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? Continue reading

the violence of rural (re)construction (3): living genealogies

If you google “Hakka” all sorts of information comes up, ranging from Wikipedia’s Hakka People brief through the overwhelming comprehensive blog 客家风情 to more academic takes such as “The Secret History of The Hakkas: the Chinese Revolution as a Hakka Enterprise“.

These articles emphasize that the Hakka left the central plains for Southern China in a series of migrations. Hakka literally means “Guest People” and in the anthology, Down to Earth: The Territorial Bond in South China, for example, David Faure, Helen Siu and their colleagues nicely track the differentiation of Han Chinese into various ethnic groups, including the Dan (boat people not allowed on land), the Hakka, and dominant Cantonese.


Over time, the Hakka developed a distinct culture and history, including unique roles in the Taiping Rebellion (Hong Xiuquan was a Hakka) and subsequent Chinese Revolution; Sun Yat-Sen, the Soong sisters, and Deng Xiaoping, for example, were all Hakkas. Distinguishing features of Hakka identity include language, food, architecture, and a commitment to tradition and education that is said to exceed that of neighboring groups. Importantly, however, given the geographic range of Hakka settlements both within and outside the Chinese mainland, there is much diversity within the group. The Hakka standard is set in Meizhou, the county seat of Meixian, which brings us back to what’s at stake with the forced evictions in Meizhou.

The Hakka have lived in large compounds, where extended patrilineal families resided in organized proximity. These complexes have functioned as material genealogies with hierarchy emphasized through one’s room(s) within and location relative to the ancestral shrine, which has pride of place in any Hakka homestead. Indeed, even after compounds have been abandoned for newer buildings, often the ancestral shrine continues to host rituals and family matters, such as death memorials.

Many of the large homes that have been or are threatened with forced demolition in the Meizhou suburbs are low-income realizations of the larger ideal of bringing one family line together in one place. Overseas family members have contributed funds to build the homesteads, where several generations do live together. Importantly, those at home hold it for family members who are working either overseas or in cities like Shenzhen. Indeed, memories of and anticipated arrivals of absent family members characterize these homes. As does the cherished expectation of reunion, when the homestead will be filled and the family complete.

Also of note, many of the people standing guard over a family’s living history are women, who have married into the line and are therefore not considered part of the genealogy. So when the householder is female, she holds it for her sons, rather than explicitly for her husband. It became clear in conversation, that many of the women wanted a house for their families–children and maternal relatives, rather than explicitly to continue a particular line. Moreover, while the women told stories of their lives in these homes, the men would emphasize how these homes held a larger family together. Thus, the 5 or 6 women I spoke with were spoke of the need to keep a place for memories and future visits, while the men were more likely to demand compensation that would allow them to reproduce the building itself.

The unmaking of the multi-generational family has been one of the most obvious consequences of rural urbanization. After these homes are razed, they are replaced by smaller homes for China’s version of the nuclear family–an elder or two who take care of the only child of two working parents. In terms of traditional history, this breakdown clearly causes suffering and disorientation as family members try to make sense of a life without a shared root, even as it is also clearly that another uprooting has already taken place; the young people spoke Mandarin while their elders spoke Hakka. The results of centralized education and migrating populations contextualize the violence of rural reconstruction with respect to an ongoing state project to remake the countryside in Beijing’s image.

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Part I/ Meizhou: The Violence of Rural (re)Construction

Part II/ Meizhou: Hoodlum Government

Part IV/ Meizhou: What Gets Preserved

Part V/ Meizhou: Lessons from Shenzhen

Meizhou VI/ Meizhou: Selected Translations

the yaopi float glass factory

The Yaopi float glass factory hovers at memory’s edge, abandoned to ideology and chance encounters.

In 1987, the Shekou factory represented the highest level of float glass technology production in China. Today, it evokes nostalgia for the heroic romance of early industrial manufacturing. And that’s the rub. Even before it was built, the technology and mode of production used at the factory had been downgraded in terms of added value. In terms of global competitive advantage, Yaopi had been outdated even before it was built. Perhaps more telling of the ideological structure that ranks advanced and backward nations with respect to production capacity, the Yaopi factory elicits comparison with the Terracotta soldiers in Xi’an. This unhappy comparison relegates Shenzhen’s modernization efforts to the ancient past, even as it confers uncanny modernity on the First Qin Emperor’s army, which of course was mass produced on low-tech, but large-scale assembly lines.

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Changing Patterns of Rural Suicide (1980-2009)

Below, I have summarized Liu Yanwu’s article, The Problem of Rural Suicide (1980-2006) [刘燕舞:中国农村的自杀问题(1980-2006)]. The article responds to previous research on rural suicide, which had focused on the changing status of rural women, rather than on the modernization of village society as a whole. Liu argues that changing intergenerational family dynamics and the rising divorce rate of rural couples has caused the changing pattern of suicide in rural China. After the article summary, I make a few observations on what research in Shenzhen contextualizes the question of rural suicide.

The Problem of Rural Suicides (1980-2009)

Abstract [translated from text]: Based on a uniform survey of 34 villages accross 7 provinces and analysis of the suicides of 604 farmers between 1980 and 2009, this author believes that the suicide rate in villages continues to rise. There has been a significant decline in young people’s suicides and the marked rise of elder suicide in contemporary villages. The declining suicide rate of young women lowered the overall rate of young people’s suicide, however, the rapid rise of elder suicide has meant that the overall rate of villager suicide continues to rise. The analysis suggests that the determining factor in this complex situation is not the migration of village young women, but rather changing intergenerational relations and the increase of divorce. At root, the more obvious systemic cause of the complex transformation of rural suicide is that modernity continues to erode villages.

Keywords: sucide rate of young women (青年女性的自杀率), suicide rate of the elderly (老年人的自杀率), transformation of intergenerational relations (代际关系变动), divorce (离婚), modernity (现代性) Continue reading

Utopian Shenzhen, 1978-1982

Below I summarize thoughts about the importance of Shenzhen in shaping China’s post Mao utopianism.

In the heady rush of hyperbole, it is tempting to describe the SEZ’s first thiry years as the – Unprecidented! Miraculous! Epic! – jump of a lowly county from the lowest escholon in the state apparatus to one of the highest. More prosaically, the systemic re-invention of Baoan County as Shenzhen Municipality took place over a series of administrative adjustments and concomitant reallocation of authority, responsibilities, and fundamentally, rights to the national allocation of people, services, and goods. From 1978-1982, the Central Government and/or Guangdong Province restructured Baoan County four times. Each restructuring had a different ideological meaning and aimed to created a different form of post Mao utopia. These ideological differences – more precisely different understandings of the utopian content of modernization – continue to vex the development of Shenzhen.

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