Towards the City! Towards the Country! I Was Born to Write about the Countryside

Cave dwelling nearby Yan‘an, Shaanxi province
Cave dwelling nearby Yan‘an, Shaanxi province | Foto: © ImagineChina / Zhao Pengfei (赵鹏飞)

Born and raised in the countryside of northwest China, Jia Pingwa’s depiction of rural culture is considered the nucleus of his literary works. Taken as a whole, they encapsulate the past one hundred years of Chinese history.  

When I was 19, I left the countryside and became a resident of the city, a separation like the snipping of an umbilical cord. Yet I remained my mother’s son. For decades I’ve been writing in the city, but the countryside has been the subject of almost all my works. With my parents and siblings still living there, I return to visit from time to time – they visit me in the city, too – so I know the changes and developments in the countryside like the back of my hand. Having stayed in the city for a while, I now look at the countryside from an urbanite’s perspective, and I see it more clearly. Chinese economic reform began in the countryside, and it is essentially the origin of all of the reform’s accomplishments and complications. So to observe it from an urban perspective (like observing the city from a rural perspective) is in actuality an act of observing China as a whole. In the past few decades, I’ve written a large volume of works, including, in my early years, Shang State (商周初录) and Turbulence (浮躁); the later Ji Wo Wa De Ren Jia (鸡窝洼的人家) and “Sky Dog” (天狗); and the later yet Ancient Furnace (古炉), Shaanxi Opera (秦腔), and Dai Deng (带灯). Even the few works with urban settings, including Deserted City (废都), Happy (高兴), and Earth Door (土 门), were stories of country people who had migrated to the city. A critic once said that to look at my works as a whole was to behold the past one hundred years of Chinese history.

Rural issues, invariably, are land issues. In the 1950s, after the Communist Party established the People’s Republic, land was taken from wealthy landowners and parceled out to the peasants, only to have that land taken back later by the state, which established people’s communes; after that, the land was parceled out again to rural peasants for contract farming, which marked the start of reform; until finally, today, that land is being gradually purchased back for development by the government and by entrepreneurs. That land, the land that had really always belonged to the rural peasants, had been parceled out then taken away, taken away then parceled out. Again and again, this happened, and with this back and forth, there were countless revolutions. Amidst these revolutions, China underwent all types of change, this change tossing and turning the fate of the rural peasant. The culture of China is ultimately the culture of its countryside, as both the excellence and deficiencies of the culture are still rooted in the countryside. This, in fact, is the very reason why foreigners are often puzzled by Chinese affairs and Chinese ways. In the last thirty-some years, then, my writing has traced this period of transition in Chinese society, and traced the storms of this great era; I have written about the living conditions and the psychology of Chinese society today, and I have written about the cultural backdrop from which contradiction and conflict has arisen.    

Nearly all of my stories are set in my hometown, a place called Shangzhou. One hundred years of turbulence on this land have created stories that are beautiful and moving, as well as stories full of sorrow and helplessness. Since the reform, China has stepped from poverty towards affluence, then stepped from affluence towards disorder, a disorder that has been intensified by conflict. Stability and security have not increased along with the rural peasants’ increase in material wealth and experiences. Their tolerance for the discrepancy between rich and poor, for unequal distribution, for corruption, and for other social issues has been worn thin. In the past, these rural villages had temples, ancestral shrines, village administrations, and police stations. Trouble could be managed apart from the administration or the police – people could pray in the temples, or appeal for justice in the ancestral shrines. They were impoverished, with neither freedom nor dignity, yet they lived with social order and peace. Within a few decades after the Reform and Opening Up, however, everything had changed. The chase now is after power and money; people have lost their faith and morality has foundered. People are wealthier, but their hearts and minds have been left scattered. The young folks have all crowded into the cities, leaving the villages an empty shell. Solving the problems of rural villages requires urbanization, yet how to take this path, how to urbanize 80 to 90 percent of the rural peasants who live in the countryside, is a deep problem that currently confronts Chinese reform. To write about these bitter social issues, to dig into China’s rural culture, which is the backdrop of these issues, this is what all of my writing strives to do.

This is the era I live in and the transformation of society is my personal experience – this has determined the character of my writing. Using my hometown as a foundation, I’ve written about the contemporary Chinese countryside, and in writing about the Chinese countryside I have become a witness to contemporary China. This is my literary fate, as well as my undertaking and my responsibility. If China tomorrow truly walks down the path of urbanization, and the countryside is never the same, if it becomes beautiful and fertile, with people living with freedom and dignity, or if it becomes far worse, none of that will have anything to do with me. Those things are for future writers to write about. In 50 to 100 years, the history books will recount this transition at the intersection of the 20th and 21st centuries. It is my hope that the China of today – its social structure and the lives and psychology of its people – will be discovered in my works.