In my post on the brief of ethnography in response to a jaded urban Chinese worker, I mentioned the tribulations under Maoism of many urbanites on being sent down to the countryside.
The memories of my splendid Chinese fieldworker friends are just as painful. Among various Beijing colleagues who have accompanied me over the years, one recalls his family starving as a young boy in Shandong around 1960; another, witnessing colleagues being crushed to death in dangerous mines in Gansu in the Cultural Revolution; yet another, being exiled to a rural “May 7th Cadre School”.
For our local assistants, the countryside may have even more direct associations: I sometimes found myself taking them back to the very villages where they had taken part in “tempering through manual labour” during the Four Cleanups campaigns of the early 1960s.
From bitter personal experience, they have no reason to idealise rural life. Thankfully, the bright new generation of Chinese fieldworkers have been spared such sufferings—though this also makes it harder for them to empathise with the life stories of our peasant masters.
So as our fieldwork in Hebei and Shanxi took off in the 1990s, my friends must have felt as if they were being dragged back into “going down to the countryside to join in the brigade” (xiaxiang chadui 下乡插队). But it wasn’t me who was dragging them—I was following them—and they too were following in the footsteps of intrepid previous generations of Chinese fieldworkers.
We were all aware of the phrase attributed to Confucius, no less:
“When the rites are lost, seek throughout the countryside”
li shi qiu zhuye 礼失求诸野。
Still, occasional forays were all very well, but I began to feel the need for longer stays. For me—safely armed with my passport and return air-ticket—sleeping on the kang brick-bed of my wonderful host Cai An in Gaoluo, fetching water from the well, slurping noodles with doufu and cabbage from chipped bowls at funerals, and even visiting the latrine by the pigsty, still had a certain exotic frisson.
While my Chinese friends shared my excitement at discovering such a wealth of material on ritual life in society, their other consolation was that this new rural exile was (semi-?!) voluntary—and that there was a clear time-limit on it. In those days their living conditions in the dilapidated Music Research Institute in Beijing were far less comfortable than they were later to become, with the huge improvement in living standards and their own growing reputation. But apart from the demands on their time in Beijing, extended stays might be somewhat beyond the call of duty. Still, they entered the fray with spirit, and the fruits of their labours are outstanding.
See also my Plucking the winds, pp.234–5.