- Gao Village: A Portrait of Rural Life in Modern China
In a recent collection of short stories, the award-winning Chinese novelist Ha Jin casts a jaundiced eye on government schemes and their perpetrators, powerful but often ignorant cadres whose instincts for self-aggrandizement wreak havoc in the lives of hapless citizens (Jin 2000). Ha Jin's sensibilities, including his dark humor, are shared to an extent by Mobo Gao, a former rural villager from Jiangxi Province who is now a university lecturer in Australia. Gao's book, part ethnography and part memoir, tackles a serious subject, rural poverty in China, with statistical data and telling anecdotes. His village stories, laced with irony and sometimes outrage, chronicle the lives of poor villagers in China whiplashed by shortsighted state policies and local-level politics.
For example, state-sponsored efforts beginning in the mid-fifties to wipe out the deadly water-borne disease of schistosomiasis were by and large successful in saving the lives of thousands of peasants in Gao Village and its vicinity. In the process, however, peasants were mobilized to change the course of streams and waterways, and planes were dispatched to dust the area with pesticides. Such practices wiped out the parasite-bearing snails but also killed off many aquatic species on which villagers depended for protein-rich food. Also in the 1950s the increasing use of fertilizers and insecticides in the area, necessitated by the growing population pressure on land resources, was the coup de grâce for the villagers' traditional fish diet.
Gao himself was sometimes caught up in the vicissitudes of state programs and campaigns implemented at the local level in a tangle of guanxi (interpersonal relationships or connections). In the early 1970s, when Gao was a "barefoot" teacher in the village school, he took some waste paper from a production team storehouse in order to practice calligraphy, an interest he had picked up as a local writer of political posters. The waste paper was actually part of a collection of clan genealogical records, documents dubbed "feudalist" in the fervor of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and earmarked for destruction. At about the same time, he was caught reading the Water Margin, a Chinese classical novel considered by political authorities to be "feudalist" and "yellow," the latter meaning pornographic. Ultimately accused of preserving feudalist records, Gao was suspended from his teaching job and struggled against by his teacher colleagues. As he came to realize, long after the incident, he was a victim of local clan rivalries cloaked under the cover of legitimate political authority.
"I never found out exactly why I was chosen by Xiamen University," says [End Page 106] Gao of his eventual serendipitous selection as a university student (p. 113). The selection process, as he describes it, was a chain of happenstance and fortuitous relationships far beyond his control. At that time, in 1973, conventional university entrance examinations had been abolished. Gao himself had not completed junior high school. He took an exam at the provincial level, but thereafter the path to Xiamen University was quixotic. His political background, a complex quota system administered from Beijing, local recommendations as his file moved through various bureaucratic levels, and Gao's personal connections, including his kinship relations, all played a role in his admission to the university. His political peccadilloes, which he feared would brand him for life as a "feudalist," seemed never to have been considered.
Perhaps the greatest irony in Gao's history of his village under communism is that peasant livelihood—despite land reform and other state policies aimed at improving the lot of rural villagers—showed no improvement until the end of the 1980s, when villagers left their fields for wage work in urban areas. In other words, a remittance economy finally accomplished what more than forty years of state policy had failed to do. The usual interpretation of this phenomenon is that the market succeeded where authoritarian socialism failed. But this is not...