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positions: east asia cultures critique 11.3 (2003) 613-646

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Rural Taste, Urban Fashions:
The Cultural Politics of Rural/Urban Difference in Contemporary China

Lei Guang

Speaking of workers and peasants, the workers have relatively more culture…. We can't say the peasants have no culture—intensive farming, the singing of folksongs, and dancing are also culture. But the majority of them are illiterate and have no modern culture or technical skills. They can wield hoes and plows but can't use tractors. In terms of modern culture and technology, the bourgeoisie is ahead of the other classes.
—Mao Zedong
[Chen Huansheng] hadn't known there was such a thing as "cultural life." But when his life improved, he thirsted for it.
—Gao Xiaosheng

In the summer of 1996, a minor cultural clash broke into the open between a popular Shanghai-based newspaper, Qingnian Bao [Youth daily], and another popular evening paper, Xin'an wanbao [Xin'an evening news], in Anhui Province in central China.1 The clash was over a scornful article [End Page 613] published in the Shanghai press on 27 July on the bad fashion taste of country girls loitering in Shanghai's streets. The author, Wang Weiming, penned the article for the cultural column of the Shanghai paper, of which he was also an editor. The article was titled "Women in Cheap Sandals Running Amok in City Streets" ["Chuan niezhi tuoxie man jie pao de nu ren men"]. In some seven hundred words, he commented on rural women aimlessly drifting in Shanghai's streets and on their vain effort to imitate urban fashions, their blissful ignorance of Shanghai's history and its latest cultural fad, their obsession with "money" (with the word inserted in English in the article), and finally, their vulgar manners rooted in their rural origins. Wang ended his article with the following:

Women running all over the place in cheap sandals thus constitute a fashion "statement" (shuo fa). It tells us that there remains a huge gap between women living in the same period, owing to differences in history, economy, geography, and culture. It also tells us that material accumulation does not lead to a refined life. It further tells us that a city like Shanghai may accept someone who is daring (cu fang) and bold (cu kuang), but not coarse (cu zao), or worse, cheap (cu lie) and vulgar (cu pi). When you belong to the latter group, we then cannot but read two words from your bodies scouring about in those cheap sandals: country bumpkin (ba zi).2

Wang set out to depict a composite picture of migrant peasants, the new denizens of China's urban streets. To discern such an image, the author claimed he had to deploy multiple techniques of journalistic practice, including "objective" observation, personal interviews, and abstract analysis.3 Wang maintained that these techniques were adequate for his purpose of "describing an objective social existence" and that he intended "no deeper meaning than pointing out a phenomenon reflecting authentic or not-so-authentic cultures in the City of Shanghai."4

Ten days after Wang's article appeared in the Shanghai paper, it was carried in full in an evening paper in Anhui Province, accompanied by a letter to the editor from an indignant Anhui reader who sent in Wang's article and by a bitter editorial attacking the piece as an example of "bad culture" (buliang wenhua). Local Anhui readers were especially incensed by Wang's reference to Hefei (Anhui's provincial capital) as one place where uncultured [End Page 614] rural migrants allegedly hailed from.5 In response to these criticisms, Wang first explained that the names Hefei and Gaoyou were general references—a representational device used to denote a space outside Shanghai (yi xiang).6 To redeem himself on his use of the derogatory ba zi in referring to the migrants, Wang pointed out that its meaning was relative, as ba zi could apply to the Shanghainese themselves in relation to more civilized Westerners. He objected vehemently to...


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