As villages vanish, what fills the void?
The Spring Festival holiday last month offered many people working in big cities the rare chance to go back to their countryside hometowns and have a look at the withering villages.
Several doctorate candidates have noted the sense of loss they got from their visits to their dilapidated hometowns, which have been hollowed out by the process of China’s urbanization.
Young people leave for cities, leaving behind the elderly and the kids. Old houses and communities are deserted, or demolished.
The people feel lonely in big cities, where they get education and good jobs, because of ruthless competition and a culture different from their hometown.
The hometown seems like a place they will never return to, because their education has made them contrarian outsiders there. The villages and small towns are also riddled with nepotism and cronyism, and they cannot integrate into the local life.
Their return-home commentaries have circulated rapidly on social media and sparked wide debate on the pluses and minuses of the country’s fast growth.
Many people do not agree with the postgrads’ points of view, criticizing their feelings as one-sided and too subjective, and alleging that these are “growing pains” of a nation, and well-educated people should have a “positive” attitude toward the country’s development.
The popularity of the postgrads’ posts is testament to the fact that nostalgic sentimentalism is common in a fast-changing society.
About 100,000 villages have disappeared in China’s urbanization during the past 10 years. Nearly half of the population work and live far from their hometown.
Critics should focus on the problems rather than their emotions.
Villages and small towns are de facto left behind in China’s development. The farmers’ average personal income is only about one third of their urban counterparts, not to mention the gap in social services between villages and cities.
Feasts, mahjong and redenvelopes containing cash in some better-off villages and small towns are in sharp contrast to the dilapidation in backward rural areas.
The disappointment of the people longing to bring back the “good old days” at home is understandable. They were born in the 1970s and 1980s when the countryside of China was not yet opened to the free market. The impact of the “cultural revolution” (1966-76) on the countryside was limited. But the market reform later rippling through shattered some entrenched values that nourished their growth.
The simple values originating from traditional agricultural society — such as the reverence for nature and ancestors, community spirit, and filial piety — are dying and being replaced by commodity fetishism.
The government called for a revival of family virtue and Confucianism last year. But the government-funded Confucianism classes even failed in Qufu, Confucius’ hometown in Shandong province.
When the farmers quit praying for good weather, harvest and the Nature’s protection, it is increasingly popular for their urban counterparts to kowtow to various statues in temples for money and luck.
The government needs to increase its input to improve farmers’ livelihood and public services, especially education, medical care and pensions.
Previously, almost each village had its own primary school, which may have had only one teacher sponsored by the villagers themselves. The teachers and the village gentry, made up of well-off farmers, village heads, family clan heads and landowners, play indispensible roles in a village. They are role models and form the grassroots governance body.
But after the land reform of the 1950s and education reform since the late 1990s, the two classes have basically disappeared. The villages become only partially affiliated with township governments. Its viability as a cultural unit gradually withers.
To some extent, the problem of Chinese villages is that when the old values fade away, no systems that can effectively bind the people and community appear to fill the vacuum.