There’s a void called the countryside – visions of dying village life

This is the 1510 Digest, a weekly roundup of recent essays and articles published on the Chinese web, with links to translations on the Marco Polo Project.

Migrant workers tend to be presented as an anonymous mass, and thought of either as a problem for Chinese cities and infrastructures, or an example of inequalities and discrimination in contemporary China. This week’s post invites us to look at rural-urban migrations from a different angle, by focusing on the relationships and continuity between cities and country towns. Zhang Zejia’s ‘There’s a void called the countryside’ and Li Tianqi’s ‘These old people back home who ‘got old’ both explore this ongoing attachment to the rural hometown. Through the vision of a dying rural world, they also reveal the complexities of personal attachment to rural memories, the strength of family networks, and the significance of yearly return journeys to the rural hometown for city dwellers.

There is a void called the countryside
By Zhang Zejia, 08 December 2012

In this piece, writer Zhang Zejia throws a light on the continuity between urban and rural populations by describing the relationships between his relatives who stayed in the village and those who moved out to the city.
He begins by describing a small shop in his hometown, run by an ‘uncle’, where he likes to go where he returns. This shop was a village landmark in his youth, and is still a magnet for relatives returning. But the owner, in spite of his cordial welcome, shows a discreet bitterness at seeing the success of his richer city relatives.
In Shenzhen, his family home is another landmark for the family. Relatives would use it as a landing place, and stay there for more than a year, until they could find a stable job, get married, and build a local social network. Meanwhile, the village emptied, leaving the elderly behind, their lives only briefly brightened by a small child, whom parents would send over to the care of grand-parents until it was old enough to come live in the big city.
Zhang Zejia draws a comic and moving portrait of these characters – the gossipping lady who drowns him in endless memories of a great-great-aunt, or the silent man sitting on his porch, who just started blankly in the air. His piece finishes on two contrasting portraits of village folks: his smiling grand-mother who scrapes off cent after cent to give him a few Yuan at New Year, but will now receive a pension, and joyfully save more; and a daring uncle planning his move to Shenzhen, and anticipating his happy life in the big city.

Marco Polo translation: There is a void called the countryside
Original link: 有一种空虚叫做农村

These old people back home who ‘got old’
By Li Tianqi, 19 February 2013

Every year, when he returns to his hometown for Chinese New Year, Li Tianqi enjoys exchanging gossip with groups of old men who sit under trees and walls, enjoying the sunlight. For him, these old men are an endless source of knowledge on everything in the village. But this year, new faces have replaced old familiar ones – maybe signalling the passing of a generation. His father, whom he caught alone, listening to Shaanxi opera on an MP3 player, is another symbol of this disappearing village life. And so Li Tianqi asks, now that people are moving away, who will remember the village, after all the elders die? And if the memories of the villages die, what will it mean for the country? He invites his readers to reflect on this question, which he deems more crucial than economic outcomes.

Marco Polo translation: These old people back home who ‘got old’
Original link: 村里那些老了的老人们

All articles in this digest and a large range of other Chinese readings are accessible at Some are available in English, French and Spanish translation. (You can join the project if you’d like to help with translations.)

Danwei is an affiliate of the Australian Centre on China in the World at The Australian National University. This posting is a result of one project that is part of that on-going collaboration.

The China Story, China Heritage Quarterly and East Asian History are publications of the Australian Centre on China in the World.

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