Restoring rural life to simplicity and frugality

Phillip Chao
Rapid urbanization has so transformed village life that it sometimes led to fractures. The evolving perception about gift money might serve as an example.
Phillip Chao

City dwellers in China sometimes have an idealized notion of rural life, which is supposedly about peace, trees, peasants working the soil and their children romping around. Having spent most of my childhood in a village in southern Jiangsu Province, however, my understanding of rural life is more nuanced.

For one thing, rapid urbanization has so transformed village life that it sometimes led to fractures. The evolving perception about gift money might serve as an example.

In the past, rural funerals and weddings were fairly simple. When my parents got married in the early 1990s, only the closest friends and relatives were invited. There were no sophisticated rituals, and the dishes and desserts were organic and prepared by my grandparents. But in recent years, many rural residents have become used to lavish banquets on many occasions: birthdays, college admissions, weddings and funerals are just some of them. Last year I went to a funeral in the village where I used to live. The entire village was invited, including those who had already moved to the city. I was surrounded by a horde of guests, most of whom neither I nor my parents had ever met. A famous local band and an opera troupe were invited to perform. The banquet started after the performance. The long line of tables and chairs stretched all the way from one end of the village to the other.

Such feasting, complete with breakfasts, lunches and dinners, can last for three days. When that feast was over, the whole place looked like a battlefield: untouched dishes left on the table, wine bottles scattered everywhere and the ground littered with cigarette butts.

The chief incentive for giving such banquets is, of course, receiving gift money. The amount of gift money received can be a source of pride reflecting positively on the host’s status. Ironically, a few parasitic villagers would go to those banquets uninvited, enjoying free meals, asking the host for cigarettes or even money. The hosts would as a rule yield to such requests to avoid spoiling the fun.

After the banquet that day, the host revealed to us that he had received over one hundred red envelopes, each containing 200 to 1,000 yuan (US$29.5-150). This time he was happy because he was on the receiving end. He might feel more ambivalent next time when he is invited to a feast. Such gift-money already constitutes a heavy burden for many villagers. But giving such feasts can be costly for their own sake. As Xinhua reported in 2014, in some villages in Fujian Province, a single banquet might cost 200,000 to 500,000 yuan, while average annual family income was 100,000 yuan. The tendency to give more extravagant banquets resulted partly from the desire to outdo the relatives or neighbors.

Such extravagance aggravated the burdens of the villagers and wasted money and resources, with some local governments trying to limit the costs of a banquet and the number of invited guests. According to the above mentioned Xinhua report, after 25 villages in one region had enacted this policy, an estimated 90 million yuan had been saved in one year.

The practice of giving and receiving gift money had provided breeding ground for corruption, since bribery becomes easier when it takes the form of “gifts.” There have been in recent years many reports of officials named and shamed for receiving gift money.

In the on-going campaign to make rural China more beautiful, much has been done in improving rural infrastructure and landscaping. But an equally important dimension is how to restore rural life to simplicity, frugality and sincerity it was once known for.

The author is an intern at Shanghai Daily.

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