Who pays the pipa?

— review by Di Yang —

Village Diary imageJiao Bo’s 2014 documentary “Village Diary” (Xiangcunlidezhongguo) is set in Shaoyu, Shandong Province, north-east China. The direct translation from the Chinese title is China in the village, which may indicate that, for the film-maker, villages are the epitome of the whole of China.

It is a highly engaging movie revealing one year in the life of Shaoyu Village, near Zibo. Filmed between 2012 and 2013, amassing 1,000 hours of footage, it won a fistful of awards including Best Documentary (15th China Huabiao Film Awards), Grand Jury Prize Chinese Documentary Academy Awards and the Best Documentary China (Guangzhou) Documentary Festival,

The film centres on a poor agricultural community of 170 households, where apples are the main crop. The fragile nature of their rural existence is emphasized by the fact that there are neither restriction of prices nor regular buyers for the fruit. It is a perilous existence. The trading process remains primitive. Such is the life for peasants. One would sit by the road all day, waiting for a picky buyer offering an undesirable price and with very little leverage to increase the price. These are still harsh times. In the film, that scene was silent but the audience could sense their anxiety and helplessness.

“We’ve given it all: money, time and energy but the outcome didn’t live up to what we had expected. To be honest, I’ve no affection to the earth, not a single bit,” says Du Shenzhong, the heroic villager of the piece. The agricultural system in Shaoyu village is taking a turn for the worse and the young are leaving in droves by any means possible. Villagers who remain are mostly over forty years of age. Not only the people, but the earth too is vulnerable and left behind.

Relationships shape these rural lives. Since families here are the basic unit of kinship and community, individuals are seldom free to exercise their own will and can only behave on behalf of their families. These clusters of individuals provide protection and emotional bonds in times of need as well as burdens and pressures due to inescapable proximity. The film demonstrates the recurring tensions within – and predominantly between – families, like the ownership of a border tree, the harvest of crops and other matters that are of limited importance in other circumstances, but here become elevated into major conflicts. Though unmentionable in the public, villagers are all entangled in these petty, loyalty-defining disputes.

Village Diary image2Moreover, grudges and complaints can come from intangible things, witness the occasion in the documentary when there a battle to win a tiny civil dispute centering on some silly comparisons between children and the mistrust towards the village official. Relationships in these contexts were implicit contracts but with no strict criteria for their success. Therefore families here are complicated. Once seen from this position, it becomes clear that people often quarrel and fight over trivial matters, but actually they are staking a claim for status: gaining rights and respect for their whole family. Zhang Zi’en, the village’s Party Secretary is the primitive arbitrator, whose baffling powerless life is wrought with misery and acrimony.

Nevertheless, the everyday life of such a rural communities also brought about something precious and beautiful. The film is divided into the Chinese 24 seasons and when it came to Spring Festival section, everyone in the village came together to forget their personal burdens and duties for a little while and to try, genuinely, to be friendly. Now we may charge traditions for being superstitious, however such ceremonies, routines and mysticism has clearly managed to maintain the traditional agricultural society, holding it in place and giving meaning and structure to these poor, downtrodden lives.

The other beauty of his village is less contrived, and concerns the status of intellectuals who retain importance and assume hierarchy in the villages. Du Shenzhong, the heroic central character, wit and aspiring writer and musician is described by director Jiao as ” the only person in this village who watches CCTV news every day.’

Being an intellectual is a tense, parlous existence in such a village. Whenever his wife quarreled with him over the expense of the stationary or musical instruments, he would audaciously insist that “people need spiritual nutrition” not just money for food (bodily nutrition). Du is an intellectual without the luxury to nurture his passions and this is sadly generally true for all village intellectuals. On one hand, they feel inferior about their comparative physical frailty while on the other hand they are respected for their erudition.

However, all the other villagers may be illiterate, but they are certainly not ignorant. These are human beings retaining their humanity and their dignity in the worst of circumstances. They possess every emotion as all of us do, it is just they are not adept at expressing themselves. The local Spring Festival Gala acted as the only stage for them to let go, where we could see their respect and gratitude for their loved ones and their genuine aspirations for better lives. Virtue and conscience, as Chinese tradition states, are always with us.

Father, by Luo ZhongliIn fact, it does not matter to us where the stage was set. Peasants all over China share a similar fate. The 1980 painting, Father, by Luo Zhongli, depicts a wrinkled, sun-tanned sweaty-faced old farmer. He is not merely the father of someone, but of generations, or even histories. Anthropologist Yuval Harari once stated that history was composed by elites (the minority), while everybody else was ploughing and cultivating. It means that it was peasants who laid the foundation of civilizations, but who have been pressed and squeezed to the benefit of those who laud it over them. Although we now step into a modern age, peasants are still at the mercy of someone else. This seems to be accepted as a natural order by many government officials, which could perhaps account for the inadequacy and lack of care in the provision of village infrastructure and planning.

Village Diary is a documentary that presents the most austere – and genuine – snapshots of the life of China’s everyman. It protrays the ordinary, manifest as extraordinary.