Et In Arcadia Ego: Romancing the Countryside

Let’s face it. We all do it. Everyone has an image tucked back into their brains somewhere, an idealized notion of the pastoral life. So many people in so many countries share this romantic idea that it must be a common human trait, something that hearkens back to the time we all put down those flint weapons and picked up those first primitive plowshares. As it turned out, growing crops leads to a much longer life, as opposed to hunting wild beasts (including each other) for a living. Good call, forebears.

But the way that we romanticize our own private Garden of Eden varies considerably around the world. Different countries have different romantic notions of the pastoral life, or as I like to call it,  farmer fetishes. In the U.S., where the small farmer is practically an obsolete notion, the fetish is used quite successfully by rent seekers in the great farm subsidy racket (USD 15 billion plus went to fake yeoman farmers last year).

Americans also love the idea of the farmer-turned-politician (or soldier), drawing on the Cincinnatus story to further lionize “gentleman farmers” like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson who managed large spreads in Virginia back in the day with the kind assistance of slave labor.

2010's Version of the Gentleman Farmer/Lawyer

This tradition still speaks to naïve American saps, who have voted in other gentleman farmers over the years, complete with boots and cowboy hats, like George Herbert Walker Bush and son. Most recently, Boston resident and fellow Boston College Law School alum Scott Brown convinced the voters of Massachusetts that his ownership of a truck was proof of his connection with the common (rural) man.

In France, the farmer fetish is militant. A two-second search on Google resulted in the following two stories from the past couple of weeks alone:

Champs-Elysees: French Farmers Torch Hay In Protest

Tractors Invade Paris As Farmers Protest

What are they protesting against? Eh, who cares? It’s always something: subsidies, the Common Agricultural Policy, the Greek financial bailout, and so on. There is not enough space to list all of the grievances that have piled up over the years. I co-authored an entire book on EU trade policy, and I know for a fact that this type of crap has been going on practically since the first time Monnet and Schuman shook hands.

China of course has its own strange fascination with the farmer, and the country still has hundreds of millions of them – certainly not an obsolete demographic like in the West. China’s immediate love affair with farming can be traced back to its Communist roots, and specifically Mao Zedong’s “Going Down to the Countryside” campaign of the late ‘60s/early ‘70s (上山下乡,shangshan xiaxiang – the accepted English term is not a direct translation).

Old School Farmer Fetish - Nicolas Poussin's Et In Arcadia Ego

To simplify, the idea is that the farmer is a font of wisdom, a contrast to the wicked and incorrect notions one picks up in cities living the life of a bourgeoisie. Yes, there I go bringing class into it again.

Back in the ‘60s, the worry was that some folks were backsliding; checking out that wholesome farmer lifestyle was a way to reconnect to ideological purity. Gotta love romanticism, one of my all-time favorite –isms. Coupled with nationalism, romanticism is a sure bet to motivate all those lazy college grads.

With the income gap and class tension back in the news (see my last post on the recent school attacks), our old friend Bo Xilai, who ironically used to be head of the Ministry of Commerce, a bastion of capitalism, is trying to get in on the farmer fetish. Danwei reports on his comments to a group of students-turned-village-administrators:

Today’s Chongqing Evening News reported on Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai’s meeting with university students who had become village-level administrators. Some village cadres reflected with certain remorse how they blundered their jobs in one way or another at the beginning and gradually learned the lack of the true feelings for the people was the cause of all problems. Predictably, Bo, the most authoritative figure present pulled off the old peasants-are-great-let’s-learn-from-them trick once again, praising “farmers have the sincerest emotions” and reiterating that anyone who want to understand China need to understand the Chinese farmers first.

Classic stuff. These two quotes are my favorites:

Our education should not only consist of schools, universities and graduate schools, it should be completed with the vast rural area…What you have learned and experienced there is not inferior to what a graduate school can teach you.

For the Chinese people, the vast countryside has the most fundamental knowledge, hundreds and millions of farmers have the sincerest emotions.

I don’t see Bo’s language motivating any young grads to go back to the countryside to drink at the font of their wisdom. I think he needed a bit more romanticism in his rhetoric. If he had asked me (strangely, he didn’t), I would have given him a copy of Alexander Pope’s “Ode on Solitude” — works every time. Who can resist this sort of romantic claptrap?

How happy he, who free from care
The rage of courts, and noise of towns;
Contented breathes his native air,
In his own grounds.

That’s just the first stanza, and I already feel like hopping on the next train to all points rural.

In addition to being rather uninspiring, Bo’s comments are a bit outdated, although still well within accepted political rhetoric. For the most part, modern Chinese politicians bring out the idealized countryside when pushing policies designed to narrow the income gap, alleviate poverty, and build up adequate education and health care systems.1

It’s nice to know that some kinds of politics never go out of style. From Scott Brown’s pickup truck, to tractors chugging down the Champs-Elysee, to Bo Xilai’s neo-上山下乡, the farmer fetish never fails. As long as the policies enumerated above are the extent of China’s current farm fetish, I think we can all live with the romantic rhetoric. Better than having U.S.-style farm subsidies and rioting French farmers, right?

  1. I couldn’t write an entire post without including at least one reference to the income gap. It’s becoming my “thing.” []


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  1. King Tubby

    Stan. I had written you off, but this post is real fun and a great display of your classical education..Pope/Cincinnatus. I’m not sure about rural life in China, since I don’t like ducks.

    However, I spend half my week in a non-subsidised rural location and few of my neighbours have completed a high school. Nonetheless, we have salt of the earth animated conversations about drugs, alcohol and chain saws when we have a BBQ.

    Rural rhapsodies aint what they used to be.

    • Written me off? I don’t even recall being put “On Notice.”

      I cry foul, sir! There are procedures that must be followed.

      • King Tubby

        Stan, just reread the cd posters social contract and withdraw my first sentence without reservations….was still cooling off after a collision with Kai.
        Your comments on Bo Xilai raised a smile. Really rich stuff from a celebrity pol who wears designer suits, twitters and dyes his hair.
        This legend in his own lunchtime should whip out KM’s complete works and reacquaint himself with the latter’s scabrous views on rural idiocy.
        I may be wrong, but Bo is going for one of the nine slots on the Central Commission. After the way he worked the crowd last month, it will be hard to deny him, but I’m sure there are many in Beijing who would like him suffer a major pratfall
        Young Chinese grads would rather lose their reproductive equipment than take a rural posting

  2. Jones

    Country boy can survive.

    George Washington and Thomas Jefferson? I didn’t know they were known for farming. Or did you just need a reason to mention slaves? You should have mentioned Abraham Lincoln. Or freaking Daniel Boone or something. Jedidiah Smith. Lewis & Clark. Those guys were some awesome, true countrified folks.

    • Washington and Jefferson were the quintessential gentlemen farmers (Mount Vernon and Monticello). Lincoln made his money being a corporate lawyer for the railroads, while the other guys were frontier types. Although there certainly was/is a lot of romanticizing about the U.S. frontier, I was going for the pastoral/farming sort of thing here.

      • Jones

        Yeah, but farmers aren’t known for being rich. They’re known for living off the land. Growing stuff and floating down the river on a flat barge-thing to sell whatever it was he had to sell. His farmer life was definitely that of farmer legend.

        • I think you’re mixing different traditions here. The China farming myth definitely is about the selfless, and penniless, peasant.

          The US tradition is very different and stems from the European/British role of the local lord, who led the pastoral existence while being filthy rich. This is the mythology of Jefferson and Washington.

          The river barge thing . . . Huck Finn? Showboat? Tote that barge, lift that bale, get a little drunk, and you lands in jail.

          • Jones

            Yes, very Huck Finn-like.

            I don’t know, man. We’ve always had the idea that farmers were maybe uneducated, but knew how to fix anything from infertile soil to broken bones and other assorted illnesses to a car engine, using a few random tools and pure, solid American ingenuity. And grit. But I hate the word “grit”. I don’t know why.

          • King Tubby

            Cut it out, guys. You got me humming Summertime and yearning for catfish gumbo.

      • Jones

        and I meant to add that Washington was known for commanding troops, and Jefferson for cutting down bus-loads of men in duels.

        • Politicians often have personal mythologies associated with them. Remember Clinton, the poor kid from a town called Hope? That’s what we’re talking about.

          Washington and Jefferson’s personal stories were both wrapped up in this “gentleman farmer” archetype, which was typical in the U.S. at the time, with echoes to the present. It wasn’t what made them famous.

          Another example: Lincoln in the log cabin, which was a myth created to support the notion of a man from humble beginnings on the frontier.

          • Jones

            Hope, Arkansas is just a 40 minute drive from here. All the awesome stuff made up about Clinton is actually true. All those articles are the only articles they’ve ever written for real journalism rather than satire. Did you know that, on cloudy nights at the University of Arkansas, we use to look out and see his eyes in the clouds, gazing at us? Watching over us? If you listened, in the wind, amongst the rustling of the leaves and between the crow calls…you could hear him calling out. Calling those hogs. “wooooooooo pig sooooie! Arkansas Razorbacks!” It’s true.

          • Bin Wang

            Sarah Palin, the soccer mom who could see Russia from her backyard?

          • Jones

            No, Sarah Palin is a good example of why it took so long for women to get the right to vote.

            She just fits into the middle-class ignorant baby-boomer housewife demographic. My aunt, for example. Rabid Palin supporter, never had actually had a job outside of cooking, cleaning, having kids, raising them to be spoiled brats.

          • Hold up, Jones. This was a bit off-color. I understand that many woman of the housemom demographic supported Palin, but are you suggesting that all/most women who have not worked a post-grad job should be disparaged for “cooking, cleaning, having kids” and raising those kids? Or are you only referring specifically to your aunt and her particularly spoiled offspring?

            Being a good, full-time mother is a hell of a commitment, Jones. And to put that down is a shame — especially the day before Mothers’ Day.

        • Jones

          “She just fits into the middle-class ignorant baby-boomer house wife demographic.”
          Not all middle-class women from the “baby boomer” generation are ignorant housewives. Only the ones from that generation that are ignorant housewives. Not the smart housewives. Just the ignorant ones.

          “My aunt, for example.”
          Kind of explains that I was using my aunt as an example, and the following was a description of her (but also the other ignorant housewives I was talking about).

          “Being a good, full-time mother is a hell of a com­mit ment, Jones. And to put that down is a shame — espe cially the day before Moth ers’ Day.”
          Yeah, because spoiling your kids and not preparing them for actual independent life outside mother’s care is helping kids. That’s why I mentioned spoiling kids. In fact, I wasn’t even talking about normal mothers. Pretty sure that was obvious by not only explaining the ones I was talking about down to a specific generation and mentality-type, but also listing an even more precise, personal example. A couple of weeks ago, this very same aunt screamed at my little brother, calling him a “little shit” because he said Fox News needs to be a bit less biased. But hey, I guess that’s just because she’s stressed from being a full-time mother of a 23 and 21 year old. Pardon me, Kevin.

          • Jones, I’m with you on this one. Despite the American fascination with “fertile” women, if someone spends their whole life pumping out kids without doing anything else, and then decides to spout off on things like foreign policy . . .

            Well, being a mother does not shield someone from being called ignorant and, if the shoe fits, stupid.

            I would never say this about Palin, of course. She is very well educated. Went to five different colleges, I think.

            It’s tough being a mom, but it does not give that person a free pass. I don’t think Kevin was doing that, but many Americans do, particularly religious ones who are firmly convinced that Jeebus wants them to procreate.

          • Basically, I was looking for a clarification, Jones. You did: you assured that it was a narrow scope, not generalizing to most housemoms. Therefore, I have no gripes.

            Stan: it is worth noting that housemoms make up about 0% of the readers here (and it is obviously male dominated). So despite the criticism I might receive from some, I refuse to stay silent when I think women are being disparaged here. The ratio of perspectives isn’t exactly balanced, so someone ought to do so.

          • Kevin, you are a gentleman. Me, I think mothers and babies have been given a free pass for too long – this needs to end.

          • Jones

            Not that I’m saying raising children is easy or anything…but if I were to be given a chance to make a comparison between two women from the same stock: My mother had +1 kid, a full time teaching job, and around my kindergarten year minus a husband…and none of us ever ended up cracked out or dead. In fact, we all ended up getting jobs since the age of 17. So birthing a few kids doesn’t make it impossible to work and whatnot. After a while, offspring usually become sentient and move about on their own.

          • I feel bad for hijacking this blog post with a conversation that is going elsewhere, but it is a worthwhile issue, so I’m going to continue it — apologies, Stan.

            Jones, I think we need to differentiate between two contentions here regarding the responsibilities of mothers. 1) Mothers can be, and often are, working women, either while or after raising one or more kids. 2) Deciding not to work after or while having kids, as a woman, lowers your worth in some sense. (You didn’t say “worth”, but you were obviously putting a more positive flavor on women who work and are moms.)

            I agree with (1). But (2) implies “ought to”. I think people “ought to” contribute to society, but working and being a full-time mother at the same time is not always a reasonable expectation.

            Sometimes, a couple finds it a better arrangement for them to have a full-time parent and a full-time income-maker. In such an arrangement, both are contributing equally to society. One is in the labor force directly; the other is raising the next generation.

            *After* kids get out of the house, you can argue about whether someone “ought to” work from a “good for society” perspective, but expecting someone to work two full-time jobs is something that is neither realistic nor fair.

            Also, we haven’t even asked the opposite gender question. Are housedads more likely to be ignorant or have other qualities that set them apart from working dads or housemoms?

            (A side note: I don’t want to get into your personal business, so feel free to ignore this, but did you go to daycare and have babysitters or stay home alone? If you did, then you didn’t have a full-time homemom. She was a working mom. This is not disparaging here. Indeed, my parents both worked full-time when I was a child. But there are economic and socializing benefits — for some couples — to have a parent that can take care of them instead of leaving them in daycare.)

          • Jones

            “I feel bad for hijack ing this blog post with a con ver sa tion that is going else where, but it is a worth while issue, so I’m going to con tinue it — apologies, Stan.”
            I apologize, too, but then it does have a little to do with it because of the Palin reference earlier, suggesting she was part of the “farmer” culture.

            “I agree with (1). But (2) implies “ought to”. I think people “ought to” contribute to society, but work­ing and being a full-time mother at the same time is not always a reasonable expectation.”
            Well, if you can manage to pull it off without working, that’s cool. But as far as being vocal in politics, I think you’d need a little bit more experience when it comes to working. A large portion of modern politics, in the US at least (and I’d suspect elsewhere) has to do with jobs and economics. I don’t mind if a mother stays at home to raise her kids up until they’ve moved out of the house. I personally wouldn’t want a housewife. However, I was only mentioning this housewife business when it comes to political knowledge and real-world experience. I know raising kids is real world experience, but again, modern times has employment really high on the list of important stuff.

            “Also, we haven’t even asked the opposite gender ques tion. Are house dads more likely to be ignorant or have other qualities that set them apart from work ing dads or housemoms?”
            As far as a difference between the sexes, no. Experience in what I mentioned before? Well, if they had never had a job, or only for a little while…I’d say they were less experienced than the working dads. However, I’m not suggesting all housewives/housemoms are stupid or ignorant. I’m just talking about this one kind. I really wish I had a way of explaining the ones I am talking about to a better degree. It’s one of those things you have to experience. I grew up in a small town in the middle of nowhere. Right smack in the middle of the bible belt. The type of “woman” I mentioned is thick here (although I don’t really want it to be taken like some sexist thing. I only mentioned women when it pertained to Palin, because we all know that that was part of the demographic they were aiming for).

            “(A side note: I don’t want to get into your per­sonal busi ness, so feel free to ignore this, but did you go to day care and have babysit ters or stay home alone? If you did, then you didn’t have a full-time home mom. She was a working mom. This is not disparaging here. Indeed, my parents both worked full-time when I was a child. But there are economic and socializing benefits — for some cou­ples — to have a parent that can take care of them instead of leaving them in daycare.)”
            It’s cool. When I was young, both of my parents were full time teachers. We had a babysitter at one point but she was a bit too aggressive with physical punishment on really small children. Then we stayed with our grandma who was more than happy to keep us. Once we were all old enough to be in school, problem solved. Mother Dearest taught at the same school system and all.

          • First, an aside, Jones, have you noticed the consistent -1’s by my comments above? Haha. This is either funny because it’s you (which I find awesome) or because its’ a stalker/lover among the trolls here. Come on, dearest, rear your ugly head — who likes me so much?

            Second, back on topic. You make an interesting point on a houseparent not having a particular perspective in economic affairs outside of those connected with the immediate family. Yet I have two comments on this:

            A) This assumes these parents didn’t have experience before having kids that have broadened their understanding (not to forget education in business, economics, etc. that may have given them some perspective).

            B) Because the economy is made up of a wealth of different sectors and compenonents, including the family, wouldn’t a homeparent have just as much specialized economic/political perspective as a doctor would have in another sector of the economy? I mean, surely many houseparents are masters of the workings and pertinent issues of family (and often primary education) affairs. Indeed, sometimes a full-time worker *and* parent may not have such a clear perspective on what is going on at home and in the schools because their responsibilities are split among different places/people.

            In short, when you say employment is high on the list of important political issues, I would also ask, isn’t education? Or isn’t, more broadly, the needs of the next generation?

            Third, your babysitter sounded like a real asshole. Aren’t loving grandmas the best? I was also fortunate enough to have two grandparents help out pretty often while my parents were at working. (Both are dentists, though at that time, my mom was getting her dental agree after an hour one-way daily commute for four years, so she was elsewhere during the daytimes.)

          • Jones

            “First, an aside, Jones, have you noticed the con sis tent –1’s by my com ments above? Haha. This is either funny because it’s you (which I find awe some) or because its’ a stalker/lover among the trolls here. Come on, dear est, rear your ugly head — who likes me so much?”

            Um, well, sorry Kevin. It’s not me. Aside from the second paragraph of your first response, I didn’t find anything to be that bad. Your “-1″s are not consistent, nor are they all “-1″s. Don’t be paranoid/knee-jerkish. I don’t really appreciate you considering me as being that sort of person to put much stock in the rating thing, and think I’d be getting you back or something. But whatever, man.

            “In short, when you say employ ment is high on the list of impor tant polit i cal issues, I would also ask, isn’t edu ca tion? Or isn’t, more broadly, the needs of the next generation?”
            Again, it’s not that I think all housewives are ignorant buffoons that are incapable of at least learning how the world works from hearing about it on TV or their husbands, or reading about it in books, etc. In fact, the first mentioning of “ignorant housewives” was pretty much going along with the Palin joke above.

            As far as Education: I really wish it was higher up on the list of important things to fix. I don’t know if you’ve heard about the Texas Board of Education’s (who, by the way, makes textbooks for a lot of other states) recent decision to change up the content of the history books. They’re taking it a step backward. But you never hear anything out of the government as far as education is concerned.

            “Third, your babysit ter sounded like a real ass hole. Aren’t lov ing grand mas the best? I was also for tu­nate enough to have two grand par ents help out pretty often while my par ents were at work ing. (Both are den tists, though at that time, my mom was get ting her den tal agree after an hour one-way daily com mute for four years, so she was else where dur ing the daytimes.)”
            I wish mine was a dentist. I am in need of some major dental work but have no insurance (even though I work full time). However, my girlfriend is about to leave Kaohsiung for Taipei to start her residency or whatever for her dental degree. I hope to get some free veneers out of this.

          • Jones, I was (unsuccessfully) trying to express sarcasm about the minus-one’s — failure! I don’t think it was you; probably one of the many anonymous friends I’ve made here.

            Texas books re: yeah, I definitely remember this. I had a long email exchange with a group of friends over the subject when it first came out a few months ago. It is a travesty. Speaking of ignorance, I’m sure there were at least a few ignorant people involved in that political process.

      • Bai Ren

        Weren’t they hemp farmers? Didn’t this become demphasised later as the cotton industry gained more importance/acceptance?

  3. Bin Wang

    Man, Hamsun’s “Growth of the Soil” is the GREATEST book ever! Home of the original farmer’s fetish!

  4. Well written, certainly US, with 16 million now living countryside with less than 1 million actually farming, has gone “Green Acres.” Nonetheless, the true rub will occur when traditional farming methods, which so inefficiently uses water, needs to be radically altered as a conservation measure. Faced with the potential removal of the traditional farming methods and lifestyle, romance vs realism will be put to the test.

  5. Bai Ren

    Romanticism and farming. Interesting. Now romanticism that was quintesential 18th/19th century German (not nation but collection of nations’) specialty? “In the beginning there was nepoleon” and his army would march through germany every time he went off campaigning through Europe (except maybe for spain or belgium). In Germany nations were either allied with or fought against the French both had to devote major resourses as the cost of allegiance or defiance against the little general. This lead to rapid centralization and industrialization (ie emapnsipation of surf farmers and up the number of factory workers).

    On top of this the French claimed to be the bringers of the Enlightenment -to establish it throughout the world. Well what was the reactionary philosophy to the englitenment which claimed nature to have aknowable underlying order? romanticism which claimed things are not as they first appear etc.

    Anyways I agree that farmers have long been romanticised -especially by poets and in politics. However I wanted to have a little fun with the history between the rise of romanticism and the start of moveing away from an agricultural society in Germany.

    Anyone know about the School House at Brickyard Inn by the Great Wall???
    Check it out. The ‘romanticism’ of rural combined (naturally of course) with sustainability.
    In mid June a conference will be hosted here on the relationship intellectuals have with the rural community. Yours truely will be onsite and hope to get some blog post on it.

  6. lolz

    Well, one of the bigger problems with China today is people from country side (乡下) abandoning the farming lifestyle and moving into the cities to become migrants. There is already tons of tension around the income disparity issue, the fact that people from the cities look down at the migrants does not help.

    I think it’s interesting that in developed nations you constantly get the media saying how great the rural country side is, the mountains, the leafs, the outdoor, etc. In China most people simply worship the cities and a rural lifestyle is rarely glorified in the media other than some stuff about Mao and the birth of the communist party (generally boring stuff which few watches anymore).

    Whereas in other nations there is nothing wrong with people moving from large cities to move into rural areas to settle down, to move from Shanghai to some country side (including “smaller” cities with “only” a few million in population) would be considered a major fail. As long as people continue to feel this way you will continue to get overcrowded cities and unhappy country side folks.

    Like the US, majority of the Chinese people still live in the country side, though China is not a democracy its still good for Chinese politicians to be popular.

    • Yes, that’s the key difference between US and China right now on this issue. PRC politicians doing this actually can get support from people who still live in rural areas. In US, it is a romantic appeal to people who actually live in cities and suburbs.

  7. King Tubby

    Here is a pre-breakfast prediction: the Huffington Post piece on the Expo by Escobar will soon feature above courtesy of Kai.

    • Haven’t even read it yet. I’m going to now but you may have doomed your prediction into becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

      • Just read it. It had actually already been marked as read, as in I skipped over it because the title didn’t catch my eye. I like how the writer writes but i didn’t see anything I wanted to respond to. I think most of the piece tries too hard to counter, temper, or challenge things that aren’t really established. Shrug.

  8. There’s nothing fascinating nor insightful about this post, you’re hardly the first to observe this phenomena. My dad used to say “President Roh acts like he’s some fucking amazing man of the people because he comes from a poor village near Pusan, so do I and I’m more qualified to be President than he is because I’m not a whoremongering bribe-taking commie-lover”. IMO my dad would have been a great President but unfortunately he didn’t have the underworld connections that Roh had.

    You’re far from the first to point out the romanticisation of the peasantry and you won’t be the last.

    • bai ren

      Wow, criticising someone for using a model for communicating an event for the purpose of building knowledge.
      Playa you either suck because like a sour candy you are embittered
      or you suck because you are all up for emoting and know little of the game of dialectic knoweldge building practices.
      and what a fidel son, shouldnt most of uis believe that out fathers would have made a better national leader and would have if not, if not, if not… and if ‘if nots and buts were candy and nuts”
      considering this is an old post \I only hope you can read it and see your shame

Continuing the Discussion