东方村:the modern politics of traditional villages

Today, I recount and comment on the 11th episode in The Transformation of Shenzhen Villages (沧海桑田深圳村庄三十年), Dongfang Village (东方村), which is interesting because it illustrates current concerns with rewriting urban village history as the continuation of Confucian values in a new environment.

In 1978, border police captured several refugees from the Dongfang Brigade, who were trying to cross the Sino-British border and enter Hong Kong illegally. The organizer of the group was none other than the brigade party secretary, Wen Zhixiang, who was sentenced to four years in jail for his crime, but did not actually attempt to go to Hong Kong. Instead, he decided to send his daughters to Kong Kong, while he remained in Dongfang. After his release, Wen Zhixiang shifted sand for use in concrete and died four years later of liver cancer.

The story of Wen Zhixiang is presented as a story of sacrifice that links present-day Dong Fang to the Southern Song official, Wen Tianxiang (文天祥). In 1278, Wen Tianxiang committed suicide rather than serve the conquering Yuan. However, in order to insure that his family line would continue, he made sure that his younger brother would escape to have descendants. Accordingly, the two brothers fulfilled their Confucian obligations to both their Emperor and family, in Mandarin their decision has been described as “one loyal and one filial (一忠一孝)”. In fact, Wen Zhixiang was a descendent of Wen Tianxiang’s younger brother, Wen Bi. The Wen family descendants have been living at Dongfang Village for over 600 years.

During Wen Zhixiang’s incarceration, then Baoan Party Secretary, Fang Bao petitioned to have him released. However, the higher ups continually denied to release Wen Zhixiang, but also to approve more than the official quota of border passes for visits to Hong Kong. In his interview for the documentary, Fang Bao emphasized that policy placed local farmers in a difficult, but understandable position. On the one hand, Baoan residents knew life was better across the border because they had family there. On the other hand, they also had worked hard for the Party. This was a question that tested the contradictions between one’s loyalty to the Party and family responsibility.

Not unexpectedly, the film asserts that Hong Kong investment in village-owned factories resolved the contradiction that Wen Zhixiang faced. Good government, it suggests, means enabling citizens to have a high quality of life, so that they are not faced with the decision of remaining loyal to government or their family.

For me, the juxtaposition of Wen Tianxiang and Wen Zhixiang’s respective stories elides important differences between Confucian and neoconfucian understandings of loyalty, and the role of individual consent in traditional and modern hegemony. Wen Tianxiang, for example, did not choose between to extant political orders. Instead, once the Song had been defeated, he chose to die rather than serve the new dynasty. For Wen Tianxiang, loyalty was absolute. This is a traditional political value. In contrast, Wen Zhixiang chose between socialism (and subsistence farming) in Songgang or wage labor in Hong Kong, basing his decision on the quality of life in the two places. In other words, his neoconfucianism allowed for conditional loyalty, which is a highly modern political value.

In other words, the story of Wen Zhixiang reveals the modernity of “traditional” famers, rather than their blind repetition of tradition. From the perspective of local Party Secretary Fang Bao, Wen Zhixiang’s decision was understandable. Even if Wen Zhixiang broke the law, he did not deserve imprisonment. Indeed, the man who replaced Wen Zhixiang as Dong Fang Village secretary reiterated this point; they tried repeatedly to reintegrate Wen Zhixiang into the village after his release. In other words, by making the stories of Wen Tianxiang and Wen Zhixiang analogous, the film reveals the explicit modernity of “traditional” Baoan, where citizens give or withhold loyalty to a government based on their quality of life (however defined), rather than, committing their lives to the government they happened to be born to (as did Wen Tianxiang).

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