The term peasant (nongmin 农民) has experienced both positive and negative connotations in China. Under Mao Zedong’s leadership, peasants of course were pillars of the nation’s march towards a communist utopia, and to live like Chinese peasants and experience their lifestyle and hardships was considered standard ‘qualifications’ for urban Chinese seeking acceptance and a credible class label. Later, however, especially following Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, peasants came to represent everything that held China back from scientific modernisation. Their feudal and superstitious beliefs and behaviours were criticised and the peasant body began to represent everything a modern body was not: they were considered slow lethargic bodies that relied on their hands, captive to the demands of nature, unconvincingly pitted against the urban Chinese who used their minds and ‘worked’ modern China into being.
The current trend of Chinese urbanites entering agriculture poses an interesting question: how do these new farmers engage with the peasants of the villages where they are establishing their small-scale sustainable farms? Through my ethnographic research in surrounding Shanghai, I have observed three kinds of engagement and relationships. First, a simple economic relationship, whereby local villagers are employed either by the hour or day to help with farm work, be that weeding or other simple, yet time consuming and tough tasks. As one new farmer put it to me when I asked him how he instructs sustainable agricultural practices to local villagers: “I don’t teach them, I just tell them what to do and they do it. You can’t teach them these things”. This first category is especially observable when the new farmer does not spend much time on the farm, often working in Shanghai and visiting on weekends only.
Second, a community relationship where while villagers may be hired for short-term work, emphasis is placed upon the relationships, or guanxi, built through ongoing interactions and help provided to the villagers. As many of the villages I visit have experienced an exodus of young people, the remaining peasants are old and need assistance tending to their land. The new farmers in this category go out of their way to assist their community in small daily tasks to build guanxi and ganqing through material assistance (this has been written about extensively elsewhere). Many times visiting a particular farm in this category, in mid-conversation with the farmer, he will receive a phone call or visit from a neighbor with such-and-such a problem asking for immediate help. My informant is always obliging. This second category is especially observable when the new farmer lives full-time on the farm.
Third, when the new farmers are themselves children of peasants, have attended university in a city and successfully established themselves in Shanghai. They have only later (generally a minimum of ten years I have noted) established a sustainable farming practice together with their parents, who live on the farm full-time and manage the land, with the children visiting on weekends and generally taking care of the marketing of produce and its ‘packaging’ to urbanites. I have connected with two such farms that fall into this category, and what is always striking at the beginning is the contrast between the peasant parents and their adult child. Standing side by side you would not identify them as family was it not for prior knowledge: all their bodily dispositions, skin, clothing, and apparent nutritional health differences are glaringly obvious.
The interaction between new farmers and peasants of the villages they enter is an important topic for further research. With all the talk and intent to address the “Three Rural Problems” (San Nong Wenti 三农问题) – being peasants, villages, and agriculture (nongmin, nongcun, nongye 农民，农村，农业) – it is important to note how sustainable agriculture and its practitioners contribute or not to this central government policy.