How are farmers viewed in modern China?

About 80 years ago Pearl Buck penned her novel “The Good Earth” about farmers in rural Jiangsu province, and today that image remains firmly planted in the minds of Westerners. After my time in rural Guangxi and my visit to Gansu, it seems that there are many places in China where Buck’s description is still fairly accurate. Over these next few days we’ll be exploring the lives of China’s farmers (you might want to start by reading about houses in rural china).

How are farmers viewed in modern China?

I remember quite clearly a discussion I had with one of the Chinese teachers in Guangxi shortly after I arrived in the Chinese countryside. He had just returned from Shanghai where he was studying for his master’s degree. In one of the classes a girl gave a speech about how she longed to work as a farmer, enjoying the fresh air and relaxed lifestyle. She may have even mentioned something about restoring a connection with the earth.

My co-worker though wasn’t one to romanticize farming, since he had actually grown up working with his parents in the field. He told me that he had stood up in the class and said “That’s bullsh$t,” this particular teacher loved that phrase, and used it often. “Farming is such hard work. Everyday you feel so tired and dirty. Even farmers don’t want to be farmers,” he said. He was almost as worked up telling me the story as he had probably been in that classroom.

The sad reality is that in modern China farmers are seen as stupid country bumpkins that are poor and worthless compared to city dwellers.  Some of my Chinese readers may try to claim otherwise, but I have seen too many movies with these same themes on Chinese buses to be swayed. Even in classes full of students whose parents were almost all farmers, nobody was willing to stand up for the Chinese peasant.

One of the first things foreigners notice upon arrival in China is that almost every woman uses an umbrella on sunny days. I’ve heard some people claim that it’s to help keep cool, which is probably one factor, but the bigger reason is to avoid getting a tan. In almost every class I have taught there has been a cringe worthy moment of students first pointing out how white I am, before singling out the student with the darkest skin.

“Look at how black X’s skin is,” one of them says.

Then another student shouts, “Her skin is like a farmer’s!” and the class erupts in laughter, while the poor girl tries to laugh with them.

It’s no secret that in China farmers are much poorer than their urban counterparts, and as long as farmers continue to occupy the lowest rung in China’s economy, they will continue to be mocked.

Tomorrow we’ll be looking at just how poor China’s farmers are (the numbers may surprise you).

11 responses to “How are farmers viewed in modern China?”

  1. NiubiCowboy says:

    I can recall first encountering this idea of being “black” when my female co-worker and I were asked, as foreigners, which teachers we thought were “beauties” at our school. We listed a few that we agreed were absolutely gorgeous, but our co-worker immediately dismissed our darker-skinned suggestions as being ugly because they were black (黑人).

    I had a discussion with another friend of mine about Chinese standards of beauty. I asked her what constituted female beauty from a Chinese perspective and she replied, “Big eyes, pale skin, an oval face, and a strong bridge of the nose.” I was astonished to find that whenever I asked someone, “What kind of girl do you find pretty?” the answers were always basically the same ones my first friend had rattled off list-like in our original conversation. Of course, the West has a standard of beauty that pervades much of our modern media and the public consciousness, but if you ask an average American, “What kind of girl do you find pretty?” I’m sure you’d get a wide range of opinions on skin color, body shape, hair color, size, personality, etc. Whenever I was asked about what Americans thought was pretty, I was often at a loss because what I personally found to be attractive may be repulsive to another person’s sensibilities.

    I can also attest to the romanticized view of the farm held by many city-dwellers and lower middle-class wage slaves. A few of my co-workers told me that their dream home would be a house built in the countryside where they could grow their own vegetables, animals, etc. This dream of an idyllic country life that they described sounded to me more like an extension of their sanitized Happy Farm personas. However, these same co-workers would often make disparaging remarks about people in our office who had actually come from the countryside and, as you mentioned, would joke about how dark they were, how backwards their ideas about city-life were, and how poor their standard Mandarin accent was. It was so disheartening watching these kinds of power-relations at work in daily life. Power is such a limited resource in China that the moment you’re able to exert power over someone who may have once been your peer, you exercise it without mercy.

  2. […] Seeing Red in China The Middle Kingdom Made Easy Skip to content HomeAbout MeComplete ArchiveSuggested SitesChina Books to ReadThe Best China MoviesMap of China ← How are farmers viewed in modern China? […]

  3. […] About 80 years ago Pearl Buck penned her novel “The Good Earth” about farmers in rural Jiangsu province, and today that image remains firmly planted in the minds of Westerners. After my time in rural Guangxi and my visit to … Continue reading → […]

  4. Meryl Mackay aka 马美丽 says:

    When President Obama came into office, I mentioned to a Chinese friend that his brother lived in China and was married to a Chinese woman. My friend confidently asserted that although a Chinese woman might possibly marry a black man, a Chinese man would never marry a black woman. Come on, I said, of course he would if he loved her!. No she said, it could never happen!

    • Tom says:

      You should show her the blog called something like beyond the wall or behind the wall, it’s written by an African American woman who is married to a Chinese man. It just might blow your friends mind.

  5. My wife’s from a Chinese farming family, and she denigrates herself when she comes back from being up there for a month or so because she’s “too black”. It’s really disheartening to think that this idea is so ingrained in local society that everyone accepts it as truth.

    • Tom says:

      I’m always surprised how much people talk about it. “Black” skin seems to be almost a daily conversation I over hear at work. The number of beauty products that whiten your skin seem a bit scary too, and have had students end up with terrible allergic reactions to some of them.

  6. […] see a migrant worker get sworn off the mini-bus for sitting in the wrong seat. This kind of contempt held for farmers is widespread in China, but is not something openly discussed. I’m confident that my […]

    • Tom says:

      The problem with statistics like that, is they include a large amount of China east coast, where rural villages are running factories instead of farms. Still the total is only about $1,000 per year per person, which is quite low. The information I provided is from areas that are strictly farming.

    • Volkan says:

      I actually did see more than one cegolle girls in Nanjing that would probably meet the 5 feet (1.52m) / 90 pounds (40.8 kg) description without having to look for them, however these are certainly not the average heights and weights in Nanjing. Thank you for this insightful post!

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