ALEC FARMER WRITES – How does one explore the complexities of modern China? The answer for many would be to look at trends and statistics. Numbers quantify the largest country in the world from the macro. However, it is easy to forget that these figures represent the real lives of the country’s citizens. Behind every statistic are lives filled with a vast array of experiences. So, is there another way to tell the story of modern China? Specifically, is there a way to discuss modern China that focuses on the personal experiences of those within the country?
Liang Hong argues in her novel China in One Village: The Story of One Town and the Changing World (2021) that the issues of the modern world are best understood by listening to those who are experiencing them. Liang Hong has studied Chinese literature and written several sociological studies of contemporary China. However, China in One Village is seen by many to be her most influential nonfiction piece. Translator Emily Goedde captures the intimate feeling of the original book while giving English language readers the ability to visualize daily life in a rural Chinese community, one subjected to rapid change.
“New houses are more and more common in the village, yet one by one, without exception, their locks have grown rusty.”
This nonfiction book follows Hong as she returns to her home province of Henan. While back in rural China, Hong interviews and speaks with family, friends, and community members to investigate the issues of contemporary China. Each vignette that the book presents feels highly personal. For example, one journal entry from a migrant worker reads, “I am at a loss, uneasy. It’s as if I live in a vacuum, cut off from the rest of society. On the street, people come and go. All complete strangers to themselves. In this city, I am nothing more than an ant.” While there are several stories told by migrant workers in China throughout the book, each of their voices and experiences are different from one another. These varied perspectives are what make this telling of modern China so impactful for many readers. When combined in the format of powerful literature, these life stories feel as if they are in conversation with one another. They deepen the echo of ruthless modernization.
Hong does bring up how “They’re depressing, these old village stories that repeat over and over again.” No matter how repetitive the themes of these stories may be, the many perspectives make these topics feel fleshed out and allow readers to come to a deeper understanding for what life may be like in rural China. Everyone that Hong interviews has a distinctive perspective, which humanizes these large and complex issues. What were once fragmented statistics, now represents the lived experiences of real people in rural China. Humanization is the true power of this book. While some readers may not want to open themselves up to these difficult stories, an understanding that comes from empathy can often be invaluable.
However, Hong does not have these stories exist independently, choosing to give context for the issues discussed. Each chapter of the book focuses on a new problem or theme. Stories that deal with changing ecology are all grouped, as are narratives that deal with China’s rural youth. This structure and Hong’s poetic voice tie together a series of free-flowing stories into an understandable study on China’s changing socioeconomic climate.
While this book is a sociological study, it also reads like an attempt by Hong to understand what has happened to the home where she spent most of her life. Much of Hong’s narration gives readers background knowledge for each interview. However, despite being the quantitative section of the book, Hong’s prose often reads more like a touching tribute to the people and places she once called home. One narration about China’s changing environment states,
“Rivers are the lifelines of a country’s ecology; the guarantee of a nation’s future. Yet, over the past ten years, we have brought them to an early end. We live among riverbeds that are dried up and foul smelling, terrifying and dark. If this doesn’t change, catastrophe is nigh.”
There are many reasons that China in One Town became so popular upon its release. One of the most compelling is that, for its time, the way in which Liang Hong went about describing contemporary China was revolutionary. Rather than giving her readers quantitative data with sparse interviews, China in One Town chooses to tell China’s modern history through those living it. As a result, this book acts as a window into the beating heart of rural China. The stories of those in Henan providence speak to China’s dangerous and fast movement from rural to urban life. However, more importantly, the experiences of these individuals act as an indicator for where China may be heading in the not-too-distant future.
New AMI book reviewer, Alec Farmer, recently graduated from LMU with a degree in Film and TV Production and a minor in Asian and Pacific Studies. He has studied contemporary Asian literature and cinema.