The phenomenon of “modernization indoors, dirt and chaos outdoors” (shinei xiandaihua, shiwai zangluancha) is now prevalent all over rural China. This article attends to the political and economic roots and social determinants of “dirty villages,” aiming to show how people’s understanding of hygiene is intimately connected with environmental degradation, a perceived “dirtiness” that is not really of their own making. Grounded in anthropological field research in rural Henan, it argues that the lack of any infrastructure to dispose of trash is core to rural environmental problems.
On the other hand, people have an acute understanding of health in relation to the environment. Taking anthropology of embodiment as research methodology, this article formulates questions concerning “environmental health” in rural China as follows: how does the discourse of “rural hygiene and environment” shape people’s understanding, perceptions, and living of their body and life, and what escapes this shaping process? This article argues that the recent problem of the excessive production of trash and the nondisposal of garbage exposes a fundamental question of so-called modernization, one that is repressed in only some urban settings. The “dirtiness” of the countryside is directly (and literally) constituted by the dirt of modernization and urbanization that uncannily resists any attempts to disconnect from it. To put it directly, if villagers are “dirty,” so are urbanites.