Rural China: tradition and transformation

By ZHAO XUDONG / 07-14-2022 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Yuexi Village from Anhui Province develops distinctive rural industries by utilizing its local advantages.  Photo: Wu Junqi/CNS

In what way should China be understood, and how do we cultivate a clear awareness of the time-honored Chinese cultural tradition and understand its future—this has always been the academic pursuit of Chinese scholars with a very strong sense of social responsibility. In this regard, the Chinese scholar Fei Xiaotong is a model. Fei has his own way of understanding China, by conducting on-site investigations in combination with sociological, anthropological, and ethnographic methods. 

Personal logic within social network
Beyond the above, the most memorable work demonstrating Fei’s understanding of China is his book From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society, published in 1948. An overall summary of anthropology-based field investigations on Chinese society and culture, the book initiated his study on small town construction in the context of urban-rural integration. In it, his vision that diversified world civilizations coexist with harmony in the future despite their differences is also demonstrated. 
If we carefully read each piece of the articles included in this book, readers will surely realize Fei’s extremely keen observations and reflections on Chinese society. He reminds us of the existence of a logic that threads across social relationships—that is, all types of social relationships can be judged based on interpersonal networks, which are characterized by either close or estranged distance between persons. 
Within this network, a type of personal logic, which is both individual and social, is hidden. Based on it, right or wrong, justice or injustice, and moral ethics are judged. 
Therefore, in “rural China,” people pay more attention to interpersonal relationships than abstract legal rules. Such relationships fundamentally embody the people’s emotional ideas of other specific persons and specific things. This also, imperceptibly, strengthens interpersonal bonds and ties between each other. In a society that attaches great importance to human relations, there is in fact a very fundamental concept at play, which is what Fei called “the morality of personal relationships.” It is this powerful moral effect that makes it difficult for public spaces, which extend beyond all personal connections, to truly play a role in society. 
Orderly local governance
As the result of such a reality, so-called public spaces must rely on those with a local authority or elite figures that enjoy unique positions and status in grass-roots society. Therefore, whether discussing construction of a rural road, children’s education, moral enlightenment, or public affairs, rural areas must rely on these authoritative figures to find solutions. These persons are also part of social networks, and their nodes in the network are more prominent than others, making themselves more attractive than commoners. As a result, they possess more internal and external resources for resource acquisition and utilization, which further strengthens the personal dependence on these figures from local communities in the vicinity, so that many people are ever more firmly bound to their authority for protection. In this relationship, people voluntarily participate in grass-roots public affairs and obey arrangements of local public affairs  rather than casually violating or defying them.
Such interconnected and interdependent forms of personal relationships also provide a completely autonomous, well-regulated space for local grass-roots governance. These spaces in rural life have become the basis to maintain order, and external forces usually cannot intervene. This layer of autonomy insulates village affairs from outside elements, forming a relatively independent space of its own. This is what Fei revealed in his book about the fundamental form of local order in rural China, which can persist for decades and will not easily change.
Changes in rural China
In addition, it needs to be noted that we are witnessing a reality of the so-called “changing rural China,” which is happening now, and it can even be said that these changes were underway when Fei wrote the book or even earlier than the days of his book writing. These kind of changes in rural China are already taking place—due to the modern Western world’s impacts on rural China—this is a fact which no one can deny. Today we must face frankly the changes, understand where they are going, and their future. If we say that kinship and acquaintanceship used to be the basis of local social relationships, then today, various forms of new contractual relations that break away from human relations are ruthlessly replacing former connections in rural society. More types of rural relationships which originally relied on rural life are now increasingly influenced by new contractual relationships in a sweeping way, such as the gradual establishment of commodity trade relationships based on wages. As this new form of rural relationship has become prominent in today’s villages, a type of social and cultural transformation looking into the future inevitably occurs in rural China.
This transformation has been accelerating as China implemented the reform and opening up and is increasingly integrated into the world economy over the past 40+ years. It is not rare for many township-level enterprises, which used to rely on their own towns and villages, have continuously expanded the scale and finally entered the world market. A form of localized globalization has become a common reality in some affluent villages in China. In addition, due to the popularity of mobile internet technology, transformation of rural China now has a real-time virtual presence. Live streaming goods and sales made through short videos have scattered across urban and rural areas, e-commerce platforms are embedded in rural homes, and easily accessible global logistics systems are making life in remote villages more connected to the rest of the world. Global political and economic fluctuations are also directly connected to daily life in rural areas. In this sense, urban and rural areas are no longer separate from each other, but are more complementary and interdependent.
Clearly, compared with the collapsing power of rural order, which occurred in the era when Fei wrote his book, people really want China’s rural revitalization to be realized in the near future. It is perhaps this kind of deep thinking of the shared hope that motivates us, the later generations, to re-read his book From the Soil: The Foundations of Chinese Society today
Zhao Xudong is director and professor from School of Sociology and Population Studies at Renmin University of China. 
Edited by BAI LE