There are around 1 million villages in China, about one third of the world's total. Each village has an average of 916 people. A typical small-to-medium-size village is made up of perhaps 7 to 10 clans, 50 to a 100 families and 500 or so people. Most have of individual residences and community houses such as a meeting house, religious building or ancestor hall. Sometimes the residences are grouped together. Other times they are quite spread apart. Landowners, chiefs or traders sometimes live in a larger, nicer houses than everybody else.
Villages typically have a communal well, a communal area for washing clothes, and an area for threshing grain. Sewer facilities are absent. People either go in the fields or in outhouses. If there is a road it often dead ends in the village.
Traditional villages are relatively self sufficient. Residents grow there own food. Their political and social units are the tribe and the village. Customs and traditions are passed down orally. Shaman and healers take care of health care. Someone in the village may sell things like cigarettes, soap, grain, sugar and cooking fuel out of their house.
Many people live in villages that can not even be reached by road. They can only be reached by walking paths or rutted cart tracks. These are often the poorest villages.
Websites and Sources: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; People’s Daily article peopledaily.com ; Books: “Will the Boat Sink the Water: The Life of China’s Peasants” by Chen Guidi and Wu Chuntao (Public Affairs, 2006); “Going to the Countryside: The Rural in the Modern Chinese Cultural Imagination, 1915-1965" by Yu Zhang (Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press, 2020), an academic book; "Rural Life in Modern China" by C.F. Mobo ; “China in One Village: The Story of One Town and the Changing World” by Liang Hong; translated by Emily Goedde (London: Verso, 2021); "Spectacle and Sacrifice: The Ritual Foundations of Village Life in North China" by David Johnson (Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2010)
Village Structure in China
Most rural Chinese live in one of some 900,000 villages, which have an average population of from 1,000 to 2,000 people. Villages have never been self-contained, self-sufficient units, and the social world of Chinese peasants has extended beyond their home villages. Almost all new wives come into a village from other settlements, and daughters marry out. All villagers have close kinship ties with families in other villages, and marriage gobetweens shuttle from village to village. [Source: Library of Congress]
“Before 1950 clusters of villages centered on small market towns that linked them to the wider economy and society. Most peasants were only a few hours' walk or less from a market town, which provided not only opportunities to buy and sell but also opportunities for entertainment, information, social life, and a host of specialized services. The villages around a market formed a social unit that, although less immediately visible than the villages, was equally significant. [Ibid]
From the early 1950s on, China's revolutionary government made great efforts to put the state and its ideology into direct contact with the villages and to sweep aside the intermediaries and brokers who had traditionally interpreted central policies and national values for villagers. The state and the party were generally successful, establishing unprecedented degrees of political and ideological integration of villages into the state and of villagelevel awareness of state policies and political goals. [Ibid]
The unintended consequence of the economic and political policies of the 1950s and 1960s was to increase the closed, corporate quality of China's villages and to narrow the social horizons of villagers. Land reform and the reorganization of villages as subunits of people's communes meant that villages became collective landholding units and had clear boundaries between their lands and those of adjacent villages. Central direction of labor on collective fields made the former practices of swapping labor between villages impossible. The household registration and rationing systems confined villagers to their home settlements and made it impossible for them to seek their fortune elsewhere. Cooperation with fellow villagers and good relations with village leaders became even more important than they had been in the past. The suppression of rural markets, which accompanied the drive for self-sufficiency in grain production and other economic activities, had severe social as well as economic consequences. Most peasants had neither reason nor opportunity for regular trips to town, and their opportunities for exchange and cooperation with residents of other villages were diminished. Villages became work units, with all that that implied. [Ibid]
Decollectivization in the early 1980s resulted in the revival of rural marketing, and a limited relaxation of controls on outmigration opened villages and diminished the social boundaries around them. The social world of peasants expanded, and the larger marketing community took on more significance as that of the village proper was diminished. Village membership, once the single most important determinant of an individual's circumstances, became only one of a number of significant factors, which also included occupation, personal connections, and managerial talent. [Ibid]
Loyalty to a Village
Villagers often are born, married and die in the same village. Some die without ever having ventured more than fifty miles away from their homes. People often feel a stronger a loyalty to their village than they do towards their country or ethnic group. Even city dwellers have a strong bond to their home village even if it has been generations since their family lived there. Almost everyone is linked in someway to a village somewhere. During holidays many city people leave the city to return to their villages and many people like to be buried in their village along with their ancestors after they die
Arthur Henderson Smith wrote in “Chinese Characteristics” in 1894: “In China, “this land of devotion to a fixed spot, the citizen is represented by the bee, who though flying ever so widely, always returns to her hive at last. Occidentals are rather imaged in the irresponsible grasshopper, which like Little Jo "moves on," and often appears to have no special attachment .to one place rather then to another, except as the facilities for living off the country may dictate. Thus the Chinese is practically rooted to one point on the surface of this expansive planet, and though he may have wide experience of other regions, this one spot alone is home. It follows from these considerations, that that vast majority of the whole population who do not travel will never have any other associations than those connected with their homes. [Source:“Chinese Characteristics” by Arthur Henderson Smith, 1894. Smith (1845 -1932) was an American missionary who spent 54 years in China. In the 1920s, “Chinese Characteristics” was still the most widely read book on China among foreign residents there. He spent much of his time in Pangzhuang, a village in Shandong.]
The same persons who were their neighbours when they were children, are their neighbours now. No one moves in, no one moves out. The complexion of society changes only by the disappearance of the aged, and the victims of disease or accident, and by the addition of the incessant stream of little ones, all of them parts of the same village and often of the same family circle. In a state of things like this, it is inevitable that in a general way, there should be.no secrets. Everybody knows everything about everybody else, and in return everyone knows everything about him. In an ideal state of society, such a community of information and of interests is no doubt idyllic.But Chinese society is very far from being idyllic.
Most rural Chinese have traditionally lived in villages in the plains and river valleys. In places such as the mountains and dry plains where the land isn’t so productive, villages rarely have more than a 100 households. In places where the land is productive and intensive agriculture is practiced, large villages with 500 or more household are common and these have traditionally been within walking distance of a market town.
Villages usually have no restaurants, no shops, no bus service. There may a tea shop where people socialize and a small store in someone’s house. Some villages are serviced by flat bed trucks that arrive two or three times a week to sell basic groceries. Otherwise to get things one has to travel a considerable distance away. The most remote villages are reached by mountain paths and have no electricity or running water. Making a phone calls requires a hike of several hours to a village large enough to have a store.
Most villages have government propaganda speakers mounted on telephone poles. They come to life in the morning and just before sunset, with village announcements, national news and Communist slogans. Many villages that retain their names from the Maoist era have names like Brigade 281. Most villagers have no idea when their village was founded.
Many villages have a Respect Your Ancestors Hall. Some are in dilapidated condition. Some have never been repaired since the Cultural Revolution when Red Guards destroyed centuries-old murals and painted Maoist slogans..
Chinese traditionally been loyal to their home villages and neighborhoods. Even when they move away they try to return particularly around Chinese New Year.
Villagers often don’t knock when they visit a neighbor; they just walk in.
Villagers rarely see foreigners. If the do see one, they are a source of endless fascination and villagers will stare and stare and stare at them. Villagers also often don’t have a sense of how big cities are. With some villagers, if you tell them you are from Beijing they will aks you if you know so and so.
Villagers assist one another in various ways. They help each other plant and harvest their crops and build their homes. If someone has a serious health problem often everyone in the village who can pitches in at least some money to help pay the medical bills. Villagers also lend a hand taking care of widows and orphans, fighting fires and helping to fix farm equipment.
Village members often belong to the same clan or extended family and have the same last name. Problems are often not openly discussed because they involve family members.
It is not usual for women to have long-running affairs or children by three different husbands, skipping town every time officials swept through looking for unaccounted-for children.
On Near Year’s Day, addresses of local officials are broadcast on the loudspeaker system and officials give liquor and pastries to village elders.
In some places corn is laid on the roads to dry and the few drivers that show up are encouraged to drive back and forth over the corn to help ground it.
Those with television sets often have them running constantly. By the late 2000s, cable television with 50 channels was available in many villages.
Loudspeaker systems left over from the Cultural Revolution are often not used at all or used only to announce infrequent party meetings in the village playground. In some villages they are used to tell villagers how much they owe on their utility bills: “Hut number 2 owes 13 yuan for electricity, 2 yuan for water” and the like.
Villagers rarely ride in vehicles. When they do it is not unusual for them to get car sick.
In some villages with several hundred people no one owns an automobile and a single person owns a phone or cell phone. Many villages were in this situation in the early 2000s but many are beyond that stage now.
The village chief is selected openly.
Real power lies with the Party Secretary who is selected every three years during a closed-door session by local Communist Party members. The selection process is often an exercise in "guangxi" with the process manipulated by township party officials, the next level up from the village. In selection meetings there is little if any talk about platforms and policies. If the township official give a speech praising every thing the existing party secretary has done, the local members echo these sentiments in their speeches and the party secretary is re-elected.
Village governments have a lot of power. They handle major land transactions and can break a 30-year lease for a nominal fee if a city developer wants some land. Village leaders must approve individual applications for government loans.
A typical village council is made up of 18 men and three women members of the Communist Party. Those with the most power are often respected the most by the others and skilled at dealing with higher up officials.
Party membership has traditionally been very selective. These days many urban people see few advantages with joining but in rural areas party members are often still regarded as the elite and membership can protect individual interests. People in a village that have business interests often join the party to protect those interests.
Typical meetings include self criticism sessions and reading of long jargon-filled passages from government documents.
China has already hired 200,000 college graduates as village officials, believing more educated cadres will speed rural development.
No restaurants, no shops, no places to spend money. A few times a week a peddler arrives in a flatbed truck loaded with food and simple household goods for sale. During harvests other trucks show up to buy the harvest.
According to a study by PlaNet Finance, a Paris-based organization, 228 million rural residents are unable to obtain services. The Grameen bank has supported many microcredit programs in China since the mid 1990s but they have only touched the tip of the iceberg.
Many rural people are discriminated against when finding jobs because the have the physique and dark skin of peasants.
Nobel-Prize-Winning Economist Visits Chinese Village
On a visit by 2001 Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz to Dimen, a 500-household Dong village 400 kilometers away from Guiyang in Guizhou Province, Reuters reported: “Keen on the Chinese economy, the former World Bank chief economist scrutinized the Chinese government's 11th five-year plan which described rural development at length and could hardly wait to find out what's going on in China's countryside. [Source: Reuters, March 21, 2007 |+|]
"The improvement of rural infrastructure is impressive," said Stiglitz, "the road, cell phone towers ... there is very good cell phone signal in the rural area. Even in a very small village, there is Internet." he said with a smile. "The Chinese government's policy of building new socialism countryside is contributing to the improvement of living standard in rural areas," he added. But the increasing gap between rich and poor could trigger more social and economic problems, said the professor who won the prize for his "analyses of markets with asymmetric information". |+|
“The photographic enthusiast shot almost everything on his way — the newly-built toilets, farmers, kids, their food and furniture. Boosting the agricultural productivity, creating job opportunities and promoting infrastructure development are important to improve the living standard in rural areas, said Stiglitz. For example, the peasants cannot sell their products to the market without road, and infrastructure development, such as house and road construction can help to create job opportunities, he said, chawing the vegetable grown in the rare cultivable soil of Guizhou. Several years ago, many poor households in the province even had not enough food and clothes for every family member. The local government has therefore promoted emerging industries to help people get rid of poverty. Tourism has been one of those highlighted industries. |+|
“After 30 years of economic reform and open-up, there are still nearly 3 million people, almost eight percent of the province's population, living on an average of 625 yuan (about 81 U.S. dollars) per year in Guizhou. In an earlier interview with a US-based media, Stiglitz suggested not to overestimate China's development and indicated that the country had found her own way of development. Different countries have different choices, China is creating a new market economy model with Chinese characteristics that is consistent with China's distinct circumstances and values, said the economist. |+|
“He elaborated that China's new model focuses on four aspects — the imparity among regions and between urban and rural areas; environment problem; independent innovation; and making the export-oriented economy more dependent on domestic demands. "US has little to teach China about steady economy," said the economist in a published article. Nevertheless, the keen observer suggested the country should improve social welfare to lower its high savings, a strategy to base the already export-fueled economy more on domestic consumption.” |+|
Villages Full of Old People and Left Behind Children in China
These days many villages are empty. The one-child policy has reduced the number of children. Young families often move away. Parents seek migrant worker jobs in the cities. The children of families that remain often go to school in a larger village and town. The only people that remain are the elderly.
In a typical village of 4,000 half the people have left to look for work. Many villages are inhabited almost exclusively by old people, with old men and women even doing the heavy farm work. Other villages are filled mostly with women because most of the men are gone in search of work. In others still the young women have left to work in factories and the young men left behind to do farm work say they are so poor that no women want to marry them.
With parents gone searching for jobs many children are left behind to be brought up by grandparents or other relatives. The only time they see their parents is when they return home over Chinese New Year holiday and even then often the parents don’t make it home because they are required to work at their factory or construction site.
These so called “left-behind” children number in the tens of millions and even hundreds of million because there are that many migrant workers in the cities. One 14-year-old who lived alone for a year after her father left for a construction job told the Los Angeles Times, “My parents are away making money so I can have a better life. But I don’t care about living a better life. I just want them to be home at my side.”
One school principal told the Los Angeles Times, “Most of these students tend to become antisocial and introverted. But in times of conflict, they tend to explode and react in violent extremes.” A school counselor said, “These children are so sad. They have to learn early to fend for themselves. There’s one family where the grandparents are taking care of four children from three of their sons. All of them are away at work. At best they can make sure the kids are clothed and fed. But they can’t fill the emotional emptiness.”
Many villages have lost half their population and their schools have been forced to close down. .
For more on this See Rural Life in China
Many traditional houses with sloping roofs and mud wall have been replaced by modern boxes with brick walls and tile roofs. Streets named after village chiefs are now numbered roads.
When villagers earn a little bit of money often the first thing do is remodel and upgrade their home. Often this is continuous process, as represented by piles of bricks and cement bags in front of the house.
Describing the area outside of heavily industrialized Ningpo, a city 100 miles south of Shanghai, Jonathan Franzen wrote in The New Yorker, “The countryside seethed with improvement; in some villages it was hard to find a house that didn’t have a pile of sand or a stack of bricks in front of it. Farm fields were sprouting factories while, outside the less new factories, the support columns of coming viaducts went up behind scaffolds.”
To improve their villages, leaders are given material like "A Textbook for Urbanizing the Countryside" with passages like: “For hundreds of years and thousands of years, there is a pronounced trend toward small peasant thinking...This creates conflict with the desire to urbanize and improve.” But often it was unclear what their aims were.
These days villages around large cities, especially Beijing, are attracting yuppies, artists, nouveau rich and other people with money who hanker for place in the countryside.
Image Sources: 1) Pole man, Bucklin archives ; 2) Chores, Agroecology ; 3) Sewing ladies, Nolls China website http://www.paulnoll.com/China/index.html
Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.
Last updated September 2021