by the salon group of intellectuals in Chengdu. While the salon group took a pragmatic, rationally aloof stand in favor of Christianity’s "transcendent" grounding of moral principles-- approving in the abstract rather than believing-- Zhu found Christianity appealing as a particular idealism-- a concrete realization of his universalist datong values-- to replace the communal spirit socialism had lost:

some call it crazy, but I say it is realism [xianshizhuyi], the things they say make sense: a person doesn’t need to be rich, all a person needs is to eat enough, have enough to wear, that’s all. The point is to be saved; ‘if your heart is sincere, heaven will answer’.


Zhu was impressed by the church members’ sincerity, quoting Chairman Mao’s dictum that their "words and actions were in accord" (kou hao he xingdong yi zhi), and he liked their egalitarianism: "no seniority, they all call each other brothers and sisters." Above all he seemed to relate to the universal message of Christianity; he said that "the most fundamental thing in human nature is freedom," which he equated with faith, and that "people are the same all over, they all have conscience." The way he talked about Christianity reminded me of his stories of the Zhu clan Qingmingdi in the "old society" and of the Party movements in the early 1950s when he was a member of the poor and lower middle peasant’s association. He seemed to be happily making connections between his new-found religious belief and all the values he had gathered from his own experience-- everything from Confucianism ("rectifying the heart and making the will sincere" /zhengxin chengyi) to the quotations of Chairman Mao.

Zhu Congde said that his interest and belief in Christianity came from the simple maxim, "xinjiu dejiu" (if you believe you will be saved). In keeping with his idealism, he emphasized that belief and salvation were not just ways to get rich and be protected from disaster, but ways to make relationships between people "sincere"; thus Zhu interpreted the fifth commandment as meaning not simply 'thou shalt not kill' but that one should not have bad thoughts or wish bad things on others. Zhu also took pains to differentiate his new religion from "superstition" and Buddhism not only in terms of ritual differences, but also in terms of a kind of simplicity: he contrasted the opening of the local Chuanzhu temple and all the money spent on it (both government funds and funds solicited from the masses) and "all the money they ask of you" (buying paper money, incense, contributing to the temple) with the austerity of the jidu jiao (Protestant Christianity):

They don't ask for money. If you don't have money to buy a bible-- this thick ! as thick as the Collected Works of Mao Zedong! It would take two years to read it all!-- then those with money buy the bibles and give them to those who don't have money.


Zhu seemed to identify with the inner sincerity of his new religion, as well as its simplicity and egalitarianism-- values he also identified in his memories of the Party in the 1950s. He studied it seriously, in the same way that he once studied the Confucian classics: he carefully copied the main points into a little red notebook that he kept, the same way he had copied the Sui Shen Bao and his jiapu (family genealogy).

A large measure of Zhu Congde’s attraction to and assimilation of Christianity no doubt lay in its being part of that 'world of letters,' wenhua (culture). Zhu found in his association with jidu jiao and with the bible an identity that made him a part of something even greater, a datong. As he put it : "The whole world reading one book, that brings the whole world together as one." But while the datong and the egalitarianism of the Heizhu Christian movement Zhu admired were universal values, Zhu did not appropriate them in the abstract, but as particular universals. Zhu explained the phenomenon of the Heizhu religious revival as being related to a "reality" that one could "experience directly"-- tihui, to "know through embodiment." He told three stories that he used to counter cynics’ charges that Christianity was "not realistic" and ineffective; all "true" and taking place around Heizhu. The first two stories were parables drawn from miraculous events, (I have added the titles) :

The Christians and the robbers


There was a couple from Heizhu who believed in Christianity. One Sunday they went off to the church meeting, and they locked the door to their house. Two robbers decided they would break in and steal their rice. They broke the lock and went inside, but when they grabbed the rice, something strange happened. They both suddenly felt very tired and fell asleep. When the couple returned from church they found the two robbers, but instead of beating them, they prepared a big meal, cutting up some smoked ham for the occasion. When the food was ready, the robbers woke up and accepted the invitation to eat. After dinner, the host said ‘you must be very poor and hungry to come here and steal our rice. Go ahead and take it back with you.’ The robbers were too ashamed to do this, and they started coming to the church after this experience. You see, God made the robbers fall asleep. He protected the family, but it was their belief in the good and their good deeds that saved them. So those people really believed and you can see that it is real-- you can experience it!


The pious parents and the resurrected son:


There was an older couple, also from Heizhu, who believed in Christianity. Their son did not believe and laughed at them. One day he had to be rushed to the hospital because his appendix burst. When the parents came, the doctor told them it was too late-- their son had died. They took the body to the morgue and the parents prayed over his body. After a while the doctor heard a voice coming from the morgue and discovered that it was the young man come back to life! After this, the son went with his parents to the Christian meeting and believed.


The last story was not a miracle, but Zhu Congde’s own tihui of Christianity, an experience that showed the reality of Christian faith in action:

After the meeting, the leader (huishou) had everyone to his house to eat. Of course there were too many people to feed them well, so they ate rice porridge and sweet potatoes [the symbol of poverty]. But since I was a guest they treated me very well and gave me fish to eat.


The miracles Zhu related were important to show the efficacy, the "reality" of religious belief, but it seemed to me that his faith was motivated more by a respect for Christian moral values than by these tales of the miraculous or the potential for Christianity to profit him. I got the sense that Zhu Congde was really moved by the Heizhu Christians’ simple generosity, particularized in the meal that they shared-- hongshao xifan [rice gruel and sweet potatoes] for themselves and fish for him, the ultimate symbols of poverty and abundance (was the symbolism intentional?). Such a stance of worldly denial must have had a strong appeal in those times of greed and materialism-- what Zhu Congde called "pocket stuffing"-- especially to someone like him who had so little, and so little prospect for getting anything more from life. The important thing for Zhu Congde was that the universal values of Christianity were made particular in "reality," here in the symbolic form of a meal that he could-- literally, through the charged metaphor of eating-- "embody" (tihui) and internalize.

The irony of these stories Zhu told, attesting to the reality and significance of his Christian belief, is that he related them after telling us that he no longer believed. He explained that he no longer believed because no one else in Ya’an believed, and he needed the support of a "society" to practice his religion. To him the idea that belief is personal and can be carried out despite one’s isolation from other believers was conceptually impossible. Zhu Congde’s "release" of Christianity (for it can hardly be called a loss of faith) actually underscores his belief in particularized universal values: datong had to be grounded, realized in his local community for it to be relevant to him. Just as in the case of dividing the grain during the Great Leap, loyalty to universal principles was valued to the extent that it spoke to local conditions and needs.

Zhu Congde’s search for universal values that could put his community back together was pragmatic, but not narrowly "instrumental" as the discourse of peasant consciousness would have it. Nor was his prioritization of the particular community a "closedness" from universal values. The question for Zhu Congde, as for Chinese intellectuals, was one of cultural identity: what would a re-integration of Chinese community look like, what values would inform it, and who would decide those values?


Yao Suhui

Those questions will have to be answered by a younger generation, including young people in the Chinese countryside-- if they are given the chance to define themselves-- people like Yao Suhui. Seventeen years old when we met her, Suhui was a little different from the other young people in the village, more serious and given to reflection. She was more aware than many of the youth about the village’s past, how the beautiful trees had all been cut, and how they used to have the habit of planting trees "for their descendants" to enjoy, a tradition of which she was proud. Suhui seemed to appreciate stories that told the good of the old ways, but she was also aware of the problems that old customs and new economies have left her generation. Once at a wedding celebration in the village, she confided how frightened she was at the prospects awaiting her, that she would be "tried out" before marriage to someone she hardly knew, let alone loved. She said she felt empty and lonely since her sister married away, and always unhappy, with nothing to live for. She loved learning and history, but had to leave school because her family could not afford the luxury of educating a daughter. Now her life had no future but hard work and giving birth.

Tradition, as Suhui was aware, was not always the idealized source of values some old-timers remembered it to be. But a future of economic progress and material well-being seemed unreal to her; on a visit to Chengdu with us, she could not even begin to relate to the materialism she saw, and she commented on the morally corrosive effects of consumerism. Suhui faced a future of limited possibilities, and a past that was equally restricting. She also faced discrimination as a "peasant."

While I do not want to idealize or romanticize the villagers of Xiakou, I believe their viewpoints and values deserve respect, and I do sympathize with them for the discrimination they face by virtue of belonging to a category imposed on them, an identity they have no say in defining. The effects of the peasant stereotype are especially hurtful to young people like Suhui, and I was angered by it during my stay in China. As I wrote in my notes taken after visiting Ya’an during babahui, a large rural market held on the festival of chenghuang, the city god:

The last episode of the day was the least pleasant by far. We went to pick up mail [at the Bureau of Animal Husbandry] and Suhui went along with us. We stopped to chat with [an official at the Bureau] and she offered us two chairs to sit in. We told Suhui to sit, which she did, but no sooner did she sit down than [the official] walked over and bodily lifted her out of the chair. She did this without missing a beat of her monologue about how her work was so important and so helpful to the peasants! Poor Suhui was mortified and tried to hide herself as best she could by studying the seeds for sale very intently. Her reaction was to downplay the incident and to say that nongmin always run into that kind of thing. ... Later we heard reports that our appearance in the city with peasants in tow (or vice versa) aroused a lot of city people's viciousness behind our backs. One can only hope that chenghuang is keeping an accurate record of this behavior and that they will eventually meet their just rewards !



About This Essay

Xiakou Village

This essay presents brief biographies or "portraits" of some of the Xiakou villagers who were particuarly influential in shaping our encounter with this particular place. The portraits of these individuals aim to explore their thinking on questions of the value of tradition and cultural identity set within their personal experiences. The essay frames these intellectual histories within and against a broader discourse of "peasant consciousness" prevalent in urban intellectual circles since the 1980s. An earlier version of this essay appeared as a chapter of the same name in John Flower's 1997 Ph.D. thesis, "Portraits of Belief: Constructions of Chinese Cultural Identity in the Two Worlds of City and Countryside in Modern Sichuan Province."