I trod somewhat hesitantly through the weeds that sprouted here and there over the narrow mud ridge between fields.  On one side, fluffy white clumps of cotton peeked from low shrubbery.  On the other, a few haystacks sat atop the empty furrows that ran down the gentle slope of the hill.  In front of me, I could see the rather more sure-footed stride of our host, with his wiry frame clad in a dark blue peasant’s jacket, as he led the way down toward the water.  Not far ahead of him, a cluster of thin grey tree trunks, nearly without leaves, rose eerily from the water at the edge of the huge lake.  A couple of brighter patches in an otherwise grey sky did little to lift the air of gloom over the scene.  Beyond the trees, grey water stretched out to meet, almost indistinctly, the equally grey sky.  It looked as if going beyond the shoreline, one would step into a void.

Our host was my girlfriend’s distant relative.  We had come to this village in northern Hunan to see, for the first time, the place of her father’s birth, where he had lived for a few years as a child.  We had come armed with printouts from Google Maps, some rather ambiguous directions based on his recollections from one visit back a decade ago, and the phone number of this fellow who lived nearby.

Despite the gloom overhead, the place had some obvious warmth from the ground up.  The narrow roads on which we had driven into the village had wound through low hills dotted with green bushes and patches of the glowing reddish-gold soil of the area. I have always felt that Hunan has more texture to it than the flat expanses, blotched with urban sprawl, that make up much of eastern China.  On seeing the landscape of the village, my girlfriend–a longtime fan of hobbitry–had exclaimed that it looked rather like the Shire.  And when we had paused to ask directions at one point amid the maze of roads, a bright-eyed old farmer had got in the back seat and struck up a warm conversation once he found out that she was related to the inhabitants.

By traditional Chinese standards, that she had never come here before did not change the fact that it was her ancestral village.  This idea has loosened somewhat of late–no one has “ancestral village” on their documents any more–but even one of my urban friends said that, of course, it was her hometown if that was where the paternal line had lived.  It becomes more abstract the farther away one gets, of course.  After the first few years, her father had grown up elsewhere in Hunan, then gone to university, and the family had moved to America when she was a child.  But I knew that despite having settled into the comforts of American life, he still had some fond recollections of the countryside here, which he once told me had become more vivid after leaving it than when he had been moving upward and outward.

Our host paused for a few minutes near the trees, to point out an embankment with some scattered grey and sand-coloured bricks.  These were the remnants of the family tombs, damaged time and again by the annual ebb and flow of the lake.  He had done his best to shore them up with some mud a few years ago, and would try to do something more substantial with stone or concrete if possible.  But it seemed like a losing battle against water and time.

Then he led us down to the uneven shoreline, where brown and green weeds sprouted here and there through the almost still surface of the lake.  Here, he traced with a wave of his hand, had been the compound where my girlfriend’s grandfather and his brothers had once lived.  Even in winter, when the water receded a few metres, one would not be able to see much, since everything had been demolished.  The next half hour of searching around the shoreline netted a few fragments of grey roof tiles, thick enough to identify as from an earlier era, and a ceramic shard.  As my girlfriend and our host crouched to rinse the fragments off in the water, his four year old grandson quietly looked on.  Our visit was probably the oddest event in his short life.  Over five decades ago, her father at the same age must have run around these fields on brighter afternoons.

The family’s life in this village had come to an end when the lake was dammed in 1958, during the Great Leap Forward, and when they had fled elsewhere during the famine that soon followed.  As the water level rose, it had inundated forever not only their house, but also other villages and a modest riverport down in the valley.  This had been but one of the damming accomplishments of the modern Chinese state, including most recently the displacement of over a million people for the much larger Three Gorges Dam.  This project on the Yangtze River also meant the permanent loss of countless historic sites.  Despite high hopes, today it meets a mere 1.7% of China’s voracious electricity consumption.

Unavoidably, one wonders when gazing out at the grey gloom and seeing mere shards of a family’s past, who would consider such things worth it.  When I asked our host on our walk back up the hill how much anyone had benefited from the dam, he shrugged and mused obliquely about there being such places, with such effects on such people, all over the world.

The Faustian narrative from Beijing insists, of course, that such sacrifices are all part of China’s glorious trajectory.  This week, while two thousand delegates at the Party Congress suppressed yawns, outgoing president Hu Jintao broke occasionally from his monotone to insist, with a flourish of mere volume, that the country must “persevere” on the state-led path to “modest prosperity” for all.

I am sure the Faustians would try to claim credit for the comforts that our host had acquired.  His house had a concrete floor, unlike the ruin of his former dwelling next door.  The latter had mud bricks and collapsed beams, and the sort of rubble over which his grandson could clamber with the joyful freedom of a rural childhood.  The chicken generously killed for our lunch had been kept simmering in an electric pot.  And one could hardly miss the flat-screen television that must have been a gift from his son, who was working in Guangdong.  All these goods were no doubt part of the “modest prosperity” on which the party-state has bet its legitimacy.

It was less obvious, however, that those charting this path of development would want to claim credit for the fact that his son could come back to visit only once a year, for the Spring Festival, or that the grandson was one of tens of millions of “left-behind” children who were being cared for by grandparents in the countryside while migrant workers slogged away in the cities.

And the assault on the past had not stopped with the dam.  Sometimes it is water, and sometimes fire.  A decade later, during the Cultural Revolution, the effort to cut people off from the rich texture of their family history intensified.  When we asked our host about the details of who was related to whom, he replied that he did not really know, because the Red Guards had collected all the family tree copies in the village and burned them.  One of my girlfriend’s uncles told me a few years ago that one of their ancestors had passed the Confucian examination, and that as a child he had seen his faithfully conserved officer’s hat and robe, but that they had been destroyed.

The texture of a lived family history, with continuity in a place, has been the archenemy of the revolutionary modernisers.  Such people in China merely took this ambition further than most.  In highland Peru, the Maoists of the 1980s had bonfires too, except they put on them not family trees but the wood-and-silver staffs of office used by the traditional local leaders.  And modern states of a more mainstream bent do the same, by effect even if not fully by intent.  When we have asked elderly Andean peasants about their ancestors, they usually talk about their grandparents and great grandparents, and tell vivid stories about local notables from a century or two back.  More thoroughly schooled Andean teenagers and twentysomethings have far hazier knowledge of such things, and fall back on abstract ideas about the Inka empire as a basis of ethnic pride.

This is the other side of the coin.  The callousness with which the Faustians cut people off from their own history is matched by the relentlessness to which they try to bind them to other people’s.  To adapt G K Chesterton somewhat, the risk is not that one will believe nothing, but that one will believe anything.  The vacuum gets filled.

An hour or so away from this half-flooded village stands the complex of Chengtoushan.  The jarring dirt road approaching it belies the official ambitions to turn it into a tourist site in a couple of years.  The billboards proclaim it the site of the oldest town in China and the first evidence of rice paddies in the world, going back 6500 years.  At first glance, the site looked like merely a flat and overgrown circle of fields with a moat around it.  An agitated, fluffy white goat glared at us.  But the site was pockmarked with excavation holes from the last couple of decades and some rather shoddily done reconstructions of where walls and ceramics have been found.  A sign proclaimed the wonders of this discovery as proof of “the early civilisation and evolution of settlement in the prehistory of our country,” significant as part of “the formation of the unity of a multiethnic state.”  Never mind that southern China had little to do, at the time, with the supposed cradle of Chinese civilisation around the Yellow River in the north.  Everything would fit together somehow.

And when you know the big story, so much the worse for the small facts.  A short walk away stood a huge white warehouse-like structure, where work for the new museum was underway.  Just outside the entrance, we could see the remnants of another excavation, with some old walls uncovered several metres down.  They were only partly intact, though.  Concrete foundations had since been cut mercilessly straight through them, with iron bars sticking up ready for whatever new edifice would rise.  From inside the warehouse came the undulating screech of a machine as it sawed, or ground, through some object in what was no doubt another frenzy of progressive demolition.  And on the other side of the building, the edge of the little island resembled a disaster area.  Huge mounds of mud, peppered with archæological fragments hundreds and thousands of years old, had been churned up hurriedly by bulldozers.  Construction waits for no one.

And on the other side of the moat stood a few farmhouses with the mass-produced white tile façades of a decade ago.  Perhaps they housed some of the peasants who had undoubtedly been cleared off the island once it had become known that what looked like farmland had tourist potential.  But they would probably not be left in peace for long.  A couple of the buildings had already literally been torn in half and emptied.  For a road or some other such undertaking, a line had apparently been drawn and it happened to run through the middle of someone’s home.  Half the building had then been removed, leaving what looked like a ruined cross-section in place.

Along the edge of the new roads cutting across China, one sees such scenes now and then.  As the traffic roars past, guided by the lifeless voice of a satnav with a digital map, en route to whatever destination cannot wait, it rarely pauses to gaze on the lives torn in half.

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Adam K. Webb
Adam K. Webb grew up in England, Spain, and the United States. He is now Professor of Political Science and Co-Director of the Hopkins-Nanjing Centre, an overseas campus of Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. He has authored three books, including Beyond the Global Culture War (2006), A Path of Our Own: An Andean Village and Tomorrow's Economy of Values (2009), and Deep Cosmopolis: Rethinking World Politics and Globalisation (2015). His interests range broadly across political thought, and efforts to recreate room for traditions and liberty on the emerging global landscape. He divides his time among urban China, rural England, and other corners of the world.


  1. A beautiful, thoughtful essay here, Adam, one that provides an almost pastoral counter-point to discussions we’ve had here at FPR before about China and its super-charged capitalist excesses. In the past we’ve mainly focused on people and policies; here you’re bringing the land itself partly into the discussion as well. Thanks very much for sharing.

  2. What a thought-provoking article. It seems to my mind that modernism demands forgetfulness and this is no less true in modern America than it is communist China. We may not be burning the robes of the Confucians but we too rip people from the land, try to get people to trade away family responsibilities for the nameless power of the state, etc.

    More than anything else, this isolates everyone and makes us all eternal strangers, isolated, nameless, and without history or the real support of communities. Televisions replace family members and we don’t know what we are losing.

  3. My first thought was of the TVA; second Jane Jacobs and highway construction through downtowns; Kunstler would have been a more appropriate reference, I suppose, but I’m a little slow.

  4. Short photo essay on mountain top removal, Slate

    I’ve look a little bit, fruitlessly, for some sort of cultural shadow here in the US other than the movie Deliverance.
    Point being, once the popular imagination is moved, no valley or hill is safe. Put another way, the struggle is not about mountain top removal or dam construction, it’s about what sort of people live in the valley in the first place. If it’s possible to pin a label on them as nothing more than a bunch of inbred hicks, then the valley and all that lived there are lost.

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