Joe Zhang writes: On a trip home late last year to the rural Chinese village of my childhood, I found my brother tying a military knife under his belt as he was leaving the house. I asked why he needed a knife, and he replied, “It is not as safe here as before.”
The peaceful and idyllic village I grew up in, like many of China’s rural towns, has been brought to ruins by the breakdown of traditional social norms that followed decades of failed policies and neglect by the state. Many of my contemporary fellow villagers would prefer to go back to the old days.
Nostalgia in China may sound strange to people whose image of the country’s recent history is colored by memories of Mao’s disastrous policies, which in the years following the Communist revolution in 1949 brought economic disaster, starvation and mass death. But my generation, which came of age after the Great Famine and at the end of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-1970s, missed the worst of the misery. And in typical Chinese fashion, my elders preferred not to talk about the bad days.
My childhood came at a unique moment for China. We were still living traditional village lives, having left the horrors of Mao behind, but not yet in the thick of the capitalist frenzy. Families were strong, crime was unheard of and the landscape was pristine. We didn’t mind being poor — in my third and fourth years at primary school in the early-’70s, the whole school did not have textbooks — because we didn’t know what we were missing. We lived in peaceful, tight-knit communities.
But China’s traditional social fabric has become shredded — and the disintegration is most obvious in the countryside, where families are falling apart, crime is soaring and the environment is killing people. Many villagers who were happy to have the state retreat from their private lives in recent decades are now crying for government intervention. Something has to be done to rebuild China’s languishing village life. [Continue reading…]