The Contradictory Cultural Identity of Rural Children in China

guoby Dream Guo

Recently, a Chinese reality show called “X-Change” received widespread attention and initiated topics among Chinese people. In the show, two children from totally different backgrounds, one is from a well-off urban household, and the other is from an extremely poor rural family, exchange their lives for nearly thirty days.

The audience will see how the city boy changes his personality and behaviors from extremely traitorous, selfish and hedonistic to sensible, obedient and considerate of others during his thirty-day severe life in rural area.

At the same time, the rural child who has hard-working, observing all rules and regulations and honest high morals will first time see the outside world and adapt new modern culture and city life-style. The reforms of the city boys are always successful, since at the end of the show, the city children will turn over a new leaf and become good children at home and school. Meanwhile, the rural children will be judged by people and baptized by urban culture, and at last due to the public opinion, two kinds of identities of them which are contradictory will be constructed by the program.

Gao, one of the rural protagonists in the show is described as “backward” and “rude” when he first landed in the city. People made fun of him when he said he had never heard of Zhao Benshan (a famous Chinese comedian) and Liu Dehua (a famous Chinese singer); people laughed at him when he took a lift awkwardly; people criticized him when he wolfed down his food; people disliked and avoided him when he complained a lot and said he wanted to earn money. All these conducts give him a label – “backward”. Nevertheless, when we think about his background, which always makes him suffer from hunger, poverty, and information shortage, his conducts can be translated to cherishing food, curious about new things and fighting for life and easily be understood.

Thus we would find that people made comments actually based on a comparison, a comparison made by who has material civilization, consumer culture and himself is from urban city. As Gao was alone in the city, the dominant urban culture certainly became “advanced” while the minority rural culture became backward. Linking to reality, the urban population has always been dominant in cities, and therefore, the idea that urban culture is superior gradually became a national concept.

During the thirty-day-life experience in the city, when facing the concussive advanced urban culture, rural children will either adapt it or reject it. If the child adapts it, he will be considered as one who forgets the original source. If the child rejects it, he will be seen as a model of rural child, however, spending his entire life in the mountain.

Rural people are frugal in common. As a result, when Gao experienced the prosperous urban life, shopping, entertaining, he started spending money on snacks and amusement park by himself. Moreover, when he was asked whether wanted to go back to rural area, he hesitated for a moment and said “I don’t know”. Consequently, people blamed him, saying that he was lacking in will power when facing material life, and forgetting his roots and simple, thrifty characters. Yet, becoming a “spender” is the rule of urban cities. It is exactly what urban culture taught him and as well as what he needs to do to adapt to the environment, let say the development and rich resources would make him hesitate. Nonetheless, he was again blamed, just because that people saw his identity packed with frugality and they were not willing to accept him to adapt to their urban culture. People believed that going back to rural area and making contribution for his hometown was the right choice.

Seen this way, children like Shi and Luo were highly praised. Shi was always industrious and frugal. When he had time, he did not play or enjoy life, and instead, he did all the housework of the host family as he did at his home in rural area. Luo also refused the pocket money given by his host parents and refused help from school. He said he did not want to always rely on someone else, and he needed to struggle by himself. Then people praised them as having the self-discipline and being brave enough to challenge their poor fate. Nevertheless, more often than not, this praise would not appear if Shi and Luo did not refuse to stay in the city.

Hence, we can tell that rural people are welcome to experience urban life, however, if they stay in the city, enjoy spending, people will think they are affected by the temptation of materialism and addicted to material life. As a consequence, in the reality, it is hard for rural children to have both modern civilization as well as “high morality”.

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