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Rural literature in new era should depict farmers’ ideals

WANG GUANGDONG | 2018-09-14
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)


Farmers from Zhangye City, Gansu Province, celebrate a harvest of millet. Photo: XINHUA

The urban-rural relationship has changed drastically in the new century, driving rural literature to present content, characters, temperament and emotion that differ from those in previous novels. These differences not only underline our facing a new countryside reality and culture filled with complex interactions between man and man, man and society, and man and nature, but also demonstrate that the ideas, stances and emotions of writers regarding such differences too have varied.


 Compassion toward migrant workers 
When writers integrate the feeling of sympathy into the destiny and survival of human beings and then expand that to all living existence, their works will show profound human glory.
Today, the original urban-rural dual structure is broken, and a dramatic migration is occurring between urban and rural areas. A large number of people originally from the countryside are entering the city seeking a new way of life. Though their living environment has changed, these farmers, burdened with rural cultural traditions, are going through a survival test. As far as literature is concerned, we can still file the depiction of these migrant lives as another form of rural literature in the new historical context.

With the hope for a better life and the strong desire to fight for change, migrant workers toil long hours and endure hardship and fatigue, and they often become trapped in cultural conflicts or face threats to their survival in the city. In most cases, writers cannot help but instill sympathy and sadness in their works and arouse the same kind of feelings among readers.

Compassion is not an abstract literary device. Within these literary narratives, it is embodied in the plight of migrant workers and the conflicts between urban and rural areas. In the new century, the mental suffering that migrant workers encounter in the face of urban-rural cultural and moral conflict has become a major theme in novels such as You Fengwei’s Loach, Zhang Wei’s Hedgehog Song, Jia Pingwa’s Happiness and Yan Lianke’s Enjoyment.

For example, in Loach, the author tells a story with great pity and deep sadness about a poor rural family. The protagonist Tao Feng, a kind-hearted country girl, is confronted by a series of moral dilemmas as she strives to make a living in the city. Her morality and code of conduct push her to fight against wrongful doings. However, such determined resistance undermines her own survival, sending her into a mental breakdown and ultimately to a psychiatric facility. She is not alone; her suffering is the tragic defeat of rural culture and morality in the overwhelming urban culture. 

Tao Feng sticks to her own culture and morality and yet is driven to mental breakdown. The author wants readers to think of those honest people who work hard, are self-sufficient and follow their conscience in reality. Similarly, in Fan Xiaoqing’s I am Who I Imagined, the honest and warm-hearted Cook Hu is also mentally tormented by the prejudice of urban residents who view migrant workers with a colored eye. Cook Hu is wrongfully blamed for stealing from the urban households. Afterwards, Hu is diagnosed with depression and keeps having delusions of being accused of stealing.

The authors’ compassion and sympathy permeate the narration and have a shocking artistic power.


Anxiety toward deserted rural land
Such compassion and sympathy also contains anxiety toward the urbanization process. Migrant workers have encountered all kinds of hardships and frustrations. What about those left behind in villages?

In the epilogue of Qin Opera, Jia Pingwa wrote, “With no more youth labor in villages, the farmland is deserted, and the dead cannot even be carried to their graves. As I stood on the stone roller in the street, I wondered, will my relatives and acquaintances vanish so quickly? Is this old street going to disappear soon? Will the land disappear? Is it true that urbanization will erase rural areas? What if it doesn’t?”

Amid the sadness and compassion, the author voiced his anxiety toward the fate of farmers. As it is depicted in Qin Opera, the old street changes quietly and unnoticeably. A new generation of farmers gradually leaves the rural land to pursue a new life. The rural decadence and desolation of rural culture made Jia anxious and helpless; the fate of farmers became his gut-wrenching pain, and his sentiments are deep and real.

Again, in Liu Qingbang’s Our Village, young and middle-aged people are all gone, leaving behind empty and depressed villages. Ye Haiyang, an unemployed gangster, becomes an active figure in the village and a destroyer of rural culture. Though he is destroying rural ethics and rules, no one dares stand up against him, which indicates how rural development has displaced rural ethics and order. We can also feel the author’s anxiety and sympathy toward reality and the farmers.

Many other novels explore the farmers’ struggles with material desire, conscience and love. It is the invisible material desire that dictates the bitter-sweet life and the gathering and separation of families. Working in the city appears to be a way to satisfy that desire, but the problems brought by it suck people into pain and bitterness. What kind of life do we really need? Where is the future of farmers? The authors do not have the right answers, but in their works we see their compassion, moral conscience and social responsibility, and that is something we can relate to.


Ideal life of farmers
Indeed, sympathy and compassion for the fate of farmers represents an important emotional vein in contemporary novels. As a reflection on modernization, this feeling is indispensable. However, the life pursuits and cultural ideals of farmers are also worthy of literary attention.
In the field investigations I conducted, the following problems were found in current rural development: Most of the people under the age of 50 are working in cities; few of them stay on the farmland. Due to the decline in the rural population, family relations and interpersonal relations are no longer as close as before. Finally, cultural life is relatively poor. Apart from watching TV, most people play cards and chat. Though some farmers are not completely satisfied with their current living conditions, they generally believe that things have been greatly improved compared with previous times, and that the next generation does not have to live through the bitter days of farming.

For them, the ideal life means no pollution, higher income, better nearby employment for children so that they have time to take care of their family, warmer relationships between neighbors and cultural entertainment akin to that of urban residents. What farmers pursue shall not be hard to get. As the rural revitalization strategy takes effect, some of the villages have seen these dreams come true.

Amid the waves of changing social structure, rural transformation is a long-term process. Problems are inevitable, so compassion and sympathy toward those in distress is perfectly normal and by all means basic human nature. However, the other side of the coin should also be covered in modern literature.

In this sense, as we expect farmers to have a better life and future, we should also expect the ideals of rural culture and life to enter literary texts and become a new expression of the urban-rural relationship in Chinese novels in the new era.


Wang Guangdong is from the Institute of Literature at the Shanghai Academy of Social Sciences.

(edited by YANG XUE)

(Chinese Social Sciences Today)