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Liang Hong’s China in One Village is structured around the author’s personal experience of a homecoming. Photo: Courtesy of Liang Hong

Review | Liang Hong’s bestseller on rural Chinese life is a lucid account of those left behind by China’s modernisation

  • First published in 2010, China in One Village became an unlikely bestseller that pioneered a trend of popular non-fiction exploring identity and place in China
  • The book’s stories are worth far more than the statistics usually invoked in accounts of the pro­found change that has swept China

China in One Village: The Story of One Town and the Changing World by Liang Hong. Verso

Over the past 40 years, China has urbanised at a faster rate than any country in history. By 2035, the government estimates that 70 per cent of the country’s population – around a billion people – will be living in cities. Astonishing, if uneven, economic growth has attended China’s reinvention, but in the decades since the process of reform and opening began, in 1978, the Communist Party has largely failed to address an inconvenient question: if most of China’s people are moving to cities, what happens to those left behind?

Liang Hong’s China in One Village explores this dilemma through the story of her own home village, in landlocked and traditionally agricultural Henan province. First published in China in 2010, it became an unlikely bestseller, won a number of national prizes and pioneered a trend of popular non-fiction exploring identity and place in China.

China in One Village fuses modes of first-person narration. Despite its sociological bent, the book is structured around the author’s personal experience of a homecoming: her return to Liang village after many years studying and working in Beijing. The contrast is acute: when she arrives at the railway station with her young son, he points to the muddy, rubbish-covered platform – and declares he does not want to get off.

China in One Village by Liang Hong.

Interspersed between these sections of authorial experience are the transcribed stories of those Liang interviewed during her stay at home. These range from those of her own father, who reveals the terrible persecution he experienced during the Cultural Revolution, to the local party secretary, a seemingly well-intentioned official who nevertheless concludes his account with the fatalistic observation that “in the end the problem is simply that our country is too big, there’s too much countryside. It can’t be helped.”

What elevates the book into the realm of literature is Liang’s lyrical prose, full of pathos. In her account, the profound physical changes to the fabric of the village over the years since her childhood become resonant metaphors for the loss of a viable, sustainable way of life.

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Liang, whose scholarly background is in literature rather than sociology, writes powerfully of the old village pond, now “nothing more than a shallow ditch filled with dead water”, the river that has disappeared, and the date tree in their old family house, now slowly dying: “In the height of summer, most of the trunk is withered, and only a few yellowed leaves remain as proof of life. After we were gone, who saw the date’s lush foliage, its little white flowers, its small green dates? Who ate those dates, mellow, round, and full?”

China in One Village offers a bleak assessment of the trajectory on which Liang village is set. Those who have not relocated to more prosperous parts of the country seem beset by misery and tragedy. At points, the stories Liang recounts approach the brutal hopelessness of fictional accounts of rural China from writers such as Yan Lianke and Ma Jian. “We have forgotten what a scholar once said,” she writes. “‘Modernization is a classic tragedy. For every benefit it brings, it asks the people to pay with all they hold of value.’”

Yet, by the book’s end, the author has come to question her understanding of life in Liang village. She comes to see the problems villagers face as “only one part of life, taken in and dealt with. It’s as if I’ve been looking for some poetic tragedy or even just to find fault.”

Children and adults stand outside a house in a village in China’s Henan province circa 1984. Photo: Roger Viollet via Getty Images

Liang’s self-doubt is refreshing, and her refusal to extrapolate too ambitiously from these single data points admirable. “I remain hesitant and uncertain,” she comments. “Things are always different, depending on whether they’re seen from within or without.”

China in One Village is, then, a lucid, accessible account of rural Chinese life, its stories worth far more than the statistics usually invoked in accounts of the pro­found change that has swept China.

It is now 11 years since its original publication, however. In a country that changes as quickly as China, this is a lifetime, and rural policies have altered significantly in the intervening years. In 2013, Xi Jinping set a deadline for rural counties to eradicate poverty by 2020, and in recent years this endeavour has gathered pace. The Chinese government has flung billions of yuan at trying to meet its own deadline and, in the year of the 100th anniversary of the Communist Party, assert its legitimacy afresh.

Liang addresses some more recent changes in an afterword, and she continues to publish fiction and non-fiction accounts of Liang village. We can only hope that these also find a home in English-language translation.