The Central Plains and Vanishing Rural Life
Culture is the synthesis of humanity’s ways of living and working. The birth and growth of any culture is determined by the basic physical conditions of its existence, and its subsequent development is disturbed by chance occurrences, creating distinctive features. However, the vast majority of these chance occurrences cannot transcend the limitations of those basic conditions; at most, they can alter a culture’s “purity” within its own foundational system.
China is a region with a distinctive agricultural civilization, and it has a long history as an agrarian society. In recent years, the cultural artifacts unearthed in various places in China give evidence for the existence of typical agricultural civilizations eight thousand years ago. (Traces of carbonized rice husks from eight to nine thousand years ago were found on Pengtou Mountain, Li County, Hunan.) In terms of the evolution of biotechnologies (seed selection and hybridization), agriculture in China is more than ten thousand years old. The dominant Chinese farming culture was born in the Yellow River drainage basin, the part of the Central Plains that was most suited to farming. This region has a typical monsoon climate with four clear seasons. The summers are rainy and hot, which suits the growth and management of crops. Annual planting in the spring and harvesting in the autumn gradually nurtured China’s unique agricultural civilization.
All of this is part of rural farming culture in China. The farmers of the agricultural region of the Central Plains live by protecting the land. They did not need to move from place to place, following the water and grass like the northern nomadic peoples, nor did they need to risk seeking out something new and different outside of this environment, which already provided basic necessities for survival. They despised commercial activity and rarely used currency in their transactions. Their space and time were fixed, and life had a formula. They rose with the sun and rested at sunset, and they arranged their lives based on the movements of the sun and the moon. The land was the source of life for Chinese farmers; food and eating were their greatest life goals. Their social lives are essentially limited to their villages, and their political lives center on clan and neighborhood relationships. This is the deeper code of Chinese culture. In the mainstream language used in Chinese territory, a group of linguistic concepts derived from this way of thinking, such as “a responsibility to protect this land” and “the people see food as god,” lay the foundation for the entire Chinese language; corresponding cultural ethics and ideologies have developed from this foundation.
In a China that prioritizes Mandarin Chinese, the only thing that can correspond to or determine the cultural traits of this land is the Han language (Hanyu is literally the “language of the Han people,” but it is now synonymous with “Chinese” or “Mandarin Chinese”). This also means that only the Han language can support the modern goal of the “nation-state” of China. But why the Han language? For a long time, nationalists talked about the greatness of Chinese culture, because any outside group that invaded China was absorbed into or converted to the Han cultural system, thereby becoming “Chinese people.” But was that because of the charms of Han culture? What is “Han culture” exactly? Many of the phrases used are limited to surface-level adjectives such as “great,” “long-standing,” and “deep,” but they do not tell us anything about the true cause of this assimilation. It was really because this land was only suited to farming. Prior to modern industrial civilization, all the laws of the land were rooted in the basic method of farming. Once the intrepid plateau peoples made it south of the Great Wall, they had to let their horses go and adopt the local customs. The farmland was crisscrossed with footpaths, and there was no place to pasture animals. They could not live or work as nomadic herders; they could only settle down, follow village lifestyles, and fit into social institutions.
In Chinese history, agricultural production methods and rural ways of life were highly similar, a monotonous, endless cycle of manual labor, eating, farming, harvesting, and reproduction. Ancient Chinese agricultural civilization persisted for several thousand years in a state almost entirely devoid of creativity. “Surviving,” a word often sighed by ordinary people, permeated the ancient history of China prior to the modern era. Surviving meant eating and laboring, and eating was the most important thing of all. Only when you had eaten your fill would you have energy, and only then could you work and produce the next generation. Eating is a part of life, the key to life, and an inherent value of Chinese culture. If we don’t examine this more deeply, we cannot uncover many of the profound mysteries of Chinese culture.
More than twenty years ago, Wu Qiang, a photographer from Pingdingshan in Henan, began to take photographs of life in the Central Plains countryside. The series encompasses Central Plains farmers working in the fields, as well as rural economic and cultural activities. Wu thoroughly understands farming people, and he sees their deepest need: eating. He also noticed the spaces in which the farmers ate, typical “eating places.” “Eating places” (fanchang) is a word in Henan dialect that refers to a space or setting in the countryside, a public place in the village where people gather to eat. Eating places can be anywhere and are not dedicated spaces; they can be in an open area in the village or simply in the street outside the gates of two homes. At every meal time, people in the village will pile the food that they have made in a big bowl and bring it outside. People stand or sit, sharing this meal time with their neighbors who are doing exactly the same thing. In this short period of time, they might cover a range of topics, from conventional greetings and small talk to social and political news and market prices to family issues and other families’ private matters to the local crops. For the village residents, this is a very important space and time; it is a basic part of their lives. Relationships between neighbors, clan and family ties, opinions on village governance, hearsay, and even TV show gossip are subjects that can be discussed at these eating places. They are an important part of cultural life in the village, they are places where farmers gather and disseminate information, and they are microcosms of village society.
In Wu Qiang’s photographs, eating places are vital, authentic, and full of little details. From the details and codes in these pictures, we can decipher historical and cultural secrets. Wu has photographed a wide array of eating places, whether grand scenes of collective dining or individuals squatting at their own front gates or eating as they walk. Men and women, old and young chat and eat together; there is also fast food made by groups of uniformed women. All of the images have one thing in common: almost all the meals do not take place in specific eating spaces as we understand them, with people sitting up straight and eating around a table. Instead, they squat or stand, and sometimes they sit on rocks. This shows that they are still part of nature, that they have not entirely distanced themselves from the natural environment. Most often, these villagers hold a big bowl with rice and vegetables in both hands, or hold a steamed bun in one hand and a bowl of vegetables in the other. These details show that there is no ceremony to eating for traditional farmers, much less “table manners.” Eating is a natural act, part of survival. Here, eating is very simple and casual, without the rules and taboos related to eating that have arisen in modern society. Of course, they have even less need for the “beauty” standards established with the modernization of Europe, or the grace required of the “gentleman,” a type that originated in Western Europe in the seventeenth century. The villages of the past and the people who lived there did not have the conditions necessary to produce gentlemen; the earth, simple homes, and rough food provided a basic foundation for Chinese civilization.
Language is the most important conduit of cultural transmission, but in addition to verbal communication, we cannot ignore the influence of body language in perpetuating culture, or as an important part of cultural research. Because body language is a direct expression of lifestyle, it is an important cultural symbol that cannot be overlooked. Recording and studying body language allows us to more directly reflect on our own history and compare the past, the present, and the future in the evolution of our history. This is the textual significance of Wu Qiang’s records of these eating places. In addition to the eating places, Wu’s photographs include numerous records of rural life in the Central Plains in Henan, which give us a panoramic view of historical situations that have rapidly disappeared in the last thirty years of social change. We unfortunately see that the country lifestyles and small-scale farmers that have persisted for thousands of years are disappearing. Chinese agriculture is transitioning to larger-scale, more intensive modern farming methods—moving on to the next chapter.
We must keep in mind that China is an ancient Eastern nation that built a country and a culture on agriculture. China, along with the agrarian cultures of ancient Babylon in Mesopotamia, the Indus River and Ganges River valleys in ancient India, and the Nile River valley in Egypt are collectively known as the four great ancient civilizations of world history. When the world entered into the industrial era, existing agrarian cultures faced massive pressures, and there was a corresponding transformation in the cultural realm. However, this transformation process has not ended; much of it has just started. The cultures from these two different types of civilization are still undergoing an intense process of collision and fusion, so even as we remember our origins and the problems we must confront, this is the most urgent issue today. It is immensely meaningful that Wu Qiang’s pictures of the Central Plains are presented just as this issue is being raised.
30 July 2018