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Light From the Darkness

Award-winning writer Liang Hong shows her persistence in observing and recording the plight of rural villagers through drastic social upheaval, cataloging their sacrifice in the name of China’s transformation

By NewsChina Updated Feb.1

The significance of the tiny village of Liang to Chinese writer Liang Hong is comparable to that of Wessex for Thomas Hardy and Yoknapatawpha County for William Faulkner – a tireless source of inspiration and the focus of her body of work. The difference, of course, is that Liang Village is a real place, located some 330 kilometers from Henan’s provincial capital of Zhengzhou. 

Dubbed the pioneer of contemporary Chinese non-fictional writing, the scholar and writer Liang Hong, 44, sees her hometown of Liang Village as the home of her heart and soul. 
Based on thorough field studies of her fellow villagers and migrant workers, the writer of well-acclaimed non-fiction books, China in Liang Village (2010) and Leaving Liang Village (2013) trace the vicissitudes of an ordinary Chinese village over 40 years. In November 2017, the writer published her first novel, The Light of Liang Guangzheng, narrating the life of a Liang villager. 
Eschewing sentimental nostalgia and pastoral romance, Liang presents readers an uncompromising, realistic picture of Chinese village life and tackles a variety of thorny issues. Not only does she depict the hardship of rural Chinese, she also unveils the crisis in rural China caused by social and cultural change.  

Live with Light 

Liang Hong’s most recent novel, The Light of Liang Guangzheng, narrates the life of a Chinese villager with a bedbound wife, four children, two mistresses and five stepchildren. The novel revolves around Liang’s arduous attempts in his later days to locate his relatives and those he felt indebted to around the nation.
Mistresses aside, Liang Guangzheng is a righteous and chivalrous man who lives by the motto: “live with light.” He fights with bureaucrats for the sake of his fellow villagers; he is an amorous lover who helps support his mistresses and their families; he spends years tracking his relatives, close and remote, familiar and unfamiliar; moreover, he forces his children to join him in funding people who helped him to repay their kindnesses, even if the mission troubles them considerably. 
Of the character, respected Chinese literary critic Li Jingze wrote: “Never have we seen such a peasant: he is a saint, a fool and a dreamer; he is a father, he is the earth, but also the most mischievous kid and destroyer. He said, ‘Live with light,’ and in his life the light and darkness are set clear. […] It’s not necessary to define him hastily. He is not merely a peasant. His light might be found in our parents, families, and ourselves.” 

The story was inspired by the writer’s father, whose death two years ago devastated her.
Liang believed that only in fiction could the character’s complexity, internal conflicts, and his intangible but precious quality – “making light out of a dark life” – be properly revealed. 

His entire life, Liang Guangzheng makes efforts to seek dignity. He is a farmer who loves wearing white shirts, a characteristic he shares with Liang’s real father.
“He always wore a white shirt, clean and neat. Against the muddy road of Liang Village, the sandy sky of the village, his white shirt shone like a beam of light. He walked toward the light, weathering the scorn of others. What did the white shirt stand for? Dignity, defiance, or merely vanity?” Liang wrote in the novel.
Her real father, the writer recalled, always wore a white shirt, soft and bright, which made him stand out among his fellow villagers. He held a grudge for years over the fact his white shirt was stained with blood when he was denounced and persecuted during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). 
From Liang’s perspective, the character Liang Guangzheng is a good man of the kind that one might meet in real life. By portraying such a character, she hopes to remind her urban readers that rural people cannot be easily stereotyped as one group; they have their own dignity and individuality, passions and grievances. 

Disappearing Villages 

Liang Village is located in Rang County in southwestern Henan Province, 40 kilometers away from the nearest town. Rang County geographically features broad plains, low hills and few mountains. Twenty-nine rivers run through the county, bringing fertile black earth and moist soil. 
The village is nothing special. It has much in common with millions of other Chinese villages, with nearly 2,000 residents who earn an annual average income of 3,000 yuan (US$480). 
Liang Hong lived there the first two decades of her life. In 1993 she left her hometown for college. She graduated from Beijing Normal University with a PhD focusing on contemporary Chinese literature.
After obtaining a doctorate, Liang became a college teacher and began a life full of lectures and paperwork. But she felt empty, as though some connection between her and real life had been severed. 
“If one has felt similar internal frustrations, some will choose to travel around the world, some will tolerate it. Me, I chose to return to my hometown,” Liang told NewsChina.
In 2008, Liang conducted five months of quasi-sociological and anthropological fieldwork in her hometown, conversing with villagers about their family relationships, personal development, housing conditions, marriage and child rearing. 
“I hope to present the past and present, the happiness and sorrow of the village through my eyes,” said Liang.
The book China in Liang Village revealed the crisis at the heart of rural China during urbanization: the homeless left-behind children, the deficiency of educational resources, medical facilities and aged care institutions, the environmental devastation, the broken rural families, the twisted morality, farmers’ frustrated sex lives, and more. 

“Liang Village in this book is a microcosm of the 400,000 villages that have been ‘eliminated’ over the past three decades,” the renowned agricultural economist Wen Tiejun commented. 
Half the village population has left to work in the cities, transforming the village into an empty, dilapidated and ghostly place where only children, the sick and elderly remain. 

“The village is full of weeds and ruins, which show its inner desolation, decline and exhaustion. Internally, the village is no longer a living organism. If villages lived, this one would have entered its twilight years and lost its vitality,” Liang wrote.  
Liang feels the upheaval has resulted in a moral and spiritual vacuum. “The whole village is degenerating in all aspects, appallingly,” she said.
In China in Liang Village, Liang transcribes the stories and events that rock society: the introverted, lonely left-behind teenager who raped and killed an 82-year-old woman; the nine-year-old left-behind girl raped by an elderly neighbor; the transformation of a local school into a pig farm. 
“Since when did rural life become a drag on the nation, the burden of the reform, development and modernity? Why has rural life come to symbolize social depravity and disease? […] How much conflict and error, suffering and crying, will the transformation take? These, perhaps, are problems that every intellectual who cares about rural China cannot avoid,” Liang wrote in the foreword to China in Liang Village.
The book has received critical acclaim. It gained the “People’s Literature Award of 2010” and was selected as one of the Top 10 non-fiction books of the year by Asiaweek. The Franz Kafka prize-winning writer Yan Lianke regards the book as “a theoretical window into contemporary China with insightful thoughts.”

‘Exodus’ in Irony 

China now has 280 million migrant workers, data from the National Bureau of Statistics in 2017 shows. Liang villagers, inevitably, follow the flow looking for work.
For nearly three decades, Liang villagers have headed to every inch of the country, from Aksu and Altay in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region in the west, to Shigatse of Tibet, to Qujing City in Yunnan in the southwest, to Shenzhen, Guangzhou in the south, and Xilinhot in Inner Mongolia in the north. 
From 2011 to 2012, Liang and her father traveled a dozen provinces and cities in search of other Liang villagers. They interviewed nearly 340 migrant workers. Some had not returned to their hometown for 30 years, while others had just begun their journey. In 2013, she published her second non-fiction work, Leaving Liang Village. 
One Liang villager, a pedicab driver, was desperate to recover his livelihood after his vehicle was confiscated by the authorities; others worked in the food industry producing knock-off products; still others were exposed to airborne poisons while working in factories without the protection of a mask. 
 Migration had brought heartrending tragedy, disease, and death: Xiaozhu, the writer’s cousin and childhood best friend, died of chloride steam poisoning after years of working in an electroplating factory in Qingdao; after one newly wedded young villager left home for work, the long separation drove his lovesick wife to madness and ultimately suicide.
“Migrant workers or their families left behind – none has a complete life,” said Liang. “People always talk about social transformation. Are these people merely a sacrifice on the altar of transformation?” 
 “Villagers are migrating in large numbers, hoping to find a ‘land of milk and money,’ even though they may die halfway there. That sounds a bit like Exodus,” Liang wrote in Leaving Liang Village.
“The irony is that migrant workers never find ‘milk and honey.’ They struggle, wander on the fringes and in the shadows, are discriminated against, forgotten and ultimately expelled. For them, a time of law is yet to come. They are abandoned.”
Like many migrant workers, Liang noticed the villagers had no voice of their own, and their image was crafted by urban elites. The prosperity of cities and the light of modernity were reliant on them, but ultimately had nothing to do with them. They are the darkest part of the urban landscape, Liang said. In both China in Liang Village and Leaving Liang Village, the writer was clear that she was not writing fiction and wanted to present a real picture of a contemporary Chinese village life. Thus, these two books are narrated by villagers themselves rather than in the voice of a scholar.
“Rural people are not as simple and ignorant as they are described in fiction. When I interviewed my fellow villagers, I was always amazed by their vivid language, full of wit and rhyme. That’s a language of the earth, deeply rooted in regional culture,” Liang said. 
In the past two years, Liang has been to the US, France and Northern Europe as a visiting scholar. No matter where she went, she was more like an experienced observer than a tourist. In France, what impressed her most was not the city’s grandiose buildings but the vagrants on the street corners. 
She plans to write a subway-themed non-fiction work as her next project. “The aboveground and the underground are two different spaces that together make up the whole urban landscape,” she told NewsChina. “I think it’s quite worthy of study.”