Re: “In China, ‘Once the Villages Are Gone, the Culture Is Gone‘”:
Villagers watching a performance of Yu Opera, Keqiao, Shaoxing, Zhejiang Province. Photo by author (2008). (c) MarginalReturns 2014
Is it really to be wondered at if a younger generation of Chinese – if only because they are worried to death about competing for jobs and other opportunities with better-educated (and probably: better-fed) peers from the big cities – are not rabidly enthusiastic about carrying into the future the traditions of the village from which they are trying desperately to escape? And just in case the Chinese government is sometimes doing too little too late to preserve every oddball mico-folkway — well,…so what?
When rural development proceeds too slowly, people complain. Never mind the fact that there’s no way to define or qualify too slowly, except from the point of view of those with specific developmental-outcome expectations. People complain too, of course, when the fazhan juggernaut seems to clip along too quickly — development being too quick only when it seems insufficiently developmental, or when the pace of development seems unsustainable, or when change extends to things that some would prefer unchanged.
China, it seems, can’t get a break.
Allow, though, that there are too few grassroots stewards of China’s various and manifold intangible cultural heritage. Why might that be the case?
One reason is that many rural parents leave their child in the countryside with the grandparents while they strike-out to slave-away for barely a living wage in one of China’s larger cities. When the landscape is calories, the passing-down of some traditions has a way of becoming deprioritised. This has led some observers to bemoan the circumstances that give rise to that situation, and these include: underdevelopment in the outback. Rural underdevelopment then leads to complaints about disparities in education, access to healthcare, access to the internet, etc., between rural children and urban children. And every now and then one hears or reads of worries about the consequences of children being raised by semi-literate, geriatric, superstitious, and sometimes downright rascally yokels. Not everyone in the countryside, after all, is a treasure-trove of lore, wisdom, and tradition.
UNESCO most of the time seems positively chuffed about China’s interest in ethno-arcana. But if the local folkways were creepy, mired in a local subculture’s ugly past, or happen not to be photogenic or a good platforms for tourism initiatives, then people would complain about the consequences to Chinese society (and humanity generally) of a retrograde demi-demographic passing-on to a new generation the rot from antiquity.
Again, China can’t win.
Mr Johnson’s article was not an unenjoyable read; but as usual with The New York Times, it is not free from the tincture of that kind of editorial craftsmanship that is roughly the same hue as propaganda, and is very characteristic of Times China-reporting: the government is evil, one-dimensional, and myopic; the people are fascinating, wonderful, and victims of their government. For example, Mr Johnson states that
Rapid urbanization means village life, the bedrock of Chinese culture, is rapidly disappearing, and with it, traditions and history.
We disagree. If Chinese culture (which aspect of Chinese culture, exactly?) has a “bedrock” (and we’re not sure it really makes sense to say that it has one), it is the family. Families are what make villages “villages”. And while a village might be home to a few families who maintain some traditional art form, or some craft local to some village, the art form or the craft is the preserve of the families — or more accurately: of some families, special or arbitrary connections with the borders of the village notwithstanding. Upturning, overturning, or gentrifying the Chinese countryside is unlikely to have zero effect on either the maintenance or the transmission of some customs, traditions, and folkways; but the death of the village should not mortify a tradition any more than it would mortify a family. Mr Johnson, therefore, has regrettably overstated the situation.
Chenggang Village, Dinghai City, Zhoushan, Zhejiang Province. Photo by author (2006). (c) MarginalReturns 2014
Urban and rural family units – in China and elsewhere, and perhaps especially in the developing-world – face very different kinds of difficulties, even as these appear against a backdrop of broadly similar challenges. There’s no denying that the dynamics of both kinds of families are changing. But if some rural residents are sometimes the repositories of (among other things) some kinds of unique, hyperlocal traditions, then surely it is for them to decide whether or not to make it a priority for younger family members to be schooled in those traditions. (We believe the apposite word here is ‘autonomy’.) Remember, too, that in some cases these traditions would take years to learn, and a lifetime to master.
The opportunity costs of making time for the proper preservation of some of these arts, crafts, and traditions (and perhaps the word ‘traditions’ does not properly belong in this mix) are generally too great for the hardscrabble Chinese peasant-turned-itinerant labourer; and while we’re not calling for a new smashing of “the four olds”, we do not feel he same sense of either tragedy or emergency that Mr Johnson seems to feel.
As to why there is often insufficient time (or interest) for grassroots, organic preservation of at least some folkways, Mr Johnson – like the rest of us – knows the answer:
The universal allures of modern life — computers, movies, television — have siphoned young people away from traditional pursuits. But the physical fabric of the performers’ lives has also been destroyed.
Assuming that all traditions and cultural folkways have some sort of intrinsic value,* public support for and assistance with preservation efforts might be very welcomed, on principle alone. But it is worth pausing for a moment to consider that were Beijing to insist that village children must and will learn their local folkways, and that some of those children must and will become masters of them (for the sake of Chinese culture; for the sake of human world heritage), The New York Times would lead the chorus of hue and cry. Development is a zero-sum game.
And as for the “physical fabric” of performers’ lives being “destroyed”, that’s pure, mischievous poppycock.** But there had to be a way to blame the government for something — otherwise, the entire point of Mr Johnson’s article is: China’s rural young would rather play Xbox and waste time on Weixin than learn how to sing in a pitch that sounds like a cat being strangled.
Mr Johnson concludes by referencing the mystery golf course, construction of which was at one point cited as the reason for the displacement/relocation of the villagers and/or the demise of the village:
Strangely, however, the golf course has never been built, and the village still lies in ruins. No one here can figure out if this is because the development was illegal, or perhaps part of a corrupt land deal that is under investigation. Such information is not public, so villagers can only speculate. Mostly, they try to forget.
But the teasing allusions to the futility of speculation, and the strong intimations of something conspiratorial or dodgy going on with the land, are misleading — though we are in no position to state whether the allusions and intimations were intended to be. Informed readers will and should know that the golf boom/bubble was for a time a favourite with both the broadsheets and other periodical literature, and there’s nothing odd at all about either development of a golf course being summarily halted, or the details of land-deals being nondisclosed.
There are plenty of educated, culturally-astute, patriotic, wealthy Chinese, both in China and overseas, who are better placed than The Ford Foundation to spearhead and realize efforts to preserve both the gold and the dross of China’s rural traditions. When preservation of Chinese rural traditions matters more to enough Chinese, then there will very likely be more preservation.
So what is this article about then, really?
Nothing of any real importance to anyone — except for China-writers and deep-pocketed foundations.
* There is no such thing as “intrinsic value”. All value is relational, and every relational perspective on value can be always recast in terms of utility. We address this elsewhere, but see generally Noah M Lemo, Intrinsic Value (Cambridge: 1994), and http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2653805?uid=3739696&uid=308824283&uid=2&uid=3&uid=3739256&uid=60&sid=21103376308817. An interesting paper on a related subject is Jeffrey Friedman (2013) “Freedom Has No Intrinsic Value: Liberalism and Voluntarism”, Critical Review 25 (1) 38-85. It is very unlikely that a either sober Lemos or a sober Friedman would agree with our thesis regarding intrinsic value.
** “Fabric” of “lives” is metaphorical, of course, and a bit airy-fairy, but the nonsense of the phraseology is compounded by Mr johnson concretizing that metaphorical fabric by referring to it as ‘physical’.
So, what physical fabric was destroyed? We presume that buildings – no doubt unsafe, if not positively squalid – were knocked-down, and the ancestral temple has not been preserved with the hoped-for diligence and enthusiasm. (Although lack of maintenance seems not to be tantamount to destruction, putting the words ‘destroy’ and ‘temple’ into contextual neighbourhood does effectively raise hackles.) Just in case the phrase destroyed the physical fabric of their lives makes a lick of sense at all, we do not think it it is an apt characterization of what is happening here. Whether the NYT spins the demolition of buildings and luke-warm historical preservation efforts as physical fabricide or as urbanization, surely it is for the locals themselves to say whether the changes to their village are on the whole positive or otherwise. We have little insight on that head based on the conversation Mr Johnson reports having had with Mr Lei; but having had many similar conversations with Chinese villagers over the past 14 years, it is more likely that Mr Lei is non-plused about matters than that he is deeply aggrieved. We doubt also whether one Mr Lei may speak for or on behalf of the entire village — something which should surely be offensive to the NYT’s egalitarian and democratic sentiments.