The Countryside

Three decades of public life in rural Jiangxi

JDM081104zhenru.jpg
Zhenru Chan Temple on Yunju Mountain

In 2002, Window of the South journalist Xiong Peiyun profiled rural life in a tiny village in Jiangxi that lies in the shadow of Yunju Mountain.

This year, to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the start of China's economic and social reforms, Xiong is writing a series of articles describing how that village has changed over the past three decades. He writes in the series introduction:

Although I wasn't born in S Village, I know it quite well. For example, I am aware of the bitterness of rural life, and of people and events from a far-off age. Certain details, in the hands of someone willing and able, would make a novel the equal of Yu Hua's To Live. As with the home-towns of many of my friends, "living" in that place is true faith. This "living" faith through successive generations has nurtured in these poor backwaters something unquenchable.

In the first installment, Xiong discusses how agriculture had changed in S Village over three decades, the last few years in particular. He mentions changes in the daily lives of the villagers brought by electrical appliances, and then concludes with a look at the phenomenon of timber theft.

In the second installment, translated below, Xiong turns his attention to public life in the village — television, gambling, and religion — and how it too has been transformed by the changing times.

A Village in Transition

Part II
by Xiong Peiyun / WS

Public Life in the Countryside

When the spring festival comes around, people in S Village can always reminisce about the excitements of the past: activities like dragon lanterns, the lion dance, and land-boats. But as society has transformed and opened up, such "village arts" gradually disappeared from their lives.

Two things, at least, became typical examples of everyday public life in S Village: group TV watching, and the "gambling mob."

The quality of rural life rose after the institution of the production responsibility system in the early 80s, and the village soon purchased a 14-inch black-and-white television set. Every night thereafter, the villagers would all gather in the warehouse (the "club" mentioned below) to watch TV. In those days, this was probably the most wonderful public activity there was. Through that tiny window, the rural residents not only saw the Great Wall, they learned that "the Great Wall will never fall."* For the younger generation especially, television gave them an understanding of the romantic, revolutionary-era stories behind "Are you prepared? Always be prepared!"*, and it gave them a brief taste of the limitless possibilities of the "outside world" as well. But by the end of the 80s, as more and more families were getting their own home TV sets, bankruptcy was declared on this particular public activity. The old black-and-white set was sold at a deep discount to the poorest household in the village.

By contrast, there was another public activity that never flagged, but continues to this day: gambling. Few people will forget the tumultuous scenes of gambling they glimpsed during their childhood in S Village and surrounding areas. At first, people congregated to play Pai Gow, Tien Gow,* or dice, with Pai Gow being the most popular of the various games. That game, which is based around domino pip totals, requires only four players in most cases, but when it was played at a standard eight-person dinner table, taking into account the spectators and other observers, a single hand could pull in twenty or thirty people. People stood on stools, turning the playing area into a large basin, and from far off you could sense the heat inside. At its craziest, people would even gamble continuously for several days and nights.

Under this influence, children became "apprentice gamblers" and started learning the most popular games when they were about seven or eight years old . Kids would be given some spending money at the Spring Festival, and in those days parents were fairly generous, so it was unquestionably the prime gambling season for children. The rest of the time they didn't have much real money so they bet paper. When the semester started up, the textbooks of a few elementary school students were taken to the card table or out in the cow pastures and were torn clean by their classmates.

Apart from the usual greeting "Have you eaten?", there was another common question in S Village: "Did you win or lose?" Even though the road through town was pitted, and covered in weeds and jagged rocks, when the year drew to a close, people were more eager to spend their free time at the card table rather than using even half an hour to repair it. As a missionary had commented a hundred years before, the people of S Village turned over the responsibility for fixing the road to "mother nature."

As for how gambling has changed in form, one thing worth noting is how mahjong became increasingly popular beginning in the late 1980s. I previously mentioned how there was a "network mahjong broadcast" in S Village which, like CCTV's Network News Broadcast, goes on rain or shine: there were always a few people keeping things going round the clock. And as a matter of fact, for locals, watching people play mahjong was a pleasure, and there were always people going from table to table as if they were flipping through TV channels. There is reason to believe that if you wanted to preserve "stability and unity" among these grass-roots groups, no tool would be more effective than mahjong. Mahjong evidently wore away their resentment and their desire to fight, and smoothed over the ravages of time more precisely and effectively than any propaganda or preaching.

I remember that back twenty years ago, the local police station would occasionally act on an informant's tip and would seal up the village in the wee hours of the morning, first confiscating all gambling paraphernalia and records, and then forcing the villagers to kneel on the ground of the "gambling houses." It was a long time before they were allowed to get up. Today, such shocking scenes of "devils entering the village" no longer take place. On the one hand, the overall environment has been transformed by national policies issued in the late nineties that defined small-scale betting between friends and relatives for entertainment purposes not to be gambling; on the other, the keepers of local order may have seen the effects of "network mahjong broadcasts" on local stability. In today's China, in the countryside as well as in the cities, you can hear "the sound of wind, of rain, and of mahjong tiles."

The Faith of S Village

From a historical perspective, the first example to come up when talking about the local influence of religious faith would naturally be Buddhism.

Two things confirm this judgment. First, not ten kilometers from S Village is a famous mountain, home to many temples, one of which was first built in the Yuanhe Era under Emperor Tang Xianzong. This temple has been active ever since, and it was here that in the Song Dynasty, Su Shi debated Buddhism with Foyin Liaoyuan and left behind lines like, "Waterfall spray and dancing snowflakes catch the monk's eye; through a crevice in the rock a ray of light illuminates Buddha's face." Several decades ago, the famous contemporary Chinese monks Master Xuyun and Dharma Master Haideng also made retreats here. Second, as some elderly people remember, S Village and a few neighboring villages once pooled their resources to build a common temple, where a number of "misfortunate monks" were rumored to have stayed.

However, these two temples were seriously damaged in the 1960s. In the case of the first, county records state that on July 18, 1966, nearly 2,000 red guards came from the provincial capital Nanchang, and joined up with local red guards and other staff to charge up the mountain and into the temple to carry out their rebellion. The county political consultative committee has an even more detailed account in its historical archives: at the time, "more than one hundred monks were forced to return to secular life, and some of them were sent to labor on farms. In just a few short days, this famous shrine was cleared of people, and precious artifacts and famous inscriptions handed down through the ages were dealt unprecedented damage."

As for the smaller temple in the nearby countryside, villagers say it was emptied of observant monks and then torn down at the urging of the government's "four olds" campaign. Interestingly, as part of the call to "return items to their original owners," the surrounding villages that had contributed funds to its construction sent large numbers of workers to take part in the temple's destruction and carry its bricks back with them. So before long, S Village had a new building that the villagers called the "club." Although it wasn't large, it was at least bigger than an ordinary house. It was initially used only for meetings and struggle sessions, and did double-duty as a warehouse, but it later found an additional use during the reform period as a "TV room." In the late 80s, as collectivism declined, the building became temporary housing for the poor and those down on their luck in the village. Times changed swiftly, and in the twinkling of an eye, this building had only portions of Cultural Revolution slogans and Gang of Four cartoons left on its walls to indicate the authority and activity it had enjoyed during its days as a "political temple."

Today, the ruins of the temple that was once tied to the village are overgrown with weeds and are hidden from sight, while the shrine that has stood for over a millennium has been completely renovated. But when people discuss that temple, it is not because of Buddhism, much less because of their own individual faith; mostly, it is because the temple has been absorbed into the Lushan Scenic District. I once met a middle-aged man in the village who walked with a limp as he pushed his bicycle toward home. An image of Guanyin hung at his breast. They said that he had been injured fairly often while working far from home, and his family was not in the best of circumstances. After begging Guanyin for protection he had found luck and success. This was the only local physical evidence I found of Buddhism. Buddhism here is really just an amulet of protection. Of course, as readers may be aware, in S Village as in the rest of the world, many people cling to a particular religion out of this simple, primitive motive.

In contrast to the decline of Buddhism, starting in the 1990s, many people in areas around S Village began to "believe in God." Although S Village had always arrived late at new and novel things, being several years behind made people rush headlong to catch up to other places. It was about ten years ago that a villager working away from home returned with acute liver disease, and shortly thereafter he became a Christian under the guidance of a few "sisters." Beseeching God to cure his illness was part of the reason, naturally. In rural evangelism, even though people talk about the benefits of "belief in God" and the enjoyment of "eternal life," for people accustomed to struggling in the here and now, if God may be able to show his power in the real world by curing diseases, then why not give it a try? Chinese people often speak of "trying any doctor during a serious illness"; the personal faith of an individual is to be respected, but we must acknowledge that those who "try any God during a serious illness" are not in a minority. Unfortunately, a year or two ago, that villager, whom I had known since childhood, took a turn for the worse and died in the prime of life, leaving me sick with grief. He is often remembered for another reason: in his younger days, he once planted a few Oriental plane trees, which today have grown tall and strong.

After the death of that villager, his wife continued to "believe in God," for one reason or another. I should mention that compared to other villages, S Village is a little odd, in that it is almost entirely atheist. As a result, this woman, with her lonely "belief in God," finds it hard to escape the good-natured mockery of the other villagers, particularly village women. For example, when she walks up to a group of people joking with each other, someone in the group always says loudly, "Here comes 'Amen.' Hurry up and sit down," to peals of laughter from everyone present. As for why these people refuse to join "Amen," their reasons are mostly that they enjoy having fun and have no time to take part in ritual, or that they see no problem with waiting until someone else's faith is effective before believing themselves.

Most of the people who "believe in God" in that area are women. During my time in the countryside, I once met a group of women worshiping in a neighboring town. Although I'm not a Christian myself, when I saw those unpretentious women coming together from their out-of-the-way hamlets to explore the human heart's capacity for good, I was more than a little moved. And the scene of those women seated on chairs and stools of unequal height, singing hymns with Bibles in their hands is still in my mind. Occasionally, one of them would attend to a crying child by giving him water or helping him relieve himself; at other times the village hens, cats, and dogs would walk among them. A whole jumble of images

In my own personal experience, I must mention that this is entirely different from what I felt during the times I lingered in Notre Dame de Paris. If the weight of some of the rituals was also part of that feeling, then what I saw in these obscure villages was a kind of austerity: the breadth of spiritual life, from tedium to clarity.

A few years ago, I took a holiday into the European countryside, and it was the churches and libraries I saw in those villages that often got me stirred up. Although the influence of religion has been on the decline in Europe for some time, lofty church spires still gives one a vision of the transcendent. Of course, the "believers" in S Village and surrounding areas may not have come to Tolstoy's realization that Christianity is not theology, but a new way of understanding life. Nevertheless, for these rural folk, the important thing is that at the very least they have begun to pursue life on a spiritual plane in a society that is becoming increasingly tolerant.

Interestingly, when I was there I heard from quite a few sons of the people who "believed in God," and they complained to me that "belief in God" had destroyed local traditional customs. For example, they can no longer set off firecrackers at the Spring Festival, and festival couplets have been replaced with things like "Thanks be to God for bestowing his graces upon us," turning the holiday season uncommonly cold and bleak. But even so, certain details make it clear that ancestral clan culture is holding its ground and even reclaiming territory. One such sign is the continued expansion of genealogies; another is that ancestral halls are being rebuilt in villages with the prominence of the Panthéon.

From this phenomenon we can see that a form of social culture once criticized as being the dregs of feudalism has revived over the last thirty years, and at the same time it tells us that although people may no longer set off firecrackers for the Spring Festival, men obviously still hold the power of the purse. Of course, one important piece of background information is that in the continuation of ancient clan culture, locals keep their strongest faith for "carrying on the ancestral line." This is their religion.*


Notes

  1. 万里长城永不倒: As nickwong points out in the comments, this was a line from the theme to the Hong Kong TV show The Legendary Fok (霍元甲).. It later became a patriotic commercial for a hair-care product.
  2. 准备了好吗时刻准备着: The introduction to the anthem of the Communist Children's Corps.
  3. 牌九, 天九: Dominoes; see Chinese dominoes on Wikipedia.
  4. The author ends on a pun that I did not translate. "Carrying on the ancestral line" is a set phrase, 传宗接代. The character here means "ancestors"; it originally meant "ancestral temple," and also appears in the modern Chinese word for "religion," 宗教.
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There are currently 3 Comments for Three decades of public life in rural Jiangxi.

Comments on Three decades of public life in rural Jiangxi

“万里长城永不倒”(粤语发音)是从香港(丽的电视台)引进、风靡全国的电视剧《霍元甲》主题曲歌名和第一句歌词!当时(83年?)差不多大街小巷、个个小孩都唱过这首粤语歌曲。

Thanks, nickwong. I've added a correction to the footnote.

I saw something from this article in common with the things I went through in my village, say gambling and buddhism. In fact, no matter in the north China or south China, people in countryside always gather together to paly cards or mahjoog around spring festival when they have money. This has been rooted in rural life and part of city life.

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