the violence of rural (re)construction (4): what gets preserved

Monday I joined the Meizhou preservationists in Enning Neighborhood Guangzhou, where we met to talk about how we could intervene in what was happening in Meizhou. There were two issues at stake. The first was straight-forward lay human rights–how do we help people keep their homes or guarrante a replacement home? The second was more abstract–what kind of buildings and spaces “ought” to be preserved for their historic value?

A great distance separated these two issues. First, was the matter of class. We are urban residents who worked in various culture industries. The people in Meizhou are peasants who either take day jobs or farm threatened plots. Second was the fact of generation. We are a group primarily comprised of twenty and thirty something young people. The people in Meizhou are older or younger. Indeed, most of the village young people are working in factories or service in cities (Guangzhou and Shenzhen), while their parents take care of preschool children back home. Third was the illusive question of “representativeness”, or what buildings might actually preserve Hakka culture.

These issues have emerged in the cracks of rural disintegration and it’s replacement with a fractured modernity.

Previously, the expression 家乡 (jiā xiāng) described the taken-for-granted experience of a Chinese hometown. 家 of course means home and 乡 refers to land. Within imperial administration, a xiang was also a quasi-official alliance of villages. According to this world, one’s home was a particular place that was shared by an extended family network of grandparents, uncles and aunts, cousins distant and near, as well as the location of an ancestral hall and the rites that constantly re-embedded a lineage into a specific landscape.

At present, policies and real estate development mean that the institutions and life ways that traditionally joined jia and xiang are being sundered. On the one hand, peasants have been alienated from their land rights. They have equity in the buildings on the land, but have lost the legitimacy to determine how land will be used and allocated. This means that one’s home (家) no longer is directly to one’s country (乡). On the other hand,young people leave to find work elsewhere. Many remit money to parents and siblings (usually sisters support brothers), but set up relatively independent households elsewhere.

These first generation immigrants yearn for a place to belong. They are vexed by what a friend described as “not being able to enter and not being able to return (进不去,回不去). She feels excluded from Shenzhen where she went to college and found a job, and distanced from her birth village. Importantly, although these first generation migrants identify with their hometowns, many of their children do not. Instead, they identify with their birth cities–Shenzhen for example, and more easily accept the “floating (漂)” sense of rootlessness that distresses their parents.

Approximately two-thirds of our group are first generation migrants from Meizhou to either Shenzhen or Guangzhou. They want to preserve some place back “home” where their children and grandchildren can make pilgrimages and learn about being Hakka. The Hakka are historically “guests” (literally “guest families/ lineages) in a strange land, and so there is a poignancy to their venture. Those with ancestral halls want in the best case to preserve their ancestral hall, in the next best case, they want to preserve as many ancestral halls as possible. Of course, this question abandons the question of peasant land rights. And there’s the painful rub.

The young preservationists and the villagers are differently invested in the homelands of Meizhou. Both groups identify as “Hakka”, but have different class alliances and different need of the land. Crudely put, for the preservationists the ancestral halls are placeholders for an imagined sense of belonging. In contrast, for the villagers, they are watching construction teams bulldoze their fields and demolish their homes. Finding common ground — in all senses of the term — is the conundrum that confronts us with painful urgency.

Impressions below.

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The other five entries in this series are:

Part I/ Meizhou: The Violence of Rural Reconstruction

Part II/ Meizhou: Hoodlum Government

Part III/ Meizhou: Living Genealogies

Part V/ Meizhou: Lessons from Shenzhen

Meizhou VI/ Meizhou: Selected Translations

4 thoughts on “the violence of rural (re)construction (4): what gets preserved

  1. Pingback: the violence of rural (re)construction (3): living genealogies | Shenzhen Noted

  2. Pingback: the violence of rural (re)construction (2): hoodlum government | Shenzhen Noted

  3. Pingback: meizhou: the violence of rural (re)construction | Shenzhen Noted

  4. Pingback: the violence of rural (re)construction (5): lessons from shenzhen | Shenzhen Noted

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