Monday, February 16, 2009

Broken Earth: The Rural Chinese by Steven W. Mosher

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Broken Earth: The Rural Chinese
by Steven W. Mosher

Hardback: 309 pages
Publisher: Free Press
First Released: 1983

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Back Cover Description:
After the 1979 thaw in relations between the United States and the People's Republic of China, Steven W Mosher was one of a handful of Americans in 30 years permitted to take up residence in a Chinese village. Swept into China by a sudden ground swell of diplomatic good will and friendship and aided by his fluency in the Cantonese dialect, he was able to live and work in southern China largely unaccompanied and unsupervised by state and local officials.

For a year, while carrying on research in cultural anthropology, Mosher ate and drank with his peasant neighbors, celebrated and mourned with them, played basketball and took tea with them, and discussed sex and politics with them. Broken Earth is his account--told often in the Chinese' own words--of what it is really like to live in the People's Republic today. It is an unexpectedly intimate look behind the Bamboo Curtain of authorized facts.

We see the rural Chinese at home, in school, and at work, expressing their bitterness at the past, their frustrations with the present, and their hopes for the future. Here is the life and rhythm of the village: marriages, births, festivities, and funerals--an ancient life of rituals often at odds with Party directive and reforms.

And behind the glib optimism of socialist rhetoric, the author uncovers the darker side of Chinese society: a disaffected peasantry trapped between the bureaucracy and the black market, harried by endless political exhortations, bitter at the special privileges and petty corruptions of Party officials, and, perhaps worst of all, bullied by a rigid campaign of birth control. While Mosher entered China intending only to conduct ethnographic studies, he left carrying a heavy burden of truth about the Chinese communist system and the physical and moral anguish it has wrought.

Because Chinese of all walks of life--officials, workers, and peasants--revealed their innermost thoughts and feelings to Mosher, Broken Earth tells us more about the true texture of life in the People's Republic than we have ever been able to learn. Unlike the inevitably impressionistic reports of "tourist journalists" and city-bound academics, Mosher's book offers a rich, complex panorama of daily life in rural China, alive with its unique personalities, pleasures, tensions, and sorrows. Brimming with anecdotes and eye-opening observations, it is a strikingly frank, realistic appraisal of what is happening to the people behind the statistics in the "New China."

While the author lived in China in 1979 through 1980, the book covers life in China from late in Mao's era until 1982. He primarily talks about life in rural southern China, but he also was able to interact with some city Chinese and learn a bit about the conditions in other parts of China. This book is a well-written behind-the-propaganda look into the culture.

The book covers village life and work, the bureaucracy, corruption and crime, unemployment, restrictions on daily life, the education system, the Youth who grew up during the Cultural Revolution, marriage, the role of men and women, forced birth control, the political campaigns, and more. While we do get to see slices of rural life, this book is more a historical view of the political policies and how they affected the Chinese alive at the time the author lived there.

The book was very informative without being dry. In fact, I probably would have read the book through in one sitting if I hadn't had to take a break after every chapter or two so I could process everything I'd just learned. Anyone who thinks the textbook version of communism or socialism looks appealing should read this book to learn the pitfalls of how socialism works out in reality.

I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in socialism in general or in communist China.

Excerpt: Chapter One
Late in March 1979 I first arrived, elated yet diffident, in the South China commune that I hoped to study. As an anthropologist whose goal it was to penetrate the private world of the villager, I saw getting through to the Chinese as people as the main challenge of the coming year. I was an outsider, neither Chinese nor Communist, and I wondered how long it would take to make contacts with local peasants and cadres, and worried that it might not be possible at all.

Friends who had been to the People's Republic had not been optimistic about my chances. One acquaintance, just back from a year of intensive study of Chinese at the Beijing Language Institute, told me how he had been put up by the PRC government in a dormitory restricted to foreign students where he had met and made friends with Australians, Germans, Africans--students of various nationalities--but no Chinese. His instructors at the institute had been the only Chinese he had come into regular contact with. While they had been cordial enough in class, they had discouraged socializing after hours. His trips about the city of Beijing, to such places as Tiananmen Square, Beihai Park, and the Forbidden City, had engulfed him in vast, swirling crowds of people but had not helped him to break through the social barriers that separated him from these Chinese millions.

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