by Alec Ash
This Chinese spring festival, I read Pearl Buck’s 1931 novel The Good Earth in the perfect location – the farmlands of Anhui where the book is set. (Read my LARB co-blogger Maura Cunningham’s take on the book here, and check back next week for more analysis.)
Wang Lung, the protagonist, is a farmer who survives famine to strike it rich, eventually moving out of his old home on the land into a great house in town to establish his family in. The countryside of Anhui is no longer famine stricken, but is just about as poor, relative to the rich parts of China, now as then. An hour out of the nearest town (in this case Fuyang in the far northwest), you hit acres of maize fields and hamlets of unheated courtyard houses, still out of reach of paved roads.
So the land is still there – but the farmers are gone. It’s a familiar tale that over the last twenty years, urban migration has stripped the Chinese countryside of its able bodies, as they seek better paid work in the city. As one of them told me on the train to Shanghai, “Where there is money, that’s where my dream is.” Wang Lung, for all his professed love of earth between his toes, would have followed them – as indeed he did in the harshest winter, boarding a “fire wagon” to a rich southern city to work as a rickshaw driver.
And as Wang added two new courtyards (and a concubine) to his home when he prospered, so too do many migrant workers today use their savings to knock up impressive houses in their old villages. At top is a picture of one – three stories with a big front gate, costing 30-40,000 RMB (roughly $5-6,500) by one estimate. The construction is simple enough, and the inside is likely threadbare. It’s just for status. You build two stories, I build three, everyone can see how well I’ve done, and my son can impress potential wives with it.
For fifty weeks of the year, this house like those around it are all but empty. Only grandparents and children are left behind. Everyone else is eating bitterness in the cities, to put money under their mattress. The earth is no longer good for that.
But over spring festival, the village comes alive again. Courtyards fill, families reunite, red wall hangings are strung, hay or coal-fired woks light up, bottles of rice wine and boxes of fireworks are heaped in the corner. Pigs are bought and ate whole – meat, trotter, lung, liver, heart, kidney, intestines, face, ear and “bung”. Neighbors gamble over cards (one game is called “struggle against the landlord”) or Chinese dominoes, and try to find out how much each has earned this year without asking. At night men smoke in a circle around a bag of gunpowder, pausing to stuff some in a fireworks stick, light the fuse with their cigarette and cover their ears.
It’s a fortnight of noise, food, booze, bangs and posturing. And then all that is left is to wish your neighbor gongxifacai (“good fortune in making money”), and leave the village and its land behind again, empty as before.