The odds against a book like this ever being written can be gauged from the fact that, in the 200-year history of his native Gao village, Mobo Gao was only the second person ever to progress to higher education. Moving on via Britain to an academic career in Australia, he remained in close touch with Gao Village, and in this book he takes the place and its people as a case study of life, death, work, education, love and much else in rural China since 1949.
It is much more than a memoir, although it is greatly enhanced by autobiographical details and anecdotes; and although the author's sense of anger at how China's villagers have been put upon, exploited, discriminated against and disparaged by state and urban elites since 1949 comes across very powerfully, his account never descends to the level of polemic. Much of what he has to say will annoy those at whom it is mainly aimed, namely western China specialists and what Gao refers to as "China's establishment intellectuals", but we will all, nevertheless, have to engage with his carefully argued thesis.
The common thread running through Gao's attempts to correct some of the myths about rural China under Chinese Communist Party rule is his contention that China's villagers are not inherently backward looking, superstitious, irrational, sheep-like or lacking in intelligence, but are simply people who respond rationally and pragmatically to the circumstances in which they find themselves and to the pressures placed upon them. This ought not to need saying at the end of the 20th century, but it does need saying, and Gao is an articulate defender of the dignity, worth and humanity of his fellow villagers. In his chapter on the Great Leap Forward, he counters the usual portrayal of Chinese farmers as blindly following the dictates of Beijing in such follies as close planting or backyard steel smelting, arguing that the most extreme measures of the time would not have survived for long in many areas, as people's common sense and overriding concern with survival would not allow them to tolerate crops being allowed to rot in fields while they laboured on useless projects elsewhere.
Probably the most controversial aspect of the book will be Gao's observation that the only significant gains in education and healthcare made by the rural population in the whole Maoist period (1949-76) occurred at the radical heights of the Great Leap Forward and, particularly, the Cultural Revolution. That the latter movement had any positive impact at all has been a deeply unfashionable view for several decades. Gao's reminder of the real benefits it brought to those at the absolute bottom of the heap will not win him many friends within the Chinese establishment; it should, however, be gratefully received by anyone troubled by the excessively one-sided treatment the Cultural Revolution has received virtually since it ended in 1976.
If the Mao era, in Gao's account, is not quite so bad as it is generally painted, neither are the post-1978 reforms the unalloyed boon for the countryside that has often been assumed. Gao refutes the argument that villagers lacked incentives to produce more under the commune system and that the return to household farming at the end of the 1970s of itself produced a big rise in production and rural income, arguing instead that changes in government procurement pricing and policies produced short-term gains, lasting only until about 1985, after which rising input costs restored the historic pattern of discrimination in favour of industrial producers and urban residents. Gao also documents a reform-era decline in rural healthcare and education, deriding the "quality" arguments adduced for closing Cultural Revolution-era local schools, and insists that it has only been the possibility, since the late 1980s, of migrating to work in the factories of China's booming coastal areas that has allowed places such as Gao village to survive on their damaged lands and to pay the levies that rapacious local officials extract from rural households.
This will be an excellent book to use with students, with dry topics such as the economics of the commune, the work-point system and rural taxation presented with clarity, passion and wit. The book is arranged so that topics can be approached chronologically or thematically, and all of the chapters - on population, health, education, migrant work, living standards and other issues - can stand alone, although few will be able to resist reading the whole of this fascinating account.
Jackie Sheehan is lecturer in 20th-century Chinese history, University of Nottingham.
Gao Village: A Portrait of Rural Life in Modern China
Author - Mobo C. F. Gao
ISBN - 0 85065 408 5 and 4 1
Publisher - Hurst
Price - £40.00 and £16.95
Pages - 286