The Old Dominion and Old China in Sympathy

Talking with a friend today, I recognized something consciously that had been only intuitive in feeling before: part of the appeal of Virginia to me, part of the reason I could identify with Virginia despite my much looser relation to America, was its familiarity to my Chinese blood. The aristocratic and localist agrarian culture of the Old Dominion bears a certain resemblance – even a ‘family resemblance’ – to the agrarian culture you can see in, say, a 1980 Hong Kong drama set in the countryside of Guangdong province.

Obvious differences between Anglo-Saxon and Chinese cultures notwithstanding, the culture of the Old Dominion is perhaps the most Chinese culture native to America. Common to rural Guangdong and the Old Dominion was a conservative power of local agrarian élites, and a respect for settled custom. Church vestries, dominated by plantation laymen, were socially powerful in colonial Virginia, and they wanted to keep it that way rather than having local bishops sent from England to interfere in local affairs. This would have been very familiar to a Chinese villager from Guangdong province. In rural Guangdong, villages had elders who led and advised villagers, but the local Confucian gentry dominated village politics. Rarely would anything change without the permission of the local landlord, and rarely would an actual official from the emperor show up. To have anything referred to the actual officials was a big deal, and villagers generally avoided such trouble even if the judgements of the landlord were not to their liking. Besides, the bribery that might be required for fair judgements from county magistrates was beyond the means of most common folk. Unsurprisingly, much about old Virginia was something my heart grasped, because of the place my own family had come from, the place where my family had lived for 700 years or more.

Needless to say, old China was a deeply flawed society, in need of reform and perhaps even social revolution in the early 20th century; in view of some of the injustices in this system’s last decadent period, it also is unsurprising that villagers during the Cultural Revolution rose up against long-resented landlords. Nevertheless, to an urban Hong Kong audience in the 1980s there could also be a measure of nostalgia for this old China in which everyone knew each other, and there was a known order. For all its flaws, it was also a deeply human order in which the drama of human struggle could be appreciated on the TV screens of Hongkongers 70 years later.

I believe that sympathetic appreciation of this old order, warts and all, is essential for the formation of America’s future, but that very thing is what America lacks today. The success in 1980s Hong Kong of a daily TV drama series told from the point of view of a peasant family, with sympathetic treatments of the landlord, the village gossip, and other characters, suggests the value of such literature even in a modern urban society. Dixie has had William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor, and others, but there seems to be a vacuum today. Virginia needs new prominent literary voices to show its human drama in a way that people today can understand and relate to, voices that love the South for what it is and sing out the dramas of the Virginian heart.

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