Visual and Theatrical Constructs of Modern Life
in the Countryside: James Yen, Xiong Foxi,
and the Rural Reconstruction Movement in Ding County

By Yu Zhang

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 25, no. 1 (Spring 2013), pp. 47-95

This essay discusses how three initially urban-based, western-imported media and performances–lantern slides, illustrated primers, and spoken drama–were employed as major pedagogical tools and transformative vehicles in the Ding County experiment to remake the village public into what I call “a space of attraction and empathy” that foregrounded a modern rural life and a community of citizens. Repudiating the linguistic capital that characterized the May Fourth enlightenment, James Yen and his followers proposed the notion of “scholar-farmer” and regarded peasants as active, intelligent, and compassionate members of their village and national communities. They developed a pedagogic community, which made joining the modern public sphere and the nation an exhilarating experience that attracted the peasants. In contrast to conventional narratives of modernity favoring the city at the expense of the countryside, the Rural Reconstruction Movement in Ding County demonstrated a modern mode of life in the villages, which was taking shape as the rural culture was remade through its dialogue with the enlightenment and the nation.