Century Memories of Rural China

For most Western audience, rural China is only a scene in famous Chinese director Zhang Yimou' s film, and although China as a whole is no longer so remote, its vast rural areas still remain a mystery.

They came to realize rural China's boorish side in Zhang's film "Red Broomcorn," and saw the awakening of rural women's sense of rights in his "Qiuju (name of the heroine) Goes To Court."

However, some also misread Zhang's film by feeling that Chinese farmers are still extremely poor, bony with long pigtails, like it was one century ago.

Many of them don't know that Chinese farmers, many of whom now working in various "rural enterprises," are producing one-fourth of the world's shoes.

Neither do they know that Liu Yonghao, regarded by Fortune magazine as the richest man in China three times, was born and grew up in the countryside of Sichuan in southwest China.

And the farmer-turned entrepreneur, very often in Western-style clothes, has had an enormous impact on Chinese farmers dreaming to become rich.

Zhang's films on the poor, dilapidated rural China even to some degree surprise many Chinese youngsters -- the life of their grandfathers and grandmothers several decades ago looked so different from theirs.

The latest official figure showed that only 22 years ago, there were 250 million rural Chinese, nearly one-third of the total rural population at that time, living in absolute poverty.

At present, the figure has dropped to about 20 million, and most of them are "disabled or living in areas with extremely poor natural conditions."

Stagnancy, famine and uprising, which frequently appeared in China’s history, have faded out in the world's most populous country.

Another countryside-theme film directed by Zhang's older generation of directors, "Marriage of Little Erhei," featured a historic event that happened some 50 years ago when New China was just founded: Chinese rural residents for the first time in history began to bid farewell to arranged marriages.

In the film story, Little Erhei, a young farmer, fell in love with a girl Xiaoqin, but their parents did not agree their marriage and held that they should not have the freedom to choose their own mates. At last, supported by the newly found people’s government, they married each other.

Compared with their fathers and mothers, Little Erhei and Xiaoqin were lucky, because their parents, like all of their predecessors, usually did not know each other before becoming husband and wife.

Now, even the most old-fashioned mother living in a remote mountain area in China will hesitate to force her son to marry or not to marry a certain girl.

Also in Little Erhei's time, rural China experienced one of the century's most impressive land reform. From the fall of 1950 to the end of 1952, the Chinese government distributed a total of 47 million hectares of land to some 300 million poor peasants for free.

This marked a historic moment that Chinese farmers had realized their long ideal of "land for the tiller."

Then 26 years later, when the whole nation woke up from the 10-year "cultural revolution," the 18 households of Xiaogang Village in east China's Anhui Province made a secret decision -- to let the farmers decide what to grow on their contracted lands, though this seemed not like "socialism" according to understandings of that time.

Their decision was known and supported by a number of local officials very soon and then by Deng Xiaoping, who just came back to the top leadership. Their practice quickly led to a rural reform throughout the country, thanks to which China has maintained the world's fastest economic growth for years.

In a crucial turning point, it was the farmers' hands that changed the history, commented Chinese historians today.

At the end of the 20th century, "villagers governing their own affairs" was selected by Chinese media as one of the 15 most popular terms in China in 1998.

This time, even Western correspondents who seldom cover rural China have become excited about their findings:

In Xinsheng Village, Jinhu County of east China's Jiangsu province, villagers stood in the rain for five hours to vote their new head;

In Chailan Village, Laixi City of Shandong Province, a husband was refused stoutly by his wife to vote the same person;

In a small mountain village some 200 kilometers away from Beijing, villagers gathered together and removed the leader they were unsatisfied with through voting and elected new leader themselves.

China has altogether 1 million villages, and the most majority of them now have had their new leaders elected through secret voting.

"It is a kind of test, which shows that the sprout of democracy is growing in rural China," wrote a German journalist.

This certainly is not the only exciting news story one hears in rural China now. The others include WTO entry, Internet, E-commerce and so on.

In Zhouzhi County of Shaanxi Province in northwestern China, farmers began to learn English in order to sell more kiwi fruit to foreign consumers and compete in the international market. In some other villages and small towns, young farmers began to learn how to use computers and the Internet.

All this may have revealed what rural China will be like in the 21st century.

(Xinhua 12/10/2000)

In This Series

First Rural E-Library Opens in China



Web Link