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).