Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Jeremy Brown's "City Versus Countryside in Mao's China"

Jeremy Brown is Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Simon Fraser University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, City Versus Countryside in Mao's China: Negotiating the Divide, and reported the following:
Page 99 features a man named Wang Kaiwen, a “downsized worker” who is one of the most compelling and tragic characters in the book. In the aftermath of the Great Leap famine, Wang was tricked into giving up his urban residency and sent to a village outside of Tianjin:
When people like Wang Kaiwen behaved badly, refused to work, and repeatedly complained to higher levels, it was not surprising that some villagers considered returnees an unwelcome burden. Wang was allowed to relax in Duliu for two days in August 1961 before being assigned to collective work. His first task was to help with the fall harvest, but he only worked for half a day and then disappeared. Wang’s production team searched all over for him to no avail. He eventually reappeared, and the next day he was told to watch over the crops, but he refused to go. On a third occasion, Wang worked a half day and then rode his bicycle back to Tianjin.
Wang’s story is representative of the book as a whole in a number of ways: first, his desperate struggle to regain city residency shows how people at the grassroots understood the rural-urban divide in terms of work and family. Wang was aggrieved that he had lost his salaried job and become a peasant, and constantly worried that he would not be able to find a wife in the countryside. He was right to worry. Second, his biweekly trips between Tianjin and Duliu explode the myth that city and village were cut off from each other during the Mao Zedong era. Finally, his case is a good example of how I use archival documents alongside oral history interviews.

The thick dossier about Wang held at the Hexi District Archive ends abruptly in 1965. I wanted to know how his story turned out, so I tried to track him down. When I rode my bicycle to the old Tianjin address that was listed in the files, I found that his family’s original home had been demolished and replaced by high-rise apartments. I then asked an official at the local street office if she could help me find a man named Wang Kaiwen who used to live in the neighborhood. “He was just here yesterday,” she said, and offered to put me in touch. A few weeks later, Wang was telling me his life story. After contesting his downsizing and bicycling between Duliu and Tianjin for almost thirty years, he finally regained legal urban residency in 1990, but he was not done fighting. Wang told me that he would be going to Beijing soon to petition at the State Council. He was demanding that his years of labor in the countryside be counted toward his pension.
Learn more about City Versus Countryside in Mao's China at the Cambridge University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue