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Recap: Vanishing Culture: The death of China’s villages with Liang Hong and Ian Johnson, 12.8.21

Recap: Vanishing Culture: The death of China’s villages with Liang Hong and Ian Johnson, 12.8.21

China in One Village, the bestselling book by Liang Hong, chronicles how the author’s village has fallen into moral and physical decay over the past 40 years. In this virtual program from December 8, 2021, the first of CI’s new ONE READ project, Liang and Pulitzer-Prize winning writer Ian Johnson, share what they see in China’s countryside, and what has changed- what Liang calls a sense of “national psychological homelessness.”

Speaker Bios

Liang Hong (LH) is a Beijing-based writer, and a Professor of Chinese literature at Renmin University, whose literary career has spanned criticism, reportage, and fiction. She is known for her scholarly research on twentieth-century Chinese literature, but true fame came to her with the publication of China in One Village. It was followed in 2013 by Leaving Liang Village. Since then, Liang Hong has been the recipient of many awards and honors. More recently, she has published a collection of short stories, The Sacred Clan, and two novels, The Light of Liang Guangzheng and Four Forms.

Ian Johnson (IJ) is Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, and a Stephen A. Schwarzman senior fellow for China studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. A writer and researcher whose work appears regularly in The New York Times and The New York Review of Books, Johnson was awarded the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting for his coverage of China for The Wall Street Journal. In 2017, Stanford University recognized him with its Shorenstein Journalism Award for his body of work covering Asia. Johnson is the author of three books including: The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao, and Wild Grass: Three Stories of Change in Modern China.

Full Program Recording of Vanishing Culture:

Select Quotes from the Program:

IJ: She uses ‘literary non-fiction’ as she tackles subjects too sensitive for mass media. Liang is a foremost practitioner of [this style]. She used her research skills and personal connections to the village to dig up facts and interesting anecdotes and facts to draw up a portrait of this Henan province village, which is typical for a big agriculturally-based village in China. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies and spurred a national discussion. It talks about a “psychological homelessness” – these rapid changes, she shows the human side of it and how families have been broken up and strewn around the country, like her own- the turmoil in the 1950’s-1970’s, and contemporary issues like crime and mental health and politics.

Professor Liang, you have been going back annually for Chinese New Year, but something must have happened in 2008 that caused you to write this down. What was the turning point to think my hometown is worth writing about?

LH: Any Chinese writer or thinker paying attention to society is paying attention to what is happening to rural / urban society. I study Chinese literature and focus on rural literature, and I was born in the countryside. There are many things that bring me back to what is happening [there].

I am always observing connections between literature and reality. We are rethinking our place in the cultural or psychological system in the country as a whole. The bigger backdrop, around 2000 or so, there was a scholarly or literary movement where scholars retreated into their studies and closed the door to work on their own books. That made me uncomfortable, and it didn’t sit well. Like any other writer, I enjoy the scholar’s life. But I don’t think that should be seen as the necessary mode of life. I wouldn’t say there was any clear moment when I decided this would be my project for the next [several] years. I felt a call in my heart to reconnect to what I left behind.

IJ: Some of the fiction that has been written in the last 20-30 years is very exaggerated. But your book attracted readers by [depicting] reality. Is real life sometimes more shocking than fiction?

LH: Fiction and non-fiction should be seen as two sides of the same coin in literature. The key is: is it a well written book? Fiction needs to have a kernel of reality and build on a foundation of truth. And if you don’t, you might end up with some of these books. Non-fiction needs to be built on an insight of reality, so you are telling stories that are going to be relatable for any reader. Otherwise, you are writing only what you yourself see.

IJ: Money is a theme you return to again and again, how it has changed social relationships. Do you think readers see this as an important issue in China today?

LH: I got a lot of responses from readers about this topic. Most who contacted me were people who lived in rural areas outside of the cities, the “successful towns.” These are the areas being subsumed by the cities where the money expands outward. As for the place like Liang village, I think money had less of a massive change. What it did was change the micro-connections between individuals, as opposed to structural changes in the village. Money changed the concept of what ‘success’ meant. Before, you could live your entire life and be happy, and feel validated as a “good person,” while being poor. But now people’s conception of what it means to be successful has changed. Now if you are poor, you are just poor, and you have somehow failed in life.

IJ: One of the most powerful images is the village school becoming a pig pen. Can you talk about education as a means to get ahead in the village?

LH: The pig farm is now a furniture factory! While what you say is true, education has been a very important part of government policy for the last several years. Back then, we would all go to school in the village through the fifth grade and go to a larger town for middle school. The school was closed for many reasons- in 2009 when I finished writing [the book] I did more field research around education. I found out that anyone who had any money wanted to send their kids to learn at a [better] school in a bigger town. There was also a government program to reduce the number of village schools. There were 60-70 school aged children in the village, when I finished the book, so there were enough to sustain a school, but it was this two-pronged effect. I realize that it is my emotional ties to my family that have created my ties to the village.

IJ: I thought of your older sister, who didn’t make it to the city or get the education [and what her story represents]. The older sister had to deal with her father who had a very tumultuous life in the village. The mother died very young, and she took the role as mother, so she worked and helped put the younger [siblings] through college. But she was left-behind.

LH: There are a lot of older sisters like that all over China. And it is usually the older sister. This is not just a social convention; it explains an emotional support in our family. She was helping us out of the goodness of her heart, and she believed that we had opportunities. It is a social phenomenon on the one hand but also expressed a deep emotional connection between us all.

Q&A Session

On the theme of “national psychological homelessness”:

LH: This concept is buried deeply in people’s minds and hearts. It is caused by a continual change in policies- the government is always making changes, and every time they do that, it rocks people’s lives and society. People have to readjust. The number one policy [after the big annual government meetings] always has to do with changes to the countryside- rural policy. But the impact of these policies is lagging far behind. They are not being implemented in a way that supports the people there. It creates a sense of rootlessness.

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