Important footnote or dissertation? Inquiring minds want to know, what is a natural village?
I have been traveling in the US this past week, from Seattle to Southern Pines, NC and thinking about the idea of nature and how it operates differently from my understanding of 自然. The expression, “natural village (自然村)” shows up again and again in Chinese discourse about rural urbanization. However, it is not natural in the way that those of us raised on images of the pacific northwest are used to thinking nature. Thoughts du jour are less an essay than they are points of departure for further speculation about the nature of villages, cities, and the new world order.
As I understand it, the expression natural village refers to villages that trace their history back in time to at least before 1949, but usually well into the Qing or Ming dynasties. As a social category, natural village is used in contrast administrative village which refers to the structural integration of neighboring villages during the early Mao years, before collectivization. In practice, the expressions natural and administrative villages reference general eras in Chinese history–Mao and pre-Mao. These histories operate at a general level because of course, administrative villages comprise two or more natural villages.
These past days, while I enjoy cold walks and clear skies, I am wondering about the lived differences between 自然 and nature, as well as how that difference might illuminate both how rural construction is theorized in China and understood in the United States. 自然 might be literally translated as “self as is”, which includes the idea that living organisms, beings, and societies have a form that is proper to themselves and which unfolds over time. This definition jives with more classical understandings of nature in the West.
As in the English “nature”, the Chinese “自然” points to a legitimate and legitimating order if not outside, then at least operating with a larger degree of autonomy than urban societies. This is important because the designation “natural village” not only implies a different set of legal institutions from that in the cities, but also promises alternative goals and values that are proper to an organization that is not entirely the state. This potential may partially explain Shenzhener’s current fascination with both the city’s urbanized villages and underdeveloped villages in the interior (neidi).
Images from my last trip to Seattle suggest how a nature is is produced in the Pacific Northwest, begging the question of what forms of autonomy US Americans seek via our naturalized cities? Or if in fact we can speak of a “natural city” or are we constantly reduced to “garden cities” no matter how majestic our efforts?