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It Takes a Village to Foster Culture

Redevelopment of Dachong Village, Shenzhen China. dcmaster / Flickr

China is losing its villages at an exponential rate, according to the New York Times. Reporter Ian Johnson shares the numbers: “In 2000, China had 3.7 million villages, according to research by Tianjin University. By 2010, that figure had dropped to 2.6 million, a loss of about 300 villages a day.”

Johnson reported in the Times last June that the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress was planning to build a city of 260 million people, in an effort to propagate economic growth and consumption. This mammoth enterprise would require moving 250 million people from farm to city in the next dozen years, according to Forbes contributor Gordon G. Chang. “Across China, bulldozers are leveling villages that date to long-ago dynasties,” wrote Johnson. “Towers now sprout skyward from dusty plains and verdant hillsides.”

Beyond the crushing loss of countryside and agriculture this rapid urbanization will bring about, Johnson’s new article notes the cultural loss involved: “Across China, cultural traditions like the Lei family’s music are under threat. Rapid urbanization means village life, the bedrock of Chinese culture, is rapidly disappearing, and with it, traditions and history.”

Why are villages so important? What makes them distinct and culturally significant compared to cities? Villages support subsidiarity and diversity, whereas cities usually promote mass movement and centralization. Of course, the village’s specificity has downsides: it can foster clannishness and biases toward “outsiders.” Nonetheless, without the village, we would lack the kaleidoscopic culture that makes art and life so rich.

Without the village, we’d likely forget valuable traditions. Villages tend to have a longer memory than cities, due to their permanency. Landowners and families are generally more stayed, often remaining in the same area for generations. In contrast, cities often inspire new enterprise and “the next big thing.” They foster pop culture, not folk culture. In the small community, neighbors, family, and friends are almost inescapable. Whether gathering at the city hall, church, or merely visiting the grocery store, familiar faces abound. One must learn to live in communion with others. In cities, it is easier to live alone—and easier to be lost in the clamor and crowd.

The U.S. is voluntarily leaning toward urbanization: city growth outpaced suburban growth from 2011 to 2012, and continued into the spring of 2013. There was some rumored resurgence of the suburbs in September, and it will be interesting to track those trends. Suburban sprawl, some would argue, is even more culturally toxic than urban life. Of course, urban culture is not evil, nor is it necessarily second to village culture. Cities enable the meeting of great minds and talents. They enable entrepreneurs and artists to find a voice. Within moderation, such things are good. But without our folk culture, we lose an important piece of our identity. If the U.S. became a vast amalgam of giant cities, we would lose the federalist impulse that makes us great. The Appalachian communities of Tennessee would no longer differ, in character or culture, from the vast sprawling deserts of Arizona. All would be the same.

“Chinese culture has traditionally been rural-based,” author and scholar Feng Jicai told Johnson. “Once the villages are gone, the culture is gone.” This is not only true of China. Without rural culture, we lose our grounding, history, and diversity. These things not only foster artistic wellbeing: they foster intellectual and political independence. Perhaps the Chinese government will ignore the debilitating effect this centralization has on their culture. But one hopes that other countries, the U.S. included, will consider the consequences.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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