Viewing rural China through lens of anthropology

By ZHAO XUDONG / 01-13-2022 / (Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A group of men carry a deity statue while running across burning charcoal, barefoot, to celebrate the Lantern Festival in Daodi Village, Lianhua County, Tong’an District in Xiamen, southeast China’s Fujian Province. Many villages in China have their own cultural traditions to bolster their self-development. Photo: CFP 

From the perspective of global cultural development, rural China represents a type of economic culture. It doesn’t belong to a necessary or indispensable link in the evolution of a certain civilization, nor is it dependent on the so-called “center” of the world system according to dependency theory. Rather, rural China is a space that shapes its survival and growth with its own peculiar characters and history. The enduring rural nature has endowed it with distinctive value. 
Village as key unit
From anthropological perspectives, the Chinese rural civilization is culturally unique and complete. It is essential to understand rural China through the lens of village life, or to go back to the countryside itself in anthropological fieldwork. The return to anthropology is necessarily a close, not distant, understanding; an immersive, not detached, experience; an internal, not external, perspective; and a dynamic, not static, self-creative occurrence. Only in this way can the subjectivity of Chinese rural areas, as well as their special creative transformation mechanism be reinforced, their driving forces be unleashed, and rural vitalization practices keep pace with the times. 
In this sense, however abstract and disengaged, rural China consists of villages by nature. Its continuation and development have a singular value in terms of spatial-temporal correlations, and contain resilient self-development, bonding society and culture in a certain time and space, while constantly shaping itself through history, in an uninterrupted construction cycle with maintained self-awareness.
All these can be, anthropologically, epitomized in the countryside’s own social and cultural characters. Anthropologists can observe and experience these social and cultural attributes through fieldwork. 
Spanning an extremely wide scope, Chinese village life is about vigor and vitality which arises from dependency on the natural environment. It is not a result of artificial planning, which relies on external institutionalized systems. As such, villages have cultural networks that retain their resilience. This is the premise for diverse village cultures, created by those existing or living on the land in different historically continuous moments, and for traceable trajectories or clues of village life in history. In the differentiated patterns of rural life, one village can be entirely different from another. Each village is uniquely valuable and significant for its environment and people. 
External perspective inadvisable
Every village in China naturally has a specific historic interpretation of its own ecological environment, occurrences, and life and value choices. In other words, each village can be considered self-sufficient. Participatory observation in anthropological fieldwork underlines the need to present the rich connotations and profound meaning of unique village life. In this regard, depictions in extant ethnographical works have provided more impressive, vivid cases. This is preconditioned by placing researchers in local areas to observe, rather than imposing a rigid understanding from an outsider or bystander perspective.   
Therefore, when studying Chinese rural society in depth, it is not advisable to think from external viewpoints with preconceptions. Cold words like “poverty,” “underdeveloped,” and “construction” resulting from the guidance of grand discourse, and external elites’ interventions, attempting to effect changes on the countryside through powerful discourse and forceful task arrangements, are not appropriate. Also inappropriate is the practice of directly casting those concepts and practices upon villages that live freely with their own historical sense and self-identity, or imposing them on the seemingly declining countryside (as compared to modern metropolises) without consultation and discussion. 
It is more appropriate to understand the countryside through the lens of local villagers’ cultural consciousness. The countryside’s long-term cultural existence self-adjusts and self-adapts to reflect its destiny, so the development of villages should be demonstrated along their life trajectories. Arbitrary development plans and projects are divorced from the realities of village life, and will not generate desirable results in the long run. Such practices will be shelved as unfinished projects, nothing but a flash in the pan, and will turn out to be irremediable failures in the midst of rural development. Creative endeavors for rural vitalization should obviously avoid such consequences to enable the villages to live on independently. 
The more developed the modern world is, traditional villages as a signifier for unvarnished truth will show more distinct value. The land, customs, and lifestyles have become new symbols and symbolic spaces, which many people yearn for and chase after. They usually rediscover the countryside when traveling to villages in response to inexplicable nostalgia, and in pursuit of a fresh environment, and thus have the opportunity to experientially discover and understand the existential value of the countryside, a place for healing the souls of modern people. 
Completeness of village life
Chinese villages, large and small, exist vividly around us as part of an entire culture just like us, rather than “others” who are far away. When examining their contemporary and future life, we are actually examining our own contemporary and future life. From this viewpoint, there is hardly a distinction between us and the villages. Obviously, we and the villages live in one community. 
The close relationship between us and the countryside allows both sides to depend on each other to cope with a wide range of possible crises and challenges, and jointly plan for growth from “being together.” The history of growth will inevitably fuse with the spirit of the times, from which we can reframe each other’s existence. 
This history can be anthropological, sociological, ethnographical, literary, and artistic, and even ecological and architectural. It must be a convergence of multiple disciplines, and therefore requires us to holistically welcome all people who are keenly interested in rural studies and development to take part. 
Scholars of all disciplines have the right to participate in, feel, and understand villages alongside changes to rural areas. In this sense, rural China is open to all. However, it is worth noting that the countryside lives in people’s practices as an integrated culture. Thus it is crucial to witness clearly, and faithfully record, where the vitality of this culture comes from and what is bolstering continuous rural development. 
Without this awareness, it is very likely to encourage outsider perspectives, and start to arbitrarily deconstruct the countryside’s existence, which indicates a total negation of the reality built by the countryside’s own holistic culture. These actions discretionarily objectify the countryside, and eventually disintegrate it. 
All villages, particularly Chinese villages, are preconditioned by their existence as an entirety. Based on the entirety, the village associates and bonds historically, societally, and culturally, with other different local societies, inheriting and developing traditional festive ceremonies that represent local identity and other material and intellectual cultures.
Such investigations into cultural practices will lead to a richer overall social picture marked by indestructible kinship networks and a cumulative differential model of association for human relationships. The overall picture still stimulates the vision of social life in the countryside. This vision is key to the contemporary rural vitalization era in the three stages of rustic China, reconstruction of rural land, and vitalization of the countryside, because all vitalization endeavors will never obliterate the existence of the overall picture, but aim to steer people toward it. 
Not a problematic existence 
Admittedly, there are unavoidable problems in the countryside after industrialization and even post-industrialization infiltrates village life comprehensively amid rural development. It seems that rural China is plagued and overwhelmed by problems. However, the problems are not inherent or native to the villages. Instead, they were gradually generated and accumulated after the countryside became exposed to industrialized or modernized life. Most challenging problems are not intrinsic to the countryside itself. 
In a rural world that used to depend more on its own traditions or customs, the solution to many problems must come from the power of rural life. In the process of adaptation, the countryside is also slowly dissipating these problems. 
Only when the established conventions and customs of life are disconnected, absent, or incomplete, will genuine rural problems arise. Otherwise, as an independent space, the countryside is sustained by a self-sufficient, sound mechanism. Interdependence between man and nature, as well as measures for cultural adaptation which have been deeply internalized in each villager’s body and mind, guarantee the realization of self-improvement. The villagers are able to create a myriad of possible lifestyles on the basis of self-improvement. They inherit and improve tradition, enabling it to creatively adapt and transform, thus maintaining its innate self-sufficiency.
In this light, the previously independent and distinctive countryside has the tradition, drive, and abilities or qualities in lifestyle to sustain itself. We should try to understand this kind of countryside to reflect the core value of its vitality, rather than labeling rural society a “problematic existence” unilaterally and with excessive anxiety, followed by hasty overhauls to these villages. None of these previous practices have ended up in success. 
To researchers of rural China, especially anthropologists who emphasize putting themselves in the shoes of locals to better understand different cultures, it is vital to make sense of the countryside itself through its own intrinsic mechanism, to treat it as its original self and perceive its potential for creativity. When observing problems in rural areas, researchers should never adopt a pessimistic or bleak perspective. The right attitude should offer the villages opportunities for self-realization and self-development, to empower them to creatively transform themselves spontaneously. Only in this way will diversified rural China become as beautiful, high-spirited, and vigorous as possible, and will fundamental vitalization come true. 
Zhao Xudong is a research fellow from the Center for Studies of Sociological Theory & Method at Renmin University of China.