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Rural literature helps modernize countryside 100 yrs on

YU RONGHU | 2021-07-08 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

File Photo: An English edition of Shen Congwen’s magnum opus Border Town

Over the past century, the Chinese nation’s unfaltering goal was to modernize the country, and the most daunting task of modernization was to modernize rural areas. In the last 100 years, the government, educational institutions, and non-governmental organizations explored effective methods to approach rural modernization in different stages, while rural literature echoed and contextualized those explorations. Resultant synergic forces have advanced rural development and vitalization. 
Around 1920, famed Chinese writer Lu Xun’s serial novels, such as A Madman’s Diary, Hometown, and The True Story of Ah Q generated enormous influence after being disseminated via such journals as New Youth and Beijing Morning News Supplement. As pioneering works of modern Chinese literature, they set off a wave of fiction themed on rural China. 
One hundred years later, rural society has undergone drastic changes, while the mission of rural literature has evolved from condemning outdated customs in old China, to writing new chapters for the socialist countryside, and further, to painting new pictures of rural economic system reform, keeping pace with the times. 
Unenlightened rural society
In the early 20th century, forward-thinking Chinese nationals reached a consensus on pursuing modernization after comparing China and the West, traditional and modern lifestyles. The eager pursuit of modernity brought into being such cities as Shanghai, Guangzhou, Tianjin, and Beijing. However, cities of this kind were few and far between. They were so modern and avant-garde that the vast countryside seemed even more traditional and provincial by contrast. Therefore, writers at that time purposefully took up the historic mission to modernize the rural world. 
In terms of style, the modern Chinese rural literature community was divided into realism represented by Lu Xun and Lu Yan, and a romantic school led by Fei Ming and Shen Congwen. Despite these divergent styles, the values and creation purposes of the two schools were consistent. In fact, when it comes to values, the entirety of modern literature was based on democracy and science, and rural literature writers created for the shared purpose of seeking rural development and human emancipation. 
Regarding development, Lu Xun urged the liberation of the mind, which could only be realized when Ah Q and the people of Weizhuang in The True Story of Ah Q, Xianglin’s wife in the short novel The New Year’s Sacrifice, and residents of Luzhen in the short story “Kong Yiji” were freed from old customs, when the disadvantaged received sympathy and help, the unfortunate were given understanding and solace, and when the disadvantaged and the unfortunate realized they were not hopeless. 
Shen Congwen held that poverty was the source of villagers’ trouble, so economic development was the key to the people’s liberation. His masterpiece Border Town is set in an unsophisticated village, but the root cause of the tragedy is that the heroine, Cuicui, was born in a penniless family, while the daughter of the head of the local armed forces has a large dowry. In his short novel The Husband, many young wives in Huangzhuang are sent to brothel boats to “do business” because the village is so poor that villagers can barely fill their stomachs.
Left-wing rural literature in the 1930s inherited Lu Xun’s realistic traditions in creation methods, featuring detailed accounts of tragedies caused by poverty, but those writers’ understandings of rural areas’ predicaments were closer to that of Shen Congwen and other romantic authors. 
Whether from the realistic or romantic school, writers of rural literature before the founding of the PRC surprisingly converged when criticizing lifestyles and customs from the countryside, often deliberately depicting conventions that opposed modernity. 
Socialist transformation 
After New China was founded, narratives of the countryside were responsive to rural socialist transformation as implemented by the government. In the course of all-around modernization, both urban and rural areas faced many difficulties, but there were greater in the countryside. 
The First Five-Year Plan (1953–1957) set the goal of gradually replacing scattered, individual farming with cooperative agriculture. The unprecedented decision to abolish private ownership of the means of production and establish socialist public ownership by shifting from individuals to collectives, and from separation to cooperation, brought huge impacts to farmers’ thoughts, means of production and life, and interpersonal relations. Their lack of understanding added difficulties to rural transformation. 
As literature and art were effective approaches to influencing and changing others’ minds, a host of excellent writers, such as Liu Qing, Zhao Shuli, and Zhou Libo, who deeply empathized with famers and were enthusiastic about rural socialist construction, embarked upon the journey of recounting rural socialist transformation. 
These three writers had three things in common. First they shared a strong passion for creating rural literature. Liu Qing moved to the countryside and quit his job as deputy secretary of the Party Committee of Changan County in northwest China’s Shaanxi Province, aspiring to live, work, and study among villagers. Zhao Shuli worked in Beijing, but he often went to the countryside, and sometimes lived there for several months consecutively, leading a similar life to farmers. Zhou Libo also relocated to a rural area in central China’s Hunan Province for many years. 
From their works, it is easy to feel the writers’ attachment to cities, but their zeal for rural literature creation drove them to give up the opportunities, comfort, and convenience provided by urban life. 
It is clear that they identified with socialist transformation in rural areas. All of the three writers received new models of elementary, secondary, and pedagogical or university education, which advocated for modern concepts like democracy and science. Their acknowledgement of democracy and science, as well as their concern for the nation’s future, prompted them to take a revolutionary path, and actively participate in rural transformation practices, in an effort to help resolve longstanding, universal problems hindering rural development such as land centralization, economic depression, superstition, oppression, and usury.  
Moreover, Liu, Zhao, and Zhou loved the countryside and cared for farmers. After Lu Xun, modern writers’ affection for the countryside began to carry urgent appeals for modernity. Liu, Zhao, and Zhou had a more extensive and close bond with villages. They were not “outsiders” to the countryside. Instead, they showed an understanding and sympathy for farmers as fellow members of the vast rural countryside. More tolerant of farmers’ idiosyncrasies and selfishness, they put themselves in farmers’ shoes, so their works have a stronger taste of rural life. 
Economic system reform 
Around 1980, the original economic system seriously restricted economic growth, so the call for reform and opening up became more clarion. In December 1978, the Third Plenary Session of the 11th CPC Central Committee adopted a policy of carrying out internal reform and opening up to the outside. Internal reform started in rural areas with the implementation of the household contract responsibility system. 
Economic system reform garnered strong support from farmers for injecting vitality into the countryside. Few literary works shed light on reasons for reform, while most were dedicated to depicting the bright prospects of reform and how to deepen it. They were heavily imbued with optimism. 
In the wave of reform literature, Gao Xiaosheng, Lu Yao, Jiang Zilong, Jia Pingwa and other writers came to the forefront. They offered vivid portrayals of various geographical landscapes, folk customs, cultural inheritances, and living conditions, and coincidentally their works drew blueprints for reform. Not only did they sanguinely show that reform could easily solve pressing food, housing, and marriage problems facing farmers, but they also envisioned unusually favorable changes to famers’ living spaces, leisure and entertainment, interpersonal relations, and personal freedom as a result of reform. 
Regarding deepening reform, writers incorporated national policies, telling stories of progress from retailing agricultural and sideline products to trading staple agricultural and forestry goods, from contracted farms to building factories, and from starting businesses in villages to venturing out to cities. 
The uplifting literary accounts echoed the entrepreneurial fervor of the 1980s countryside, significantly accelerating rural economic growth and creating a good social environment for deepening reform and opening up in rural areas. 
While championing reform, Gao Xiaosheng and Lu Yao carried forward the traditions fostered by Liu Qing, Zhao Shuli, and Zhou Libo, going into the thick of rural life, caring for farmers, and facing up to realities. Therefore, they could always quickly and sensitively pinpoint problems in reform, such as obsolete and pedantic ideas, rash and fickle mindsets and behaviors, and inflated desires. 
The exploration of these deep-rooted problems was associated with economic, cultural, moral, and legal construction. Apart from high literary quality, the works are profound in thought. To Gao Xiaosheng and Lu Yao, reform is ultimately a rivalry between the old and the new. Only when farmers accept modern new ideas like science, market awareness, and competition rules, can they create truly happy lives. Thus those writers inherited and furthered traditions of modern rural literature, taking the ideal of rural modernization a huge step forward. 
Rural vitalization 
Over the past ten decades, rural areas have gone through three major stages: cooperative transformation of agriculture in the 1950s, rural economic system reform in the 1980s, and current rural vitalization. So far, Chinese society has entered a new era of rapid development, and fruitful results have been achieved in rural modernization. Economic development, the modernization of culture and education, farmers’ happiness, and urbanization have all reached unprecedented levels. 
However, new problems will arise in any development course, as it will in rural development. Undesirable phenomena loom large, such as scarcity of talent, inadequate presence of science and technology, contradictions between scale operations and idle labor, and hollowing out of certain regions. Meanwhile, economic development has led to some farmers’ mental distress and immoral behaviors. 
All these require writers to go deeply into the realities of life. Rural vitalization not only entails the representation of positive results in rural construction, but also calls on writers to spot problems quickly. Scientific and healthy development calls us to address new problems which arise in the development process, and adjust directions to move forward, thereby pushing the development of the countryside to a new stage. 
Yu Ronghu is a professor from the College of Liberal Arts at Nanjing Xiaozhuang University.