AAS Annual Meeting

China and Inner Asia Session 121

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Session 121: Rural China Revisited: In Search of Moralities and Social Organizations

Organizer: Lili Lai, Peking University, China

Chair: Dan Wang, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

Discussant: Sydney D. White, Temple University, USA

In recent domestic and international scholarship, rural China has been described as a social field marred by an uncivil individualism and characterized by a lack of public morality and social organizations. Rather than accepting the discourses that the Chinese countryside is socially and morally atomized and that rural China is a spectral space devoid of morality, we wish to complicate the picture and ask: To what extent is the statement true that rural China is spectralized and peopled by uncivil individuals? What morals and values are currently at work in the Chinese countryside? How do they tie in with existing and emerging social institutions? This panel proposes to address these questions through ethnographic descriptions of particular instances of rural sociality. On the one hand, the discourse of rural China as a place devoid of value seems to be reflected in the disillusion of rural teachers. Yet, other examples suggest that interpersonal relations are greatly valued and can be the basis of morality and organized social actions: the gendered work invested in a temple fair, the care extended to family members dying from cancer, the continuing engagements between the migrant generation and their stay-at-home parents, and the complicated ethical relations in the now nuclear-family-centered villages. Together, these ethnographic accounts complicate the over-simplified portrayal of uncivil rural individuals and bring to light the dynamic character of contemporary rural China where morals and social values are contested and re-conceived.

Beyond Economic Rationality: Demoralization of Rural Teachers in China
Dan Wang, University of Hong Kong, Hong Kong

It is often observed that rural school teachers in China have disturbingly low work morale. The prevailing explanation for the phenomenon follows the economic rationale by putting the blame on the low salary in rural schools and economic disadvantages of rural life. This interpretation perceives rural teachers as rational economic agents and assumes the determinant role of economic rationality in teachers’ decisions about schoolwork. This ethnographic study in Chaoyang Elementary School, a rural school in Southwest China, is a critique on this dominant economic discourse. Although the economic proposition is embraced by some teachers and administrators in the school under study to justify their lack of enthusiasm, a closer analysis of other teachers’ grievances about schoolwork rejects this oversimplified explanation offered by the theory of instrumental rationality. For the latter group of teachers, demoralization happens because schoolwork is no longer the source of their personal dignity and social recognitions. For complicated economic, cultural, and institutional reasons, teaching in the rural school cannot generate the sense of achievement and social respect that are longed by these teachers. I argue that teacher demoralization in Chaoyang Elementary School is not another story of the rational choice theory. Rather, it unravels a complex moral landscape in the school, where the quest for integrity and dignity is in constant struggle with the economic rationality though often times frustrated by the latter.

Popular Religion Inside Out: Gender and Ritual Revival in a Hebei Township
Mikkel Bunkenborg, University of Copenhagen, Denmark

Over the past three decades, rural China has seen a resurgence of ritual and religious practices involving lineage halls, temples, and novel sectarian movements. This ritual revival is well documented in anthropological literature and a case in point is the establishment of a temple for a local Dragon deity in the Hebei township of Fanzhuang. Descriptions of this particular revival focus on a score of males involved in the practical organization of the annual temple fair while largely ignoring the contributions of a group of middle-aged women. Known as ‘do-gooders’, these women accumulated merit by taking part in rituals in private homes and attending temple fairs in neighbouring villages. The locals often compared the gendered division of labour evident in the temple to households where men were responsible for external matters while women took care of internal affairs, but in the course of ten months of ethnographic fieldwork, it became clear that ‘internal affairs’ was not simply cleaning and cooking, but included maintaining relations to deities. Among the women there were a number of spirit mediums that claimed to communicate with an inward world of deities and played an important role in the affairs of the temple. Arguing that the masculine exterior of this particular temple organization depends crucially upon a feminine interior that has been largely overlooked, the paper counters the idea of a moral and organizational vacuum in rural China with a description of a rural social institution upheld by investments of gendered and morally appropriate labour.

Living morally and dying of cancer: rethinking morality and moral economy in contemporary rural China
Anna Lora-Wainwright, Oxford University, United Kingdom

Many ethnographies of rural China have described the period following social and economic reforms as an ‘immoral economy’ (Liu, 2000), inhabited by ‘uncivic individuals’ (Yan 2003) and as generally lacking in morality (Chan et al. 1992, Gao,1999; Ku, 2003). Based on long-term fieldwork in rural Sichuan since 2004, I contest this view and propose that the present is characterised by incessant efforts to inhabit moral worlds, which in turn redefine morality’s very parameters. Revisiting Karl Polanyi’s and James Scott’s seminal work on the concept of moral economy, I examine villagers’ narratives about cancer causality and practices of care. I suggest that these are embedded in a larger moral economy discourse on the part of Chinese villagers regarding both their social relations with their families and fellow villagers and their shifting relationship with the Chinese state. Is it moral for a son not to visit his father throughout his illness to ensure he can send money home for treatment? What kinds of moral claims are implied by attributing cancer to water, diet or anger? I show that contending forms of morality are constantly produced through negotiations about cancer aetiology, cancer treatment and mourning practices. The fight against cancer then is deeply bound to efforts not only to maintain health, but also to debate one’s position within the family and the local community and to make claims to entitlement to care and to a cleaner environment. What emerges is not an immoral present, but one where the quest for morality is rife.

Immanent Village Sociality: Open-Ended Belonging
Lili Lai, Peking University, China

This paper engages with prevailing discourses that see on the part of Chinese peasants, a lack of a sense of the collective or of any capacity to organize by themselves. It aims to convey a vivid sense of the interconnectedness among Shang villagers on an everyday basis. In this treatment I argue that the recent scholarly refusal to recognize village sociality can be traced to the informality of village ties which tend to exist, or even thrive, beyond the State’s purview: how villagers live their social life on a daily basis, what kind of bonds are formed both among young migrant workers and between them and their home villages, including continuing engagements between the migrant generation and their stay-at-home parents. To a certain degree, practical social goods that rely on informal sociality do not appear in accountings of the rural economy, nor is social action at the immanent village level of any interest to formal regulatory and reporting structure (Massumi 2002). Village sociality, I suggest, is organized through long-constituted relations and already formed habitus, however contingent and changeable these may be. What villagers “lack,” I argue, is a formalization of their actions in a normalized and explicit discourse.

Individual, Guanxi or Nuclear-Family? Arguments on the Foundation of Social Structure in Contemporary Rural China
Tongxue Tan, Sun Yat-Sen University, China

There were two opposed opinions on whether the revolutionary discourse and practice essentially changed the social structure of rural China after 1949. For example, Helen Siu argued that revolution has fundamentally changed the traditional China both in a social and cultural sense, while Huang Shu-min insisted that the change was superficial. By a close examination of social structures in the countryside, this paper aims to show that despite of the vertical stratification generated by the revolutionary discourses of rural China, the horizontal structure has not been replaced by the class stratifications. It does not deny that, along with the market reformation the autonomy of individuals has begun to rise, or that "guanxi" continues to play an important and increasingly complicated role. However, the paper argues that it is neither the “individual” discussed by Yan Yunxiang and Liu Xin nor the "guanxi" proposed by Mayfair Yang but rather the nuclear family that is the foundation of the social structure in contemporary rural China.