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Golden Goose: The Story of a Peasant Family in Western China

A Book Review and Interview


Golden Goose: The Story of a Peasant Family in Western China by Xu Liu and David Burnett. Published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2019, 186 pages, ISBN 978-981-13-3773-4, ISBN 978-981-13-3774-1. Available in hardback and ebook versions at Palgrave and World Cat

Golden Goose: The Story of a Peasant Family in Western China is the product of “an invaluable intellectual journey” that has provided Dr. David Burnett, a foreigner and professor at Sichuan Normal University (2006-2013, now Professor Emeritus), with the opportunity to enter into a rural experience; and for Liu Xu, a fellow researcher from Sichuan Normal University, to understand more of how her rural compatriots have adapted to a modernizing China. Burnett’s anthropological interest combined with Liu Xu’s familiarity with the local culture and customs and, more significantly, with her knowledge of the local dialect. Together they conducted the interviews that make up the body of this very readable book.

The authors present the stories of Mrs. Zhen’s family over three generations, with members of the family recounting their version of events, charting both family history composed of memorable events as well as significant changes wrought by changing national policies. We trace the impact of decisions made at government level in distant Beijing as they filter down to the village level in the far southwest of Sichuan. It was striking how the political slogans were recalled so clearly and completely many years on; evidence of the effectiveness of the Party’s propaganda system. The book offers testimony to modern China’s achievement in drawing some 500 million people out of extreme poverty in a 36-year period (1981-2017).

Mrs. Zhen is the fulcrum as mother of eight children and grandmother of eleven grandchildren. The family size was typical for that period which also saw a host of other traditional practices governing daily life. The title Golden Goose is the name of the village in one of the many valleys of mountainous Sichuan where Grandma Zhen’s life began. In the 1930s, the majority of tenant farmers there lived simply with just enough to survive, with 50% of their produce being handed over to the landlord. Over the years, the peasant farmers had to respond to civil war, the rise of the Chinese Communist Party, the Great Leap Forward (euphemistic as it was the reverse), the Cultural Revolution, and the opening of China to the wider world. Jin’e is the base from which the family radiated outwards, but we find members in Chengdu and Guangzhou—evidence of the migration that characterized the 1990s to early 2000s.

The quests for an improved life to which Kleinman has referred in his studies (referenced p. 180) are seen in each generation: happiness, success, valued status, helping others. While the quests remain much the same for each generation, the form they take changes. The patterns of daily life change quite dramatically so that the experience of the eight children vary. The prevailing memory of hunger of the 1950s was not a factor for those who grew up in the 1970s, for example. The poverty and ignorance that were the context for Zhen growing up and for her first children, had altered by the time the last child, Dong, was born.

However, a constant seemed to be the hope to be able to “jump out of the peasant category” (p. 143). Getting into a teacher training college was the goal of top students from the villages and starting up a business became a pathway to success as China modernized and the notion of what was “bourgeois” changed. Hence the more tentative business efforts of various family members became acceptable and distinctly advantageous and lucrative. We see the hard work, instilled by parents with childhood chores and responsibilities expected and rewarded. This is combined with taking opportunities as they arise. Zhen’s family could be seen to have several “early adopters” and entrepreneurs who saw the value of implementing new systems of veterinary practice, agricultural methods, and business. We see an ability to ‘吃苦’ (chi ku) or endure suffering.

The family accounts begin and end with Grandma Zhen. In her 80s, she can rightly look back with a sense of accomplishment and yet there is a sadness that is mentioned. She is often lonely, her family members are busy, old traditions are being abandoned. She reflects:

In the years of hunger, my dream was that all my children would live. Now they are not only alive, but they have plenty of food, nice clothes, and a decent place to live. (p. 154)

The final chapter plays to Dr. Burnett’s anthropological expertise. It picks up on some of the main anthropological themes that emerged through the family’s story—the importance of family, the impact of land reform, social mobility, the one child policy, the shift in roles for women in the world of work, education, modernization, and urbanization. Family ties and responsibilities matter: sons are important, the family is a primary concern, marriage is a family decision, responsibilities are age- and gender-related, they stand together in the face of rivalry in the community, and yet the family can be riven by conflict.

There is the tension between family loyalty and honesty for cadres or officials. Land is vital to the family along with the hard work it requires. Education is a means of advancement though it is challenging for girls, with farm work to do, the cost and difficulty in sourcing the necessary supplies, the winter cold, the disruption of political movements,  and competition. Whereas Zhen’s first children rejoiced in entering teacher training college in a nearby town, her grandchildren are studying abroad—a giant leap on which she comments:

When I asked what a “doctoral degree” means, they said it is the topmost level and end of the education process. I don’t believe that there is an end to learning, but I don’t voice my opinions. You know, they are all educated while I still don’t know my letters. (p. 155)

Yet they all stand on her shoulders and those of her husband, Cheng. Again Grandma Zhen observes:

I didn’t mind all the hard work I did for them and sacrificing my life so that they could have a better life. For a poor peasant woman, this is the only gift you can give to your children. (p. 158)

Modernization increased the yields of the land and openings in new areas. Urbanization led to the family being dispersed. Throughout, meals brought people together whether it was sharing precious sweet potatoes or a wedding feast or enjoying a restaurant banquet. The family meal which ends the family story would have perhaps been a much more fitting end than the rather abrupt conclusion of the last chapter. One turns the page expecting it to continue and is surprised to be into the fairly extensive bibliography. This, however, is very useful. So too are the glossary of terms given in both pinyin and Chinese characters (often books have only one or the other) and the footnotes to each chapter which explain terms more fully without having to break the narrative. The sprinkling of Chinese idioms which are retained throughout the text give cultural color and texture.

It is perhaps fitting that the last word is left to Grandma Zhen:      

Even in the most difficult days, I was convinced that one should hold onto life with all one’s strength because this is the only way to have a future; where there is food there is life, where there is life there is hope. (p. 161)

Editor’s note: Our thanks to Palgrave Macmillan for supplying a copy of Golden Goose: The Story of a Peasant Family in Western China by Xu Liu and David Burnett for this review.


A Conversation with Dr. David Burnett

At the beginning of August, I was able to have a conversation about the book with the author, now based in England.

What took you to China in the first place?

A meeting with a Chinese scholar in London interested in education, cross-cultural communication, and minority people groups led to an invitation to Chengdu. I taught for a year during which my wife and I were able to travel into the surrounding countryside. Our stay was extended as I was asked to be a university professor specializing in education and assisting the staff with their Doctoral studies. I also trained Masters students in research methods.

As an anthropologist, what contribution do you see anthropology making to a deeper understanding of China?

Anthropology is the study of others in space. It provides a way of accessing people in different places—in this case in the countryside. China’s highways and highspeed trains go from town to town simply passing through the countryside. Actually going to these places can open up another world, not often explored in some of the literature which has tended to look at families who were better-off or urban. I was trying to find a way to go deeper and get some stories that are the bedrock of anthropological enquiry.

While figures and government reports could suggest how many people in Chinese rural areas had been lifted out of poverty, talking to ordinary people living in rural location would enable one to see how a family experienced the changes. This meant we needed a “gatekeeper” who could pave the way for entry into a community with some acceptance and without suspicion.

As I worked with students, I realized many of them had come from the countryside, making the leap from village to university town. I felt there was lots to learn from them. I also felt there was a need to learn that Han Chinese have “culture;” it is not just the preserve of minority groups.  Social anthropology in not just minority studies (民族学). I feel there is a need to raise awareness and popularize anthropology to make it accessible, which is what story does. It is also for this reason that I went with an academic press. Currently the book is only in English but a Chinese version will be coming out.

What led to you co-operating with Liu Xu?

Liu Xu was a university colleague who I gradually got to know. I realized her knowledge of a rural dialect, Sichuanhua, and English would be hugely helpful. She was also interested in narrative studies. We could work together as insider-outsider, with our different understandings and perceptions.

How did you meet Grandma Zhen?

Like often happens, this was a matter of “serendipity,” meeting someone whose story spanned several generations and depicted the shift from illiterate peasant to grandmother of university graduates. She also wanted her story to be told and known.

How did the book come about?

Interviews were conducted in the minority dialect and then needed to be translated into Mandarin and written up in the current English form which then had to be translated back into the dialect to ensure that the original meaning was maintained and not “lost in translation.”

Having lived in Sichuan, what were the aspects of that part of China that you most enjoyed? Found most challenging?

I enjoyed teaching in English in an English style, which was what was requested. I enjoyed interacting with my students and was interested to note their surprise when I really read and commented on their essays! I appreciated the opportunity to learn some Chinese calligraphy alongside some primary school teachers in their class. It was good to be able to meet up with local Chinese neighbors in our complex off the campus. Learning Chinese especially as a 60-year-old and part-time was challenging but I plodded on.

Thank you, Dr Burnett, for providing another window through which we can see how people have sought to cope with the world and all its problems, trying to survive and even prosper. As you yourself said, “The story goes on…and shifts continue…”. Hopefully others, perhaps those you’ve trained, will build on this work.

 Other China-Related books by Dr. Burnett

The Spirit of China. The Spirit of Buddhism, World of the Spirits, Clash of Worlds, Rgyalrong Conservation and Change: Social Change on the Margins of Tibet.

Image credit: Dominiqueb via Flickr.
Andrea Klopper

Andrea Klopper

Andrea Klopper has taught in South Africa, the United Kingdom, and China. She has mentored Mandarin language students and developed a cultural orientation and acquisition program which she used in two organizations. She is now being challenged to make friends in a new location and learning a new language. She …View Full Bio


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