A Fine Line Between Town and Country

By: and Alex Chen

October 22, 2018

Hello from China! My name is Alex and I’ve just completed my first year in the cultural anthropology PhD program. I am conducting fieldwork in southeast China currently, where I am working with a social enterprise that conducts social impact trip for Chinese high school students hoping to attend college in the US or UK. In these trips, they act as junior consultants to a local social enterprise hoping to make a difference in the lives of locals. They start their trip by getting to know the place and the people who live there, and end their trip by producing a deliverable: proposing project ideas for the local social enterprise.

The author takes a selfie with some of his friends and colleagues.

There are about 15 students or so, with a couple of mentors who lead them in small group exercises throughout the 2-week long trip. I am one of these mentors, and here you can see me with two other mentors and one of the students during our mid-week break retreat next to a beautiful lake. The students come from cosmopolitan cities like Shanghai and Beijing. China is a big place so many have not traveled to the cities where the trips are taking place. One of them is a smaller city in China, and we are working in the outskirts of the city, about an hour or two away from the city center. These supposedly more rural areas are seen as underdeveloped, often with “left behind children” who don’t have nearly as many resources as the more privileged high school students. The local social enterprises work in elementary schools, and as part of the trip the high school students engage with elementary school students in doing everything from running a summer camp to interviewing the kids.

Typical urban scene, with many 5-7 story tall apartment blocks from the 1980s. Photo by author.

What is interesting to me is the whole gamut of different scales and densities of settlements, in particular, their relationships to one another. There are “tiers” of cities that denote their relative importance, as well as nested district structures. This is not unlike the US, where we have small and large cities, as well as villages inside towns, towns inside counties, counties inside states, and, of course, many states make up the country. In the US, however, I understand these differences to be more regional, that is they constitute autonomous identities that are on par with one another. In China, I’m surprised by how easily people talk about the differences in scale between cities, especially as they relate to economic development and resource allocation. People think quite consciously about these differences.

The above picture is a typical urban scene in the second-tier city where I’m currently working, with many blocks of medium-height concrete apartment towers, virtually all with retail space on the bottom. These are largely local businesses, and cosmopolitan brands are located in large shopping malls or along the highway. Below is a nighttime photo from our hotel, which was right next to Western food chains like Pizza Hut and KFC. Despite the presence of these restaurants, the social entrepreneurs who work with the students often refer to the site as “rural” to the confusion of the students and me. In what way could KFC be construed as rural? In places as brightly lit as this, can we still use the descriptor, “rural?”

Night scene along the highway connecting the city center to villages that are newly incorporated as districts. Note the KFC sign to the left. Photo by author.
Interior of a contemporary shopping mall, with a gigantic banner listing the core socialist values. Photo by author.

The idea of rural underdevelopment under-girds the “impact” that these high school students are supposed to make during their trip. Without this hierarchy, it would be impossible to make a “change.” The whole idea of social impact revolves around solving problems, but the division between rural and urban areas are key to fashioning the problem, even as the explicit agenda is more specific. For example, on one trip we tested water quality at rural elementary students. There was a sense that they deserved and needed clean water, which, though true, would not have quite the same perceived impact if the high schoolers have been working, say, in Shenzhen.In recruiting the students to these trips, the brochures posit these rural areas problematic areas, ready to receive the attention of the more privileged students. Growing up in more urban, cosmopolitan areas, the students are drawn to this narrative of difference. There’s nothing more impactful on the admissions essay than this life-changing experience mixed with service work. The students, in other words, are ready for change, and have prepared themselves to learn large lessons.

The expectation of this transition, between urban and rural, and developed to not, is checked when the students realize that the situation is a lot blurrier than is easily observable. We stayed at a budget hotel, and the students live in comfortable accommodations, being able to buy milk tea every day and eat out at fast food restaurants. I asked one of them if they considered their setting to be “rural,” and he shook his head and laughed. The picture above shows the interior of a shopping mall with a banner in the atrium listing the core socialist values. This contrast, between obvious symbols of capitalist consumption vs. holdovers from earlier histories of the Peoples Republic of China is the paradox that we are used to in many post-socialist settings. It is the norm that is expected by the students, yet in this contrast there is a great space in which a variety of urban forms can be seen as normal. In other words, because the scene was so similar to their hometowns, it took tremendous efforts to conceive of their work places as “rural.”

Stone village, where many elementary students live. Photo by author.

About half an hour’s walk from the hotel, through winding streets, the students and I suddenly end up at the “stone village,” where many of the elementary school students live. Moving through endless concrete urban mazes, we were all taken aback when we suddenly stumbled upon the “rural” that we had been looking for. Of course, on the inside of the homes we find the same smart phones and flat screens that decorate the medium-rise apartment towers, and it remains a challenge to conceive of them as distinctly rural. On the inside, the houses are all electrified and we no longer find analog farming implements; on the outside, the stone village is situated literally right next to complexes of apartment blocks. As the second-tier city grows and “urbanizes,” it swallows up the old village, framing them on a map and sequestering them behind buildings that face urban corridors. Only by going down the alley could we find the dots of “rural” embedded in the “urban fabric.” Yet within the fabric analogy, can we really draw as clear a line between “rural” and “urban” as everything is interwoven? More importantly, what kinds of work do these lines do? How are they managed and created? I hope to delve more into this through future research.