Reimagining American Community

At the strong encouragement of my remarkably intuitive, loving and peerless wife Jessie, I undertook to read this past week From the Soil: the Foundations of Chinese Society (鄉土中國) by Fei Xiaotong, who is rightly credited as the father of Chinese sociology. Though he was born in Suzhou and his entire educational career was spent within China, at Yenching and Tsinghua Universities, he was inspired by the teaching of University of Chicago urban sociologist Robert Park, from having studied with him in 1932. He was later tutored in methods by White Russian ethnographer Sergei Mikhailovich Shirokogorov (whom Dr. Fei credits as his deepest influence), and by functionalist Austro-Polish anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski. His studies of sociology were driven by an earnest and heartfelt desire to reform China; and even though he writes in a concise and meticulously neutral prose, attempting to lay before his readers a careful bird’s-eye view of the differences between the rural Chinese and the modern Western modi vivendi, he can never wholly disguise his sympathies or compassion for the rural Chinese. Even the goal of this anthology of short essays I read is to meet rural Chinese communities where they are.

As such, I would highly recommend it to anyone seeking to visit or understand China, let alone live here. I would argue that it is as important a book for understanding Chinese people as Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is for understanding Americans – and that is no idle comparison. I have said elsewhere (with my tongue only half-in-cheek) that Dr. Fei ought to have subtitled it instead Everything You Wanted to Know About China, but Were Afraid to Ask. Starting from the standpoint of understanding what is materially important in Chinese rural life, where everyday interactions are marked by intimate familiarity with neighbours; sedentary living; a slow pace; a style of knowledge that is best transmitted orally and through practice from elders to the young; and a need to band together in extended family groups to get anything done on a large scale, he carefully reconstructs Chinese social relations. If you ever wanted to know why Chinese people in practice may have a high tolerance for what we might see as ‘corrupt’ practices; why Chinese married couples so rarely show their emotions for each other; why Chinese ‘drinking buddies’ and ‘girl-friends’ do show so much emotion for each other; why ‘rule of law’ is still something of a dirty word in some quarters; why Chinese people give so many gifts to each other (even when Westerners might see it as bribery); why they fight to foot the bill when they eat out; why they seemingly value the extended family over the nuclear family; why ‘civil society’ in China is so different; why many people don’t seem to care about their own national politics; and why the people who run small shops and street stalls always seem to be from ‘out of town’ in any Chinese town or village – this is certainly the book for you.

This book is most famous, actually, for one analogy Fei Xiaotong makes regarding social relations in West and East. He sees Western society, with its ‘organisational mode of association’, as analogous to a bundle of straws or sticks. Each straw or stick is distinct and separate and – to an extent – equal and interchangeable with any other, and they are stacked together in discrete, exclusive bunches. He recommends seeing Chinese society through the lens of a ‘differential mode of association’, and borrows the explicitly Confucian analogy of ripples in a pond, emanating outwards from where a stone was cast in. Each person is his own ‘centre’ of a network of fluid and overlapping relationships, and his duties within each are either more important or less important depending on how near another person is to him. Western societies tend toward universalisable theories of social ethics; the Chinese toward situated ethics of care.

But although all of the above are carefully and sometimes critically explained, one has to remember that Dr. Fei is writing for a Chinese audience and introducing Western categories for comparison. And he is writing from a standpoint of sincere sympathy for the rural Chinese view. He speaks even the neutral and often one-sided language of his field with a heart full of love. Even though he is clearly an advocate for social reforms, rural literacy and democratic rule, the entire point of his work is that he wants it done in a way which respects the values and lifeways of rural Chinese culture. In his view, reform badly imposed – for the wrong reasons, or from a Western rather than a Chinese frame of reference – would be worse than no reform at all.

Unfortunately, Dr. Fei’s work would not only go unregarded, but he would be punished for it by the government that took control in 1949 – a government which he himself supported! – and abolished the entire scholarly field of sociology a mere three years later. Branded as a bourgeois ‘rightist’ in the Cultural Revolution for his proposals, the Chinese government banned his work, forced him to publicly recant it, stripped the father of Chinese sociology of his scholarly position and sent him to work cleaning privies. Ironically, in Taiwan, Dr. Fei’s work was banned for the exact opposite reason. He had been anti-Nationalist and, in the last instance, a supporter of Mao. But his work managed to circulate samizdat-style on the black market in the Republic of China, where some of his proposals were tentatively implemented by the government – though naturally he never got any credit for them.

I was lucky to pick up the translation I did, because in the postscript the translator also includes an overview and excerpts from Fei Xiaotong’s companion anthology Reconstructing Rural China (鄉土重建), which actually provides some of the policy prescriptions he advocated in light of his sociological inquiries.

Dr. Fei was convinced that if modern industry and knowledge were to flourish in China in a healthy way, the large landholding class would have to give up their traditional privileges and, under the aegis of a compensated land reform policy, break up and distribute holdings to individual ‘families’ (defined not as Western nuclear families, but rather individual ‘small lineage’ units under a single patriarch). The landlords would then be compensated with government bonds to be used for small-scale capital investment.

But in spite of this decentralist, market-oriented approach, to the end Dr. Fei was emphatically not the bourgeois ‘rightist’ the Cultural Revolution had made him out to be. Indeed, he wanted to see industry in the hands of local villages and townships, focussing on handicrafts, household workshops and light industries, owned and run cooperatively. To quote the good Dr. Fei himself: ‘What I call rural industry includes the following elements: (1) Peasant families participate in industry without giving up farming. (2) The location of industries is scattered in and around villages. (3) Such industries belong to the peasants who participate in them; therefore, ownership is cooperative. (4) The raw material for such industries is mainly produced by the peasants themselves. (5) Most important, the profits from the industry are directly distributed to the peasants.’

Though being written in 1948, From the Soil and Reconstructing Rural China predate Small Is Beautiful by a good twenty years or more, and though they are writing for very different audiences, the ideas of Fei Xiaotong and E. F. Schumacher on rural development bear a remarkable resemblance. The land reform and household industry policies which met with such success when adopted by the Nationalists in Taiwan, the editors of the volume surmise, actually owe much of their content to Dr. Fei’s prescriptions.

The People’s Republic of China is often held up by its anti-capitalist, democratic and localist critics as an example of how not to do rural development. The point of interest here, though, is that there were people discussing such ideas even during the early People’s Republic period – and that Chinese culture itself does not necessarily doom the adoption of distributist, localist or economic-democratic policies. Indeed, if Dr. Fei is to be believed – and Taiwan’s experience seems to suggest he is – Chinese culture is actually very well-suited to these policies as a culturally-distinctive alternative, both to Washington Consensus laissez-faire and to the state capitalism of the modern Chinese Communist Party.

About the Author
Matthew Cooper is a machinist by trade, a development economist by training (but not by temperament) and a blogger by hobby, at The Heavy Anglo Orthodox. He is a Wisconsin native of English, Swabian, Yugoslav and Czech-Jewish extraction, who moved successively so far east - to wit: Michigan, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Kazakhstan, China - that he ended up west of the Mississippi, in Minneapolis. He's a self described Tory radical, but has yet to adequately explain how this squares with his soft spot for Christopher Lasch.