He Bought Houses for the Whole Village

In China, nearly everyone has at least one story about, “someone from village ‘X’ started a business and got really rich, so he bought houses for the whole village.”  I’ve heard several variations, from people in different walks of life, over the past couple of years.  Although the details vary widely, the stories are sometimes true, and follow that same basic pattern.

I began to wonder, why is this such an appealing story for people to tell one another, and do we have similar stories in America?  That is, what kind of “good fortune” story is likely to get quickly passed from mouth to mouth among Americans?

At first blush, the Chinese version of the story is one that would rarely spread in the west.  Since Martin Luther and the end of Catholic “indulgences”, we tend to see big handouts from rich people as attempts to wash away past sins.  That’s not to say that buying people houses is a bad thing; it’s just that westerners are programmed to be suspicious of such gestures.

The other thing that’s different, I think, is that America has historically had a culture of self-reliance; so buying a house is like giving someone a fish.  The saying goes, “give a man a fish, he eats for a day; teach him to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.”  Buying a house for someone just makes them dependent on you.

As a contrast, the story of Johnny Appleseed was of a man who spent his life planting trees for villages across the country.  Americans are taught that Benjamin Franklin used his wealth to spread libraries; Carnegie and Rockefeller (both the worlds’ richest men during their times) spent their wealth on libraries and universities.

However, I think it’s a bit too soon to criticize the rapidity of “house buying” stories in China.  The stories of “school buying” in America are a matter of history, while Chinese are doing this today.  Take a look at China Tomorrow, an organization founded by MSFT employees (but open to anyone, including Google employees :-)) that has given nearly 3 million RMB to build and renovate more than 80 schools across Chinese countryside.  This is just one organizations; I’ve seen many examples of individuals and organizations making huge contributions to the education of their home villages.

And in contrast, I note that in America today, Gates foundation (the pooling of resources of the world’s two richest men) gets press for fighting AIDS, but not much press for their work in education.  The story told amongst the general population could be paraphrased as “These guys got really rich, and at least one of them was really hated by the competitors he beat, but they are being nice and helping sick people around the world.”  That is, the storyline is basically that they are buying indulgences.

As William Loughborough calls it, the “catch and release” strategy.  Certainly a lot better than the “catch and keep” strategy, but not necessarily perceived by most people as much more than a net wash.

It remains to be seen if Gates foundation approach to education (do basic research about what works and doesn’t; rather than buy more teachers — in essence, “teach the teachers to teach the teachers to teach”, or something like that) will have as much impact as Franklin, Carnegie or Rockefeller.  But the bigger problem, in my mind, is that Americans don’t even tell the story anymore.  The stories that seem to spread today are about indulgence-by-AIDS-research, or “Ann Nicole got rich by marrying and old guy, and had a baby with her lawyer”.  The most common “good fortune” stories are about some kid from some cornfield who did something ingenious and now has a jet and indoor basketball court.  Or some guy built a biotech company and now has villas on 3 continents.  That is, our word of mouth heroes are people who spend their money on incredibly stupid stuff.  To be fair, China has some of these stories too, but not quite the virulence that they have in America.

3 thoughts on “He Bought Houses for the Whole Village”

  1. Of course the specific in the U.S. is the basketball star’s first purchase with his bonus: a new home for mama or grandma (lots of single-parent athletes!) and many athletes’ largesse with foundations or even just public service TV spots about community stuff.

    The blatant fact that as a community we have so much accrued old money wealth (lots of it from undistributed pump royalties! [the old guy’s standard exemplar]) and even larger caches of accrued commons holdings (what am I bid for this Grand Canyon?) that building homes for all 6 x 10^9 of us would be a whole lot more doable than shooting a missile with a missile.

    Bucky calls it moving from weaponry to livingry and the fact that it isn’t the basis for a revolutionary movement anywhere is striking. We speak of the horrors of genocide and war and… yet we countenance a transportation “system” in America that kills 30,000 a year and maims 10 times that number.

    WTF are we doing?


  2. We don’t have a patronage society in the US anymore. I think that’s a good thing. We value making it on your own because many people can. And also, we don’t that many villages either. 🙂

    Seriously – it’s apples and oranges. The US is a modern culture. China is a traditional culture on its way to modernizing. There’s a big difference.

    And also, I don’t know many people who consider lavish consumption heroic.

    It’s the “he built a biotech company” part that is heroic in this country. We value building wealth and productivity. I personally don’t knokw anyone who considers owning three villas heroic. But they do consider the building of a company heroic. Give us more credit, please. 🙂

  3. The U.S. never *had* a patronage culture, though. If anything, we’ve gone from less paternalistic to more paternalistic as we’ve modernized — so I think the progression is backwards to what you’re suggesting. Perhaps as the U.S. becomes a mature culture, we will be as paternalistic as “old Europe” and China 🙂

    Also, I wasn’t talking about “heroic” stories. I am more interested in the kinds of explanations people use for good fortune, and what the outcome is. In China’s case, the propagation of patronage stories is probably largely due to the government holding up these as examples of “socialism in action”. The propagation of “he bought himself lavish villas” is probably in large part to western (over)emphasis on individualism. Neither set of stories is all that attractive to me, but they spread quickly in their respective cultures. That’s the part that’s interesting to me — why they spread.

    William: True; I blogged about Mike Tyson’s houses before. And rappers like to take semi truck trailer loads of toys and dump them on ghetto neighborhoods. IMO, that’s similar to the “houses for the whole village” story. It’s the opposite of barnraising.

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