At exactly 8 p.m. on Jan. 30, 2017, the second annual Spring Festival gala got underway in the tiny village of Caoping, in northwestern China’s Gansu province.
Held on the third day of the lunar new year, the show featured a steel stage packed with neon lights, which, at 14,000 yuan (around $2,000), had cost Caoping native Wang Taiji four months’ salary.
Wang is no budding entertainment mogul; rather, he is a civil servant who works in an office of the Gansu provincial government. Born in Caoping, he spent his own money on the steel stage to help give his hometown a night of entertainment.
Altogether, Caoping is home to only about 40 households, but more than half have sent a child to university. Although locals have always valued education, residents of the surrounding farming villages still lack easy access to college education — a trend that has given Caoping its reputation as a “talent factory.”
“Some of the younger residents of our village put on a Spring Festival gala in 2016,” says Wang. “They had an idea and the enthusiasm to carry it out, so I was happy to support their work this year.” The young residents he refers to are 10 or so villagers, all born after 1985, who stayed in touch with one another even after they left Caoping and spread out all over China in search of work.
At the group’s center is Wang Jianrong, Wang Taiji’s cousin. Though he did not score highly enough on the college entrance exam to attend university, he is the group member most attached to the village and also the one with the strongest interpersonal skills, making him well suited to bringing people together for a project such as this. After high school, he initially worked as a miner before going into business, eventually ending up at a real estate company.
One of the side effects of urbanization in China has been a significant weakening of village relationships. Compared to the middle of the 20th century, when the countryside was organized into so-called people’s communes, today’s administrative control over the organization of agricultural work, life, culture, and entertainment within villages shows a significant decline. The efforts of village mutual aid organizations are limited to only a few major events in a person’s life, such as marriage, birth, illness, and death. During periods when there is no farm work to be done, many villages experience a spike in alcohol-related incidents, gambling, fighting, and similar social ills.
Seeking a solution to this problem, in 2016, Wang Jianrong went to everyone he could think of in search of donations. With the money he received, he went out and purchased six lion costumes and a few outfits for his performers, and put on the village’s first Spring Festival gala. Although the performance was somewhat slapdash, and only a few people showed up, it represented a commendable first attempt.
Wang Taiji was so moved by his cousin’s efforts that, this year, he donated money not only for the stage but also to purchase 10 drums and 10 cymbals. His brother-in-law personally brought these items home from Lanzhou, the provincial capital located 200 kilometers away. The organizers’ goals were to provide fellow villagers with some homegrown entertainment, spread healthy and democratic values, and strengthen self-reliance across the village.
Relying on his formidable list of contacts, Wang Jianrong formed a chat group on the popular Chinese messaging app WeChat, where the group’s members spent a whole year making preparations for the gala. Wang Jianrong was elected to the position of “general” and was made responsible for all matters related to the planning, work assignments, and performance scheduling of the gala.
Wang Taiping, a young soldier from Caoping who is currently stationed in Beijing, spent 10,000 yuan of his own money on a sound system for use during the show. Another village native, Li Fu, currently works at a Lanzhou clothing company and used his professional skills to design the stage backdrop. When he had put the finishing touches on his work, he rolled the backdrop up and lugged it back to the village himself. Li Xiaogang, currently working as an electrician in southern China, collected a bunch of discarded colored lights, carried them all the way home to Caoping, and personally installed them on the stage. Everyone was united by a single aim: to give their hometown a night to remember.
The village’s older generations expressed support for the group’s work, and some donated money or equipment to the cause. When organizers struggled to find a public area large enough to hold the event, Yang Defu, another resident of the village, gave them a patch of fallow farmland to use rent-free. “We have a young child in our family who will perform onstage at the gala, so I gave them the right to use my land as long as they want,” Yang says. “It was the right thing to do.”
As the lunar new year approached, the village cleared a square of land and set up Wang Taiji’s stage in the middle. A fireworks show lasting almost 15 minutes — also funded by donations from across the village — preceded the gala. The performance itself featured skits, dances, and other kinds of entertainment favored by the younger generation, but organizers also made sure to sprinkle in some traditional performances throughout the evening, including musical interludes featuring the trumpet-like suona and a genre of short singing performance known as xiaoqu. In fact, the village’s old xiaoqu masters sang for 30 minutes straight and would have continued if Wang Jianrong had not forcibly pulled them offstage — which delayed the gala program and caused a few attendees to leave early.
The following day, after returning home to grab some meat and a bottle of baijiu, a Chinese spirit, Wang Jianrong made a beeline for Wang Taiji’s house, where several members of his team had already gathered. Everyone was discussing how the previous night’s xiaoqu performance had thrown off the pacing of the whole evening, but Wang Taiji took a different position: “Do not go around saying, ‘These old men drove away our audience with their xiaoqu performance.’ It’s not true. That they came at all is the greatest support we could ask for, and the fact that residents from our three local villages performed together is in itself quite significant.”
Young villagers who work in far-off cities have at most 10 to 14 days to spend at home each year, but they are still willing to donate their time to organize a moment of happiness that other residents will remember fondly. The gala was an opportunity for them to put their knowledge and passion to work for their village, and it revealed the kind of positive impact a group can have on a place it loves.
In traditional Chinese village society, an individual of high moral character and outstanding intelligence would often be praised as a “village worthy” by other residents. Today, in an environment where villages are struggling to survive, some scholars have floated the idea of using the talent, knowledge, and resources of villagers who have found success in the cities to help develop the countryside. While this proposal has seen mixed results so far, Caoping’s younger generation certainly has the air of modern-day village worthies.
In the 1920s and ’30s, Chinese scholars Yan Yangchu and Liang Shuming developed their rural construction theory, which advocates that intellectuals work with all levels of society to aid in developing the thought, spirit, and economy of villages in order to bring them into the modern world. Today, through organizations like the Rural Reconstruction Center at Renmin University and the Center for Rural Governance at Huazhong University of Science and Technology, intellectuals are still trying to develop solutions to these problems and find ways to improve village life.
Like Wang Taiji, we must be selfless enough to reinvest in our roots. Like Wang Jianrong and the other young gala organizers, we must find practical, earnest ways to re-engage with our rural hometowns. The actions of these village worthies show that the door is open for Chinese countryside reconstruction, a door through which I hope more people are willing to walk in the future.
(Header image: Local artists play suona, together with percussion instruments, at the Spring Festival gala in Caoping Village, Gansu province, Jan. 30, 2017. Courtesy of Yan Haijun)