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Reflexive practices advance rural cultural construction

LIN SICHENG | 2021-04-15 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A man films a dry-stack stone wall to reflect the countryside in Houhuangshan Village, Sangyuan County, Rizhao in north China’s Shandong Province. The continuous improvement of information infrastructure in rural China has greatly inspired villagers to showcase their cultures online. Photo: CFP

Sociologists have explained human social practices in China’s modernization drive from multiple dimensions. Compared with the perspectives of environmental constraints, social networks, and interpersonal interactions, reflexive practices lay greater emphasis on actors’ subjectivity and initiative. 

Reflexivity means that people integrate new knowledge or information into actions, reorganizing their habits or behavioral patterns. Reflexive practices, in the context of modernization, refer to people’s reflexive, active responses to social needs in the face of tensions between traditional and modern life, which arise in the process of modernization. 
The reflexive practice theory argues that humans are not passive receivers of modernization. Instead, they are proactive and contemplative undertakers. Based on the assumption that actors are reflexive, this article regards rural residents as active undertakers of rural cultural construction and acknowledges reflexive practices in their daily lives as an important force which drives the development of rural culture. 
Expanded social space
Social development and social changes have significantly enriched the implication of space for rural residents’ reflexive practices in rural cultural construction. Spatial expansion is seen through newly broadened social spaces, against the backdrop of urban-rural integration, and as information technology has been widely applied in the countryside, reflexive practices have increasingly become incorporated into interactions between cyberspace and reality. 
First, a series of measures to promote urban-rural integration launched by the Chinese government have effectively improved relationships between urban and rural areas, accelerating the two-way flow of populations, resources, and cultures. 
This means that rural cultural construction in the new era is not restricted to the physical space of rural communities. It proceeds in wider social spaces marked by a two-way flow, interactions, and integration of urban and rural areas. 
In the wider social space, communications and interactions between urban and rural residents can catalyze the interplay of urban and rural cultural customs, thus expediting positive transformation in rural culture. 
Therefore, the interactive integration of cultural customs in the context of an urban-rural two-way flow is a new result of rural residents’ reflexive practices. 
Regarding rural residents’ reflexive practices, in the interactions between cyberspace and reality, data shows that 98% of administrative villages across China had optical fiber and 4G access as of 2019. With the implementation of the project to promote information technology application in the countryside, the number of internet users in rural areas has also been growing rapidly, reaching 255 million and accounting for 28.2% of the nation’s entire online population as of March 2020. 
Due to the continuous improvement of information infrastructure and quick increase of internet users in Chinese rural society, residents in the countryside can access cyberspace more conveniently, so rural culture can be recorded, observed, disseminated, and discussed more extensively online.
Currently, social media platforms and major video websites in China quite often have villagers post stories of their lives in the form of images or videos for netizens to view, repost, and comment upon. 
In such interaction processes, many cultural customs which reflect rural residents’ lifestyles are exposed to a more complex field of opinions. Netizens from all over the country can discuss what they see, which will further prompt rural residents to reflect upon, and even change their lifestyles.  
Thus, the influence of interactions between cyberspace and reality on rural cultural customs is another extension of rural residents’ reflexive practices, as information-based construction improves in the countryside. 
Rich temporal connotations
Rural residents’ reflexive practices also have temporal implications. In the process of cultural changes, rural people can distinguish between various modernization and marketization impacts, and respond with different measures. When it comes to cultural inheritance, they can absorb and coordinate elements from old and new traditions that are favorable to rural cultural construction.
Cultural customs in Chinese rural society are not only continuously influenced by modernization, the process of shifting from traditional to modern modes of operation, but are also subject to potential impacts of marketization since the reform and opening up. The impacts of each process on cultural changes in rural society are not always consistent in regard to direction, pace, and logic. 
For example, studies reveal that the formality of traditional funeral ceremonies has been weakening in the Chinese countryside. Many rural residents have grown increasingly exhausted by cumbersome traditional funeral rituals. Meanwhile, economic rationality (brought by marketization) is also eroding rural funeral ceremonies, leading to extravagance and unrealistic comparisons. 
Under the dual impacts of modernization and marketization, rural cultural customs have shown disparate changes on several levels, which can be summarized as the so-called “cultural lag.”
Rural residents’ reflexive practices involve recognizing the specific impacts of the two social processes on rural cultural customs in light of reality, thereby making more targeted adjustments in rural cultural construction. 
In terms of old and new traditions, establishing and promoting rural customs suited to modernization doesn’t mean completely negating traditional cultural conventions, but drawing on traditions reflexively. 
However, it is worth noting that referential cultural traditions in rural society today include not only fine traditions passed down from ancient China, but also new traditions formed in the process of socialist construction since the founding of new China in 1949. 
Old and new traditions have commonalities, but remain distinct. Old traditions value family, kinship, and ethic relations, while new traditions emphasize collectivism featuring solidarity, mutual help, and dedication. 
In this regard, rural residents’ reflexive practices not only mean to reflexively draw on cultural traditions originating from ancient times, but also to embrace fine traditions fostered in socialist construction. Thus, it is important that old and new traditions complement each other and jointly contribute to rural cultural construction in the new era based on a full knowledge of the similarities and differences between the two.
Temporal-spatial fusion
The rich spatial and temporal implications of rural residents’ reflexive practices are not isolated from each other. They fuse with each other amid the separation and recombination of time and space as a result of modernization. 
In the process, rural residents are able to reorganize their social relations and practices beyond time and space, breaking limitations posed by regional and community traditions and making contributions to rural cultural construction by actively reflecting on their daily lives and cultural customs. 
Although rural residents carry out reflexive practices, modernization has caused time-space separation and recombination, which suggests that such practices don’t actually take place within closed rural communities. They are carried out in a more open social system, subject to the complex impacts of multiple temporal and spatial factors. This makes rural cultural construction in the new era more complicated, while giving richer meanings to rural residents’ reflexive practice. 
Given the abundant implications of reflexive practices as digital social networks fuse time and space, promoting rural cultural construction through rural residents’ reflexive practices can fully stimulate their initiative and creativity, inspiring residents to engage in the construction process by respecting and safeguarding their important role in the process. This allows residents more room to cope with the layered impacts of time-space separation and recombination. 
In the process, full respect should be paid to rural residents’ subjectivity, and reasonable guidance is also needed to create blended rural customs that are compatible with modernization and the real world of rural residents, to turn customs into a code of conduct that rural residents will practice in their daily lives. 
Lin Sicheng is from the School of Sociology and Population Studies at Renmin University of China.