I visited my old family home in rural Lianyungang a couple of weeks ago.
As on my last trip a year ago, I immediately lost my way after getting out of the taxi.
It would be embarrassing to ask “Where is my home?”, and it was a miracle that I did not walk into the wrong house.
Around the place that was once my home, there had arisen at least five identical two-story buildings. They have totally transformed the landscape with which I was once familiar.
Traditionally, a typical rural residence is a three-room, one-story house with a spacious courtyard where trees and flowers can be planted.
The ability to erect an imposing house has always been a point of honor for a peasant, and this has practical implications. It is one of the most important qualities to impress future daughters-in-law.
In the past construction of these homes were, more or less, the effort of one, or several, generations. Construction and expansion were totally dependent on family circumstances, so condition of a house was a fairly reliable predictor of a family’s economic status.
What I recently observed is that erecting multi-story rural residences seems to have become a mass movement.
Any village family had either just constructed one, was in the process of construction, or was planning to build one.
It might have been particularly painful for villagers to tear down houses which, when they were erected a couple of years ago, were still objects of envy.
The cost of putting up a two-story rural residence there is around 300,000 yuan (US$48,000), an astronomical sum for most Chinese, rural or otherwise.
Since it is obviously impossible for any rural resident to scrape together enough by subsistence farming, this building boom is clearly a mandate for young men to mend their fortune at cities.
As a matter of fact, any prime-age village males seen in the village in this season are typically viewed with suspicion, or even stigmatized.
What with the building boom and the lack of young labor, I found the village construction teams included a number of middle-aged women and elderly men.
Racket of progress
Although technically young villagers are still farmers, their reputation and good name are largely defined by their resolution to flee the soil.
In evincing their disdain for and distrust of the soil, the new peasants have developed an uncanny affinity to the cement, and are aggressively turning their farmland to any non-agricultural use, or simply sanitizing the soil by removing it from view and paving it with concrete.
So when I suggested setting aside a small plot in the courtyard for a tree and some shrubs, a neighbor was taken aback. He observed that the space should definitely be reserved as a parking space for a car in the future.
The village leaders, persuaded of the link between roads and prosperity, are eagerly criss-crossing the small village with concrete lanes and roads.
In doing so, they are also impressing their superiors and demonstrating that they do not lack ambition and entrepreneurship.
The village lanes, like the nearby highways, are wide, but bare of any trees on the sides that might shelter pedestrians from the sun in summer. Villager leaders probably believe having big trees along the way is a backward practice evocative of the past. Manicured shrubs and flowers are more in fashion.
When the prime-age youth of a village are imbibing urban manners in their adopted cities, the moral fiber of rural society (generally believed to be a stronghold of traditional values) is suffering visible decay.
The form of address among villagers used to be dictated strictly by kinship ties. Such ties are now greatly weakened. One of my neighbors around my age used to address me respectfully as “elderly grandfather,” but I found him equivocating during my recent trip.
One younger teenage villager who was fairly near to my clan once failed to address my mother upon seeing her. When my mother took this up with his mother, the boy’s mother dismissed it lightly: “Few are the kids who know how to address others properly today.”
When young men in their prime spend a long time in cities, they are spared the gossip of their neighbors, and enjoy the anonymity of urban freedom. Many of them probably are happy they do not need to pay gift money at many weddings and funerals back home. And they do not need to give money to relatives who have fallen ill.
From my observation, gift money is about the only vestige of kinship ties today.
Have the villagers urbanized? On the look of it, yes. Like urbanites, houses are now their ruling passion and aspiration. Like urbanites, they are gossiping casually about astronomical sums of relocation compensation.
A village relative of mine got 1.2 million yuan in compensation when her home was taken over for development, and it was observed that unless her family acted quickly, before long their new fortune will not be enough to buy them a decent flat in that area.
But these villagers are far from enjoying the full amenities due to true urbanites.
My 10-year-old son, after examining one imposing country mansion, composed a couplet: Seen from afar, they look like villas. Viewed within, they are just cottages.
They have installed flush toilets in their new homes, but these toilets are strictly ornamental, for they are not supported by a sewage system.
Much of their satisfaction is derived vicariously. Quite a few villagers have had the satisfaction of discussing with me the cost of owning such an edifice in big cities.
While I still have no idea how an average villager can finance the construction of a cottage villa, I do not have the slightest doubt as to their contribution to local GDP.
Just think of the cost of nearly everything, the peasants’ indebtedness, and the size of rural China, and you will not doubt that an urbanized China will lead to decades of heady growth.
The village is getting restless. I returned to the village with the hope of appreciating the nocturnal sound of insects.
That sound was drowned out by the perpetual noise from an apparatus at a farm-turned-fishing pond nearby.
I dreamed of getting a breath of fresh air, but depending on how the wind blew, the air could be heavily scented by the pig manure from a sizable farm nearby.
I took my son there to initiate him into the beauty of the countryside, but only succeeded in convincing him of the advantages of being a true-born urbanite.