Inconvenient Confucianism and the Construction of Heroes in Recent Chinese Reportage: A Banned Investigation into China’s Peasantry

By Helen Dunstan

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 22, no. 1 (Spring 2010), pp. 1-58

This essay examines the construction of peasant whistleblowers in the first four chapters of Zhongguo nongmin diaocha (An investigation of China’s peasantry) by the journalists Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao. Banned in 2004 soon after publication, this work of reportage addresses a wide range of problems in contemporary rural China, with cadre corruption as the “presenting issue.” The substantial introductory narratives depict the attempts of villagers from Anhui province to enlist the support of higher authority against fleecing by cadres. These narratives expose some shocking human rights abuses. The article addresses the literary techniques employed in a work that purports to be factual. These include light fictionalization, irony, and the constructing of peasant heroes according to a model that recalls China’s Confucian past: the man (sic) whose education and personal integrity drive him to risk martyrdom by speaking truth to power. The essay links distant and recent past by recalling relevant features of the Confucian tradition, demonstrating their resurgence in the work of journalist Liu Binyan (1925-2005), and highlighting passages of An Investigation of China’s Peasantry that delineate the post-Confucian peasant hero. It draws on social-scientific studies of recent and contemporary China to suggest the significance of its findings.