Down There on a Visit

Report from a Chinese Village

by Jan Myrdal
Pantheon, 373 pp., $6.95

In many ways this is the book that everybody interested in China has been waiting for, a book describing what it feels like to be a peasant living through the Chinese Revolution. In the summer of 1962 Jan Myrdal, the thirty-year-old son of the famous Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal, lived for a month in a Chinese village. The village Liuling is a small collection of man-made caves hollowed out of a soft slope set in the weirdly beautiful loess hills and gorges that cover much of Northwest China. With the help of two interpreters, the author spent nearly all his time talking with the villagers, and the social side of Report from a Chinese Village is the product of these conversations. From the leaders of the village organizations Jan Myrdal obtained considerable statistical information about village life. There are tables showing the annual accounts for 1961 of the village Labor Groups, Labor Brigade, and the local commune. The names, ages, and family relationships of most of the villagers are given and there are lists of the number of work points earned and wages received in grain and cash by each family. These data, though scattered throughout the book and made still more confusing by the lack of an index; still tell us a great deal about the social and economic structure of a Chinese village.

However, the real value of the book lies in the life stories of thirty villagers related to the author in a series of interviews. Many of Myrdal’s subjects are active supporters of the new regime, but some are apolitical, and there is even one “counter-revolutionary.” Since the stories were written down as they were told, without comments, there is a good deal of overlapping and confusion; but from the repetition and confusion a richly textured picture of the village and its hard-working, resilient inhabitants emerges—the days spent hoeing and weeding, from 4:30 A.M. to 6 or 7 P.M. the evenings taken up by discussion meetings. The villagers’ reactions to occasional movies are described. A young housewife gives a picture of the difficulties and advantages of living in a cave. She goes into detail about the monotonous but relatively nutritious grains and vegetables that she prepares for the family to eat, and dwells lovingly on the special dishes cooked for traditional festivals. Such interviews make it plain that although the traditional customs of birth, marriage, and death have been modified, they are still very much alive—“everyone in the whole village goes to their ancestors’ graves that day.” The family has survived, too, and the older generation retains its power to control and frustrate the desires of the younger, despite the encouragement given to youth by the new regime. At the same time, one sees vividly the immense changes that have taken place in and around the village since the Communists came to power. These biographies related by illiterate peasants are particularly striking when they describe the miseries of the past: the meanness and cruelty of landlords…

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