Stepping into Nanjie Village is like peering through an unglamorous window into the communist China of the ‘50s – in all its nostalgic glory.
The Village certainly seemed to be off the map. My travel companion and I had arrived in Zhengzhou – Henan’s provincial capital – but misguidedly embarked on a punishing five hour journey through agricultural hamlets, changing buses at distant Xuchang city, before finally stepping off onto National Road at 2pm. Having wasted so much time on the road, it seemed like the trip had ended before it had even begun. Nonetheless, a revolutionary-red banner formerly welcomed us to Nanjie Village. With little idea of what to expect, we entered and buried all worries of returning to Zhengzhou in time for our night train to Beijing– for the present.
Walking down Ying Song Avenue, the first mission was undoubtedly to find a toilet. At once we made our way through a vast, deserted restaurant that was decked out with a myriad of Chinese red lanterns and framed Mao Zedong portraits. Our feet squeaked on the linoleum and waitresses peered out idly from unused banquet rooms. It felt surreal to be there, and this feeling was soon exacerbated by the boisterous accompaniment of the Chinese national anthem to my stint in the WC. We left the restaurant sheepishly and entered a supermarket in order to find our bearings. ‘Souvenir shop’ would have been a more adequate name for such an establishment, owned as it was by the Tourist Service Centre. Sterile and devoid of customers, it chose to fill otherwise unoccupied shelves with a paltry mixture of Mao statuettes and snacks. Promotion bins and surrounding shelves remained completely empty. While the woman scanning my pack of tissues wore a green revolutionary uniform, the other three members of staff didn’t. With a lack of errands to do, they chatted amongst themselves and asked me a few lacklustre questions about ‘life in the West’. Incredibly, one of the staff members was a young man who had lived in New York for two years as a teenager. I asked him how he could possibly readjust to life in the collective and he coyly remarked that it was “different”, with nothing more to say. The supermarket left me with a feeling of incongruity but with time against us, I merely asked the man for a map and some scenic recommendations.
We were advised to make for the East is Red Square, followed by the Chaoyang Gate and Square. With this in mind, we continued to walk down Ying Song Avenue – pressing due east past the Instant Noodles Factory, the Arts and Crafts Corporation and Village Committee. We passed beneath numerous blazing red communist slogans, one of which read: “A drop of water only needs to be part of a great ocean to never dry up; a person can only have his greatest strength when part of a collective body”. In Nanjiecun, water coolers are stationed outside factory buildings and are seemingly intended for free public provision. Next to each of these are propped sandwich boards featuring Lei Feng: a PLA soldier mythologised during the Cultural Revolution as the ultimate model Chinese citizen. Captions encourage readers to: “Learn from the spirit of Lei Feng, Be a good person, Do good deeds, Produce good products.”
On finally reaching the square, what had struck us on entering the complex now became impossible to ignore: Nanjiecun was virtually devoid of people. The streets had been fairly vacant throughout our stroll and the East is Red Square was no exception. Speakerphones broadcasted excerpts from Mao’s Little Red Book and his giant, marble-white figure jutted up on a pedestal in the near-distance, fortified by two armed guards on a 24-hour vigil. The four faces of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin radiated from their respective positions between an ensemble of flag-poles and a steel gateway in the shape of a rainbow.
It seems obvious in hindsight that the Village’s basic inconsistency lay in the paradox between its industrious aesthetic and seeming inactivity. The image of communism was deliberately preserved via an avid combination of iconography and sloganeering. Yet, where were the civilians? Aside from a steady stream of traffic down Ying Song Avenue, Nanjiecun had felt like a ghost town. No one had been seen to enter or leave the many factories and companies that had lined the walk down to East is Red Square. In fact, figures in 2008 showed that the Village had accrued debts of over 1 billion yuan and was effectively being funded by the Agricultural Bank of China. Reports circulated, positing that Nanjiecun was perhaps merely a costly fraud, constructed by the government to demonstrate China’s enduring collectivist capabilities to foreign visitors. The Tourist Service Centre-owned ‘supermarket’ I visited had certainly felt like an imposter. After all, amongst the sparse stock of Mao memorabilia, how was one expected to buy one’s groceries?
We made towards Chaoyang Gate and noted Sun Yatsen’s face gazing beatifically down at the square, before flagging down a pedal-powered tricycle to take us beyond the gate. By now it was past 5pm and we wanted to hasten towards the bus station. Our driver was a conversational old man called Mr Wang. As a resident of the village since birth, Wang possesses an unwavering faith in Maoist ideology. He gestured towards the Mao medallion hanging from his rear-view mirror as some kind of steadfast indicator of his convictions.
“Have you ever visited major cities in China – Beijing, Shanghai..?” I asked him tentatively. He responded in the affirmative.
“So how does it make you feel, knowing that the rest of China has now largely abandoned communist ideology?” Our driver laughed indignantly. He retorted that China remains loyal to its political principles from decades past.
“I’m 74 years old!” Wang declared, “Things haven’t changed here since I was a boy.”
Despite the paradoxes, here was a civilian singing praises for the collective in which he had been raised. Could it be that Mr Wang had spent his whole life swept up in a nostalgic haze of Nanjiecun rhetoric? Or perhaps only the shell of a once-active collective remained after 60 years of progress, unbeknownst to our driver? Looking around us, the Village on this side of the gate was a more familiar Chinese scene. Locals bustled and steam rose from street-vendor stalls. It was a striking contrast to the orderly lines and pristine pavements of where we had spent the early afternoon. While Nanjiecun proper contained such self-explanatory establishments as the Flavouring Factory, Packing Plant and Food & Drink Company, it was evident that east of Chaoyang Gate was where residents actually lived and thrived. Mr Wang sighed and remarked: “You should have met me earlier! I could have given you a real tour of the village and shown you my home!”
Visiting Wang’s home may well have helped me understand the contradictions between a film-set village and an authentic old man. With no choice but to politely refuse his offer, I bitterly regretted the lack of time on our hands as the vehicle cruised tightly into the after-school traffic jam. Many Chinese friends and relatives were bemused to hear about my visit to this obscure Chinese village, struggling to understand my motivations for going. Indeed, in an economy radically departing from its past, it is not uncommon to be greeted with a rolling of eyes at the mention of communism. But whether the west of Chaoyang Gate is just a costly façade or a fully-functioning industrial sector for Nanjiecun, it is clear that all the Maoist posturing has not been lost on some residents. The LP Guide states that Nanjie Village “perhaps resembles an average town in North Korea”. Its austere charm is undeniable, and short of visiting the DPRK, it is sure to captivate any future traveller in China.