Breaking the Ice

So, episode 2 of 沧海桑田 is 破冰. What was the ice and how was it broken? A few notes, below.

Episode 2 begins with shots of thick ice on the Huai river, the narrator metaphorically speaking about the frozen space between two shores. Not only an obvious (and simultaneous) reference to the Sino-British border (on either side of the Shenzhen river) and the Taiwan Straits, but also a description of how the planned economy made the lives of Anhui farmers difficult. A relevant reminder: the reforms initiated in Shenzhen began with Wan Li (万里)’s efforts to liberalize agrarian production in a part of the country where it does snow.

As with the opening, the rest of episode 2 also works through the fierce cosmographic logic that has made farmers the embodiment of China. Indeed, in this episode the farmers are China and farmers’ dreams are both national dreams and political obligations. When 18 villagers of Xiaogang Village, Fengyang County (凤阳县小岗村) heard the news of Wan Li’s decision to allow but not officially acknowledge redistribution of land to households so that agricultural surpluses above their quota could be privately managed for example, they wrote a letter and used their blood to make the seal. Moreover, as news of Anhui’s decision actions spread throughout the country, farmers in other provinces (most famously Sichuan) also began implementing the household responsibility system (包产到户) .

Back in the South, in Baoan County, Pingshan Commune also secretly implemented the household responsibility system, however, the documentary emphasizes that Baoan farmers’ contribution to liberalizing agricultural production exceeded the redistribution of land to households because “history” had chosen Shenzhen for another destiny – “to fulfill farmers’ dreams to create a city”. The rest of episode 2 explains how Shenzhen manifest the spirit of the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the CPC, 1978.

Why was the ice broken? The documentary offers a simple explanation, “Poverty makes change, change makes passage [forward] (穷则变,变则通)”. This simple phrase calls attention to the extent to which the fate of farmers has shaped political opportunity and necessity in the PRC. The revolution aimed to right social injustice through land reform. Episode two of 30 Years of Shenzhen Villages reminds viewers that Reform and Opening pursued this same goal, albeit through urbanization.

And therein lies the tale.

The household responsibility system land entailed giving the land back to the farmers, who were expected to farm more efficiently. But in Shenzhen, the farmers took their land and built factories, laying the groundwork for the transformation not only of local villages, but also of the place of farmers in the symbolic geography of the PRC. Suddenly farmers were creating and occupying positions in a new economic order. By realizing the dream of “washing their feet and leaving the paddy (洗脚上田)”, Baoan farmers began their transformation into local landlords, even as Anhui and Sichuan farmers began their transformation into the SEZ’s urban proletariat.

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