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How to Destroy a Village

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The Story of One Town and the Changing World
By Liang Hong

Like many Chinese who have migrated to the big city, Liang Hong used to go home for quick trips to visit family, until one year over a decade ago when she was struck by the fact that her village had become unrecognizable. The village center was abandoned, the nearby river polluted, the forest cut down, the local school turned into a pigpen. Violence had increased and almost anyone who could had left.

And so she began recording her thoughts and interviewing locals to find out what had gone wrong. In 2010 she published her findings as “China in Liang Village” (the Chinese title), now translated by Emily Goedde as “China in One Village: The Story of One Town and the Changing World.” The title makes plain Liang’s ambition to explain problems plaguing not only her hometown but also all of Chinese society.

In China the result was a true literary sensation. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies, won many of China’s top literary prizes, spurred imitations and caused a national discussion about the costs of modernization. Liang’s book reflected what she calls a national sense of “psychological homelessness” — a feeling that change has overwhelmed institutions that for millenniums had been the bedrock of Chinese society, especially the family and the village.

A literature professor at Renmin University, Liang uses her research skills to dig into her subject, culling government reports for telling statistics while seeking out officials and even petty thieves for interviews. Though she fictionalizes her hometown’s name and those of the main characters, she pulls no punches.

“China in One Village” begins with an account of the decades of brutish government policies that took power away from villagers. Families that for generations had produced many civic leaders were executed by the Communist government after it took power in 1949.

Then came a series of collective traumas, especially the government-induced Great Famine, from 1958 to 1961, which killed up to 45 million people, including a third of the country’s villagers. At the time, old people were forced to live in collective retirement homes, including Liang’s grandfather. As her father recounted: “When he went in, he was in good health. … Four days later they sent him back on a mat. He was dead.”

Liang tells her stories empathetically, saying in the preface that her book “is literature, first and foremost.” At times it reaches that goal. Still, at other times the chapters feel a bit like a laundry list of issues: the environment, children, mental health, crime, politics. It’s also worth noting that most of her research was done around 2008 — an indication of how slow the movement of translated works is between China and the rest of the world.

Readers today might wonder if a book like this could still be published in China, with censorship much tighter under the Xi Jinping administration than it was in the recent past. The answer is that similar books are still appearing because authors like Liang do not directly challenge the government. She lets officials have their say, which is not only politically astute but also fair-minded. We learn, for instance, that many officials are well versed in local affairs, but also that they tend to pursue quick-fix solutions.

“China in One Village” speaks to universal challenges, problems facing not just Chinese villages but also alienated communities around the world. As Liang puts it, villages like hers feel “no true sense of participation” in the government decisions that are destroying them.


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