Politics / Society

“Poverty is not socialism. To be rich is glorious.”

Understanding the urban/rural divide in China

by Kristina P., Marion Bouvier

peasants reading little red book china mao cultural revolution

Chinese peasants reading Mao’s Little Red Book. Photograph released by the Chinese News Agency in 1969.

In Imperial China, people involved in the agricultural sector constituted by far the largest part of the population. But like in many other civilizations, the divide between the ‘rural’ and the ‘urban’ was already entrenched. The aristocracy of course dominated the social hierarchy, and the greatest achievement that the (male) offspring of rich families could aspire to was to pass the imperial examination (科举 keju).

Such exams were implemented as early as the Han dynasty (around the 2nd century BC), and became a major feature of the Empire around the 7th century, under the Tang dynasty. Successful candidates were appointed to various positions in the imperial administration, and derived great social prestige from it. The exams mostly required memorizing a number of literary texts and literary styles, which sometimes required years of study to pass the highest-ranked exams. Intellectual work therefore became the mark of higher classes, while conversely manual work embodied low-class, unrefined and undesirable labor. To show that they did not any menial work, rich men liked to let their nails grow and took great care of maintaining them in perfect condition, a practice which can still be seen in modern China with men growing their baby fingers’ nails.

Peasants vs. Merchants: a long-standing ideological divide

Besides the aristocracy and intelligentsia, merchants and other middle-class urbanites also sought to distinguish themselves from the labor class, which was considered of lower worth. But on the other hand, the “stupidity” and simplicity of the peasantry inspired a rather idealized and romanticized view of rural life. A good example of that comes from the chapter titled ‘Value of Agriculture’ in “Mister Lü’s Spring and Autumn [Annals]”[1] (compiled around 239 BC), and summarized by Fung Yu-Lan as such:

“In this chapter a contrast is made between the mode of life of people who are engaged in the “root” occupation –the farmers, and that of those who are engaged in the “branch” occupation –the merchants. The farmers are primitive and simple and therefore always ready to accept commands. They are childlike and innocent and therefore unselfish. Their material properties are complex and difficult to move, and therefore they do not abandon their country when it is in danger. Merchants, on the other hand, are corrupt and therefore not obedient. They are treacherous and therefore selfish. They have simple properties which are easy to transport, and therefore they usually abandon their country when it is in danger. Hence this chapter asserts that not only is agriculture economically more important than commerce, but the mode of farmers is also superior to that of the merchants. [2]

And in fact, the distinction drawn in “Mister Lü’s Spring and Autumn [Annals]” between farmers and merchants is not far from the one that prevails between rural and urban people today. The understanding of these “essential differences” between the rural and the urban has not changed much since the 3d century BC (when the “Annals” were written). However, one could say that people’s values are dramatically shifting towards the merchants’: the lifestyle of farmers is no longer deemed superior to that of the merchants, and on the contrary farmers dream of living merchants’ lives, and money has become the central tool to gauge someone’s worth.

The triumph of money: a revenge on decades of material hardships?

mao zedong peasants china agriculture propaganda poster

A propaganda poster for the 1966 Cultural Revolution, showing Mao Zedong leading the way to a glorious future amid an idealized view of the countryside. ©Universal History Archive/Getty Images

In modern China, people, freed from the fetters of Maoism, thrive to finally attain a level of material comfort and security, something that was not only hard to have but also something that could put one’s life in danger during the Communist era. This phenomenon brings to mind Nietzsche’s theory of Christian values as being imposed by a frustrated minority determined to take revenge on the privileged majority[3]. Likewise, it seems that in human history, there is a perpetual cycle of changes during which the domination of one group over another ends at some point, and instead of giving way to an equal society, a new period of domination begins. Those people who break free from the yoke of oppression, in their longing to enjoy what they have been deprived of, seem to tend to embrace the domination practices of their own oppressors.

In China, once the Qing dynasty was toppled at the beginning of the 20th century, the fight for power engendered a succession of civil wars instead of the democratic egalitarian Republic that the revolutionary leaders had so ardently sought. It led to the advent of the Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Chek who was effectively closer to a dictator than a President, and ultimately to the crowning of Mao Zedong. Mao, who had always advocated the “democratic dictatorship of the peasants and urban workers”, became in fact the sole dictator of a terror-led country, and his policies triggered the most lethal famine in world history. Instead of pacifying a country that had already suffered so much under foreign vexations, the years of civil war, and the invasion of China by Japan, the political decisions of the Communist regime added fuel to the fire of people’s wounds, anger, confusion[4].

During the Cultural Revolution (1966 – 1976), people were not given the means to reconcile with their neighbors, to build a new future on the acceptance of the hardships of the past. On the contrary, they were told to destroy everything belonging to the past, to the enemies of the Nation (which were defined arbitrarily and based on criteria such as wearing glasses–and therefore being an intellectual), to massacre their own memories and to unleash their pain onto other individuals–really scapegoats. The Communist party thus built an illusionary world based on an alienating dichotomy of Good and Bad in which morality had no place.

In this context, it is not surprising that once again, when the economic liberalization was elevated to the rank of new national religion (starting from the 1980s), the previously despised merchants and entrepreneurs would want to take their revenge and, with indirect and more metaphorical violence, would reduce peasants and manual workers to a lessened condition.

The plight of rural workers in Chinese cities

migrant workers beijing construction site china

Migrant workers at lunch break on a construction site in Beijing. ©Reuters, via Liberation.fr

After China’s economic boom in the late 1970s, migrant workers (民工 Mingong) coming from rural areas started flocking the cities in search of better wages in order to send money back to their families. What adds to their plight is that they have little access to public and social services (school, hospitals, etc.) because the hukou (戶口, household registration) system legally prevents them from settling in a different city than the one in which they were initially registered[5]. Mingong have to work in incredibly harsh conditions for ridiculous salaries, to the point that many of them commit suicide[6].

But however miserable their lives are made by governmental policies, they attract little compassion and are on the contrary regarded as backward, dirty and undesirable. In fact, migrant workers have little choice but to live in these conditions if they want to maintain as much dignity as possible by earning whatever money they can, and sending it back to their families in hope that their children will have the chance to a different life. One could say that it is a universal fact that people do not mind living in a society that foster inequalities, as long as they are not themselves discriminated against.

In China, this phenomenon is especially acute because the country’s development has been so quick and remarkable that the gap between urban and rural areas has brutally widened, as well as the distinction between “modern” and “backward” people. In short, those who were the first to jump onto the train of economic modernization won everything, when there were only scraps left for the ones that had climbed into the last wagon.

migrant workers china 1990s

Migrant workers sharing a minimal living space. Photograph ©黄一鸣 Huang Yiming, 1993

Besides, peasants may have been idealized in Chinese history to some extent, but at the same time in reality those in power remained from high-society families. Emperors and people at court were all cultivating intellectual and artistic abilities rather than spending time working manually for economic production. Refinement and education were highly valued throughout the Chinese dynasties, as shown by the official examinations that, if successful, were amongst the most honorable social status one could be attributed. The lyrical evocation of peasants and their attachment to their country should therefore not cloud the fact that none of the rich and powerful would have traded their lifestyles with an actual farmer.

In fact, one could consider the Maoist years more as an exception to the rule than as a defining and enduring period when it comes to the values that permeate Chinese society. Unbridled capitalism–which has been de facto elevated to the rank of new state religion– demands that in order to gain power and to attain a materially comfortable life, there needs to be division of labor that places the economically productive at the bottom of the pyramid. And those who got fortunate enough to avoid the lowest levels seem to have no intention to change the status quo, fearing that themselves could soon enough see the tables turn and end up amongst the oppressed.


The main title’s quote is from Deng Xiaoping, former Chairman of the Communist Party of China.

[1] 吕氏春秋 (Lüshi Chunqiu), full text available here (in Chinese): http://ctext.org/lv-shi-chun-qiu/zh

[2] FUNG, Yu-Lan, A Short History of Chinese Philosophy, 2007, Tianjin Shehui Kexueyuan Chubanshe, p30

[3] NIETZSCHE, Friedrich, Twilight of the Idols and The Antichrist, 1991, Penguin Books

[4] All historical references are taken from : SCHOPPA, Keith, Revolution and Its Past, Identities and Change in Modern Chinese History, 2011, Pearson Education

[5] A change of hukou registration to live in a different city can be rather easily obtained by those coming from urban areas and/or the wealthy, but it is almost impossible for those coming from poor background and/or rural areas.

[6] See for example: Suicide as Protest for the New Generation of Chinese Migrant Workers: Foxconn, Global Capital, and the State, Jenny Chan and Ngai Pun, available at http://japanfocus.org/-Ngai-Pun/3408


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