Going to the Countryside: The Rural in the
Modern Chinese Cultural Imagination, 1915-1965

By Yu Zhang

Reviewed by Nicolai Volland

MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright December, 2021)

Yu Zhang, Going to the Countryside: The Rural in the Modern Chinese Cultural Imagination, 1915-1965 Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2020. xii, 294 pp. ISBN 978-0-472-05443-5 (paper); ISBN 978-0-472-07443-3 (hardcover); ISBN 978-0-472-12660-6 (ebook).

In summer 1968, Mao Zedong ordered millions of educated youth to move to the countryside, “where the nation needs you most.” The disbanding of the Red Guards, called to life early in the Cultural Revolution to topple Mao’s opponents in the Party, set off the largest urban-to-rural migration in modern Chinese history. It also profoundly changed the course of modern Chinese literature. Members of the grouping later called “misty poets” first met during rustication, and many of their most celebrated works were written in the countryside. The 1980s revival of China’s nativist literary tradition, in the form of the “roots-seeking movement,” drew heavily on the experiences of sent-down youth (知青) in the countryside and in frontier locations, from Ah Cheng’s 阿城 Yunnan to Zheng Chengzhi’s 鄭承志 Northwest to Han Shaogong’s 韓少功 Hunan. The budding avant-gardists, likewise, found inspiration in the countryside for their experimental works. And the fifth-generation filmmakers were drawn to rural settings, delivering portrayals of the countryside that stood in stark contrast to the images found in films from the 1950s and 1960s. Originally designed to close the gap between urban and rural areas, the rustication of millions of urban-educated youths instead widened the gulf. The confrontation with life in China’s vast agrarian hinterland traumatized many of the “sent-down youth” and, beginning in the late 1970s, shaped the nation’s cultural imagination of the countryside, in literature and in film, for decades to come.

Rustication, however, did not begin in 1968. The Party’s call on the nation’s youth to go “down to the villages” was originally issued in 1955. And urban intellectuals’ (re)turn to the countryside as cosmopolitan modernity’s Other, has a history going back to the very beginnings of modern Chinese literature. Not coincidentally, Yu Zhang’s insightful study, Going to the Countryside, selects 1915—the year of the founding of New Youth (新青年) and the start of the New Culture movement—as its point of departure. Throughout the ensuing half century, Chinese writers and intellectuals moved between cities and villages, and grappled with these shifts in perspective. The impact of crossing the urban-rural fault line could be dramatic, at either end. It proves fatal for Old Mr. Wu in the opening chapter of Mao Dun’s 茅盾 Midnight (子夜, 1933). Not quite lethal (for most), but deeply transformative nonetheless, were the experiences of travelers bound in the other direction, intellectuals who visited the rural areas from the May Fourth period through the socialist era: Chinese literature abounds with disturbing returns to hometowns, documentaries of ambitious efforts to build a new countryside, tales of wartime displacement in the caves and loess hills of the vast Northwest, and testimonies to grand irrigation schemes designed to make both the countryside and the country “leap forward” in ever greater strides. Zhang’s book calls to our attention the creative work emerging from this interface, from the sometimes unsettling but always productive encounter with the rural.

The reactions of these travelers—writers, reformers, journalists, revolutionaries, filmmakers—to the countryside were not uniform. They varied from individual and sentimental reflections to collective revolutionary calls to arms. While some observed the countryside in passing, many (if not most) others took it as their duty to change the conditions they found in the countryside, whether by reformist zeal or revolutionary upheaval. In nearly every case, though, the crossing of the urban-rural boundary was a transformative experience, one that “created a new aesthetic, social, and political landscape.” “This crossing,” Zhang argues, “reveals a fundamental epistemic shift resulting from the (re)discovery of the countryside in modern China” (1). The implications of this shift go far beyond the immediate encounter itself; rather, “this spatial crossing was intertwined with the larger discourses of enlightenment, revolution, and socialist industrialization, and is therefore crucial for understanding the relationship between the rural and the Chinese experience of modernity” (1). The rural, it could be said, emerged as the Other, against which the urban, modern, and progressive constituted itself. Chinese modernity, so often associated with the neon lights and urban symphonies of the emerging metropolitan areas, was built on its own alterity, deeply entangled with its own opposite, with the village and all that was associated with it—backwardness and stubborn, cruel traditions, on the one hand, or revolutionary potential, on the other.

Zhang’s study consists of an introduction and six chapters. The chapters in Part I, “The Rural as Reflexive Vision of Chinese Enlightenment,” scrutinize writings on rural hometowns (ch. 1) and visual and theatrical technologies in Ding County (ch. 2). Part II, “The Rural as a Constructive Vision of Chinese Revolution” takes on Yan’an as a revolutionary site (ch. 3) and what Zhang calls the “love-labor-law conjunction” in Yan’an (ch. 4). The chapters in Part III, “The Rural as an Industrial Vision of Chinese Socialism” address rural industrial aesthetics (ch. 5) and railway travel as a means of social engineering in PRC films (ch. 6).

The entanglement of the urban and the rural surfaces in modern Chinese literature from its very inception. New Youth featured both stories by Lu Xun 魯迅 that paint an unsettling image of village life and “social survey” (社會調查) essays that scrutinized China’s agricultural hinterland with the help of scientific, enlightenment methodologies; these essays were written by authors who “viewed rural existence through both outsider and insider lenses,” acknowledging “the rationality, logic, and potential inherent in old customs, habits, and moralities in rural society” (22). Both genres, the fictional and the non-fictional, inhabited the same intellectual spaces, and co-shaped modern Chinese images of and attitudes toward the countryside, which emerges here as a representational space with multiple possible positions that allowed writers to adopt a wide range of attitudes. Ambiguous portrayals can be found in the works of major and minor 1920s writers, from Lu Xun and Yu Dafu 郁達夫 to Xu Qinwen 許欽文 and Feng Yuanjun 馮沅君. Intellectuals such as James Yen (Yan Yangchu 晏陽初), in contrast, foreground the dormant potential of the countryside and consequently double down on the “rural vernacular” found in the villages, in order to “develop a pedagogical community of attractions and empathy” (46). Yen’s approach accordingly encompassed a whole range of media, from lantern slides and illustrated primers to spoken drama, a technical toolkit that could easily be adapted to the needs of rural reconstruction and the tastes of his audience. Some of these technologies were new and urban, such as the lantern slides; others built on longstanding traditions. Indeed, it remains somewhat unclear in Zhang’s account precisely how Yen’s primers and lectures differed from cheap illustrated books and the moral exhortations of the “village compact” 鄉約 lectures that had been the backbone of rural governance for centuries. The plays by Yen’s ally Xiong Foxi 熊佛西, cleverly drew in their audience, aiming to erase the boundaries between actors and audience and thus create a collective community.

The reformist approach to the countryside contrasts sharply with the revolutionary approach advocated by the Chinese Communist Party, and with the aesthetic model that crystallized in Yan’an. Somewhat unfortunately, Zhang suggests here a chronology and logical progression from (failed) reform to revolution. Such an account overlooks the synchronicity and often chaotic simultaneity of the various approaches: Mao’s famous “Report on an Investigation of the Peasant Movement in Hunan” (not discussed in the book) was published in 1927, at the very time when James Yen and his team set out to rebuild Ding country. And the rural constructionists’ comparatively less disruptive experiments coincided with the extremely violent policies of the Jiangxi Soviet—policies ordered by urban intellectuals such as Mao and that, as Gao Hua has noted, were often more extreme than the approaches the Party took a decade later in Yan’an. Yan’an nonetheless, acquired symbolic significance, not least for turning “the political periphery into the political center” (79) and highlighting the revolutionary significance of the countryside, a significance that extended beyond China and became global and universal. It is only apt, then, that the first and arguably most influential account of Yan’an was written not by a Chinese intellectual, but by a visiting foreigner, Edgar Snow. Snow’s book, Red Star Over China, was swiftly translated into Chinese, and circulated widely, transforming the image of the countryside and offering a model eagerly adopted by other writers, such as the essayist Chen Xuezhao 陳學昭. Yan’an became a creative space and a source of inspiration for many authors—exiled urbanites such as Ding Ling 丁玲 and Fang Ji 方紀, and writers from rural backgrounds, Zhao Shuli 趙樹理 and the storyteller Han Qixiang 韓起祥 among them.

After 1949, the Chinese countryside was looked upon as a reservoir of strength for the socialist revolution; intellectuals’ encounters with the rural, hence, were “not merely a spatial crossing of the urban-rural chasm [but also] a moral and ideological decision” (148). This new imaginary of the rural was also an industrial one: visual texts, from propaganda posters to documentaries and feature films, celebrated the arrival of industry in the villages and the industrialization of the countryside. In a close reading of Su Li’s 蘇里 1959 film The Young People in Our Village (我們村裏的年輕人) and its sequel (1963), Zhang demonstrates how the rural discourses of the Great Leap transformed the countryside into a utopian space “in which industrial projects were imagined to be handmade and homemade enterprises” (178), and in which the village emerged, at least fleetingly, as a microcosm, a model of the socialist nation. In this context we also find early calls on young, educated urbanites to relocate to the countryside, and to help transform the country’s rural areas. These calls were accompanied by uplifting films depicting railroads and constructions sites for hydropower stations, in which engineering and social engineering merge into an all-inclusive transformative enterprise. Cinematic representations figure these construction sites as spaces where idealistic youth from the cities and eager villagers meet, where the quotidian and the heroic intersect, and where technological and affective regimes combine in the service of the sublime socialist enterprise. The rural, Zhang concludes, was thus turned “into an experiential site to contest and reconceptualize a set of globally circulated ideas, such as enlightenment, universal education, nationhood, citizenship, revolution, romantic love, law, labor, and science and technology. These modern notions underwent redefinition and acquired new meanings and significance in the rural contexts” (208).

Zhang’s study concludes in 1965, on the uplifting terms offered by movies such as “The Young Generation” (年輕的一代, dir. Zhao Ming 趙明, 1965). The book’s account, spanning half a century, is ambitious, and the author’s decision to limit her scope and not address the main wave of the rustication movement and its resulting post-Cultural Revolution literatures, is understandable. Omitting what is arguably the single most consequential urban-rural encounter in twentieth-century China, however, significantly curtails the book’s central aims and claims. If “bring[ing] the rural back to the central concern of Chinese cultural studies” (back cover synopsis) is the objective of this study of modern China’s urban-rural crossings, then the cataclysmic and often traumatic rustication movement undoubtedly constitutes an event of momentous proportions that needs to be accounted for. The literary and cinematic reflections of the rustication experience that emerged from the late 1970s to the 1990s mark a watershed in the Chinese cultural imagination of the rural, offering portraits of the countryside not only darker in tone and mood from the glowing utopianism of the early socialist period; they are also vastly more complex in addressing pressing questions such as gender, religion, subjectivity, and ecology, problems that earlier accounts—not only those from the socialist period—tend to gloss over. Most important, arguably, the authors of these accounts were not short-term visitors, staging brief visits to their hometowns, launching intermittent development projects, or conducting journalistic investigations limited in time and scope. Many of the sent-down youth of the 1960s and 1970s spent a decade or more in their village locations, gaining intimate insights and experiences that necessarily escaped their more casual predecessors. It is this close encounter with the countryside that lends root-seeking stories, avant-garde fiction, and the films of the fifth generation auteurs their emotional and moral power, and that accounts for their lasting impact and imprint on the history of both urban-rural encounters and the rural in the modern Chinese cultural imagination.

Confronting the literature of the former sent-down youths might have also helped the author to resist the temptation of casting the history of urban-rural crossings in the form of a teleological arc. The progression from reform to revolution, from individual to collective approaches, from pessimism over backwardness in the countryside to enthusiasm over its transformative potential, suggests a chronology that appears too neat to accommodate the messy and often contradictory experiences of these travelers. Not only did different explanations of and approaches to China’s rural problems coexist and contend with each other during all the periods under consideration in this book—from the CCP-GMD rivalry of the 1920s and 1930s to the heated debates over agricultural policies in the 1950s and 1960s—but, as the sent-down youth experience demonstrates, the trajectory of urban-rural encounters was also non-linear. The fiction and films of the post-Mao period question and rework important aspects of the socialist period’s perception of the countryside, adding critical depth and complexity to the narratives through which we understand this subject. Wading into the morass of China’s postsocialist fictional representations of the countryside, hence, forces us to acknowledge the complexity and inherent contradictions of the encounter with the rural Other and foregrounds the variability of individual experience, thus brushing against the grain of homogeneous, teleological narratives. Urban-to-rural crossings, an important interface in twentieth-century Chinese culture, remain multi-layered and heterogenous, a source of inspiration and a reservoir for critical reflection precisely because of their complexity.

Yu Zhang’s Going to the Countryside does the field of modern Chinese literary studies the tremendous service of bringing the rural back into focus, highlighting the richness and the often untapped potential of cinematic and literary—fictional as well as non-fictional—reworkings of the urban-rural interface. The book may have benefitted from more thorough editing in chapter three and beyond, and unfortunately lacks Chinese characters, or even a glossary. These minor issues notwithstanding, Zhang’s monograph is an important contribution to our understanding of the modern Chinese literary landscape, offering a highly welcome counterweight to studies with a mostly urban focus. Going to the Countryside is likely to become required reading for students and scholars of Chinese Republican-era and early socialist-era literatures.

Nicolai Volland
Pennsylvania State University