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The importance of a hometown

One of my first posts on this blog focused on the idea of being a waiguoren (外国人), an “outside country person”, and the fact that a foreigner can never be fully accepted in China. Today though, we’ll be looking at the idea of a waicunren (外村人), an “outside village person”, and how it presents new challenges in an increasingly mobile China.

Along with your name and age, a person’s hometown is considered an important part of their identity. This comes out of the fact that for thousands of years a person’s village in many cases mostly consisted of their extended family members. In a traditional village one would expect to find only a few family names with lineages tracing their history in a single place back hundreds of years. Even today a person’s hometown reflects their parent’s hometown, not their actual place of birth.

In the past when villages grew too large, meaning there was insufficient farm land, a group would set off to settle new land. The new village was often seen as an extension of the old one, and could even be referred to by the same name.

In the traditional village, you would trust your neighbors to nearly the same degree as family members. This was one reason that Fei Xiaotong argued that rural China didn’t need literacy, written contracts were simply not necessary in a society where you literally knew everyone and their ancestors.  These close relationships created a tightly bound community.

For a waicunren though, the village was impenetrable. In ancient times and today, “outsiders” find it next to impossible to become a part of a different village. Land ownership is hereditary (or based on hukou), so most of these outsiders were left running small businesses, and even after a few generations one could not expect to be seen as a local.

A clan based society

Perhaps the most interesting impact can be seen in the riots that happened this summer in Guangdong, where groups of migrant workers from a single hometown protested the actions of the local chengguan. Their village identity proved incredibly strong, despite all of Mao’s efforts to break down clan culture by moving people into work groups and collective farms.

These riots illustrate an idea that is key to understanding life in China today; who you are related to is still often more important than who you are. As a clan based society, there are clear circles of obligation, and within that group there are few limits to your relationship. Large loans can be made and vows of revenge are taken seriously, this bond is what lays just behind what initially appears to be a typical migrant worker vs. chengguan skirmish (this is also a factor in China’s village land grab protests).

Chinese people also complain of an increasingly indifferent society which is a secondary effect of living in a clan based society. While bonds between clansmen are incredibly strong, they are non-existent between waicunren. For a Chinese person, someone pick-pocketing from the man next to you on the bus isn’t any of your concern since you have no social obligation to them (perhaps this explains Chinese apathy when it comes to foreign genocides as well?).

One day in Liuzhou I spotted a man reaching with metal tongs into a young woman’s purse. When I confronted him about it, the woman looked almost as surprised as the thief was. I was living with the assumption that in a foreign country I often rely on the kindness of strangers, so I should repay that in some small way. My Chinese friends though saw this as some kind of insanity, why on earth would I help someone I don’t know?

So take comfort the next time a small child points and shouts “Waiguoren!” from across the street. Just because they can spot you from an incredible distance, doesn’t mean you are the only “outsider” on the block.


19 Comments

  1. Pascal Weinfurtner says:

    Maybe you could use pictures in your articles… First I really would like to share your posts. But without any picture… it is boring. Second pictures make the article living…

    • me says:

      Sure, pictures would make the article more alive, but to say the article is “boring” as it is comes off as an unfair criticism that is both inaccurate and inappropriate. You start off by saying you want to share his posts and then immediately say it’s “boring.” What gives?

    • Jonathan Lau says:

      Please don’t read this blog anymore if you need pictures to keep you interested.

  2. I agree, it’s the excellent writing and content of this blog that keeps me coming back.

  3. Yaxue C. says:

    Great post, Tom. You keep surprising me for knowing things I wouldn’t assume you would know, even though I know you know a lot.

    And you also reminded me of a few things. In my comments about the mine disaster earlier on this blog, I mentioned that a foreman and his men smashed the CCTV truck for broadcasting lies on the rescue site. The foreman and the team he led, both the men on the ground at the time and those trapped under, all came from one village, and most of them were related either closely or distantly. I do wonder if he would do the same if he is just a foreman of a group of unrelated people. My guess is, he would be just as sad but probably not as charged. In the interview he said “these are my people, people I grew up with, people who call me uncle, people I have to bring home with alive.”

  4. Andrewthe(not so [but occasionally manifesting qualities just above mediocrity])great says:

    I think the concept of “hometown” can be especially difficult for an American to grasp, or at least to identify with. Generally, we’re always on the move, and I think relatively few of us have had family living in one place beyond one or two generations. I’ve often thought about that as I walk through villages here: What would it be like to have had ancestors living in this place, stretching back hundreds of years?

    • Agreed. Chinese friends always want to know “What’s your hometown” (and as the article mentioned, they mean your father’s or grandfather’s hometown). Americans will ask ‘Where are you from?” and they mean where did you grow up or spend a significant portion of your life.

      I have a hard time answering even the American version of the question, having lived in three countries by the time I was 5, and moving nearly as regularly after that.

      I do have a sense of being an “outsider” everywhere, and while there are benefits to the way I live, sometimes I do long for that sense of belonging and roots.

      I wonder, as Chinese society becomes more mobile, how this will change?

      • Tom says:

        I think in the US, we have always been a country of immigrants. In the cities, when our families arrived they knew few people and had to be able to quickly develop trust in strangers (which was backed by a legal system that China still lacks), and farmers moved immediately to the mid-west, where in small towns you can still be an outsider for a generation.

  5. King Tubby says:

    All this PRC hometown stuff sounds marvy, until you do the train trip during CNY.
    Also it is a major recipe for insularity/rural idiocy, superstition and the burden of extensive present giving.
    Not to be celebrated with or without photos.

  6. […] 中国见红博客:祖籍的重要性——中国是一种基于宗族文化的社会,每个人的祖籍也是他/她的身份标识之一,“外地人”和“外国人”都是外人。 […]

  7. […] Seeing Red in China Your guide to modern China Skip to content HomeAbout…About TomAbout Yaxue CaoAbout CaseyComplete ArchiveSuggested SitesChina Books to ReadThe Best China MoviesMap of China中文 ← The importance of a hometown […]

  8. gregorylent says:

    example #3147 of why china has nothing to add to the coming global shift in consciousness.

  9. mopedchi says:

    Thanks for your post. I was born in Taiwan, grew up in Canada, and have lived in California for the past 25 years. However, when I’m in China and someone asks me where my “family” is from, I’m supposed to say Xiangshan in Zhejiang province. I’ve never been there and I don’t think my father has been there either (he was born while while grandparents were on the run from the Japanese in WW2). I used to tell people that I was American while speaking Mandarin but that just got me odd looks.

  10. […] fostered by two major factors, one being that people feel little sense of duty to strangers (which I discussed last week), and the growing gap between rich and poor on China’s East […]

  11. […] pretty common, even accepted in China, that if you come from another village it’s OK to charge you higher prices. This is because of a morality system which places family at the top, friends second, […]

  12. […] This means that local officials could feel pressure to regain control tonight. The latest reports showed that officials have started offering food to those who will sign a document that states they do not oppose the land sale, and have declared that the organizers will be punished. (To help put the village into context read- The importance of a hometown) […]

  13. theredsheep says:

    I’m an American living in Peru, but interested in China, particularly the recent surge in religiosity there. Been reading this blog for a while now. Anyway, how does Christianity affect/get affected by this idea? How is its emphasis on universal compassion (Good Samaritan, if you do it not unto the least of these my brethren, etc.) received there? Or is that, in your experience, something that tends to get “lost in translation?”

    Love this blog!

  14. […] identities undermine the concept of a unified culture (I’ve written a little before about regional identities). And we're just talking about the Han regions; beyond that, China is even more […]

  15. […] kind of separatist attitude, national identity is strong, this simply highlights the importance of regional and local identities. This can be most clearly seen in Guangdong, where gov’t efforts to limit Cantonese on the […]

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