A Village Path Alongside China’s Highway of Development
Sun Village (孙村) is a remote coastal village in Putian (莆田) Prefecture, Fujian Province. Agriculture has traditionally been its main source of livelihood. Due to the scarcity of arable land and water suitable for irrigation, however, sideli.,NNne enterprises have also been an important tradition in Sun Village.
Since the 1980s, following the state’s relaxation of its restrictions on peasants’ ability to “leave both the soil [i.e. agriculture] and the village,” people from Sun Village and its environs have gone out en masse seeking other sources of livelihood. They have “left the soil,” not by going to work in factories, but rather by integrating traditional resources from rural society to form a robust industry refashioning old silver and gold jewelry, with shops in cities and towns throughout China. They have “left the village,” not by settling down in urban areas, but by shuttling back and forth between the village and the cities where they work, keeping rural society as the center of their lives. They thus present a countermovement against the predominant trend of rural China’s “hollowing-out.”
The “path” (路) in this book’s title attempts to convey the following four layers of meaning:
Although China’s revolution and subsequent “reforms centered on economic construction” had major impacts on Sun Village, if we step away from the big debates about ideological positions and return to the social space of a remote village, we can discover the limitations of the revolution’s influence on rural life.
For the people of Sun Village, who have always lacked resources such as arable land and have thus been stuck at the level of mere subsistence, no revolution or reform could directly lead to surplus wealth, so in this sense, the residents of Sun Village experienced revolution and reform as external events. As described in this book’s appendix, in order to deal with poverty, long before China implemented the “Reform and Opening” policies, the residents of Sun Village began to secretly decollectivize farming and “leave both the soil and the village” to undertake sideline enterprises.
In order to sketch Sun Village’s “route,” therefore, rather than focusing on the great transformations of the era, this book explores the secret path hidden in the depths of rural society.
On the one hand, the ebb and flow of China’s revolutionary tide did not completely destroy the “cultural nexus of power” that runs throughout rural society like capillaries. On the other hand, when faced with social change, villagers, who depend on local resources in the arrangement of their livelihoods, still reorganize all kinds of social networks in response to opportunities or necessities. Like ants crawling in the soil—like the commoners known as “ant people” in imperial times—as soon as their old path is obstructed, they must venture out in all directions, bringing along their parents and children, forging new paths in search of food and a place to live.
To turn off from China’s highway of development onto a little path in the countryside, lowering our field of vision to observe the ground, noticing the difficulties and wisdom of these “ant people’s” efforts to protect themselves and weave social networks—that is the basic approach of this book. In that sense, I do not intend for this book to be an ethnography in the traditional sense, describing the everyday life of a Han Chinese community in the present era.
This book focuses on description and analysis of villagers’ primary social relationships (such as marital and place-based relationships) and religious activities, attempting to demonstrate the richness of the villagers’ ideational world, despite their position at the periphery of mainstream society. The goal is not to take a “populist” stance implying that everything “the people” do is good, but to elucidate the sociocultural micro-environments that act as a matrix supporting Sun Village’s countermovement against the hollowing-out of rural China, and to uncover this movement’s “path dependence”—its dependence on an obscure path bridging the divide between past and present.
This refers to physical roads. Due to Sun Village’s poverty and remoteness, and its lack of access to external resources, even the smallest public goods project requires great mobilizational effort on the part of “local popular authorities.” Throughout its history, Sun Village has built several roads and paths of various scales. Depending on the spirit of the times, authorities have adjusted their strategies for mobilizing local sociocultural resources, religious beliefs, and symbols of state power, and these efforts have met with various responses from other villagers. Through the processes of mobilization, coordination, and negotiation, the interaction between popular village authorities and other villagers, gods, and the local government vividly illustrates PrasenjitDuara’s concept of “the cultural nexus of power.”
The purpose of devoting an entire chapter to the topic of “Building Roads” is to illustrate the characteristics and vitality of local sociocultural resources in Sun Village’s microenvironment, and their direct relationship with villagers’ everyday religious activities. It also provides a glimpse at the specific characteristics of Sun Village’s countermovement against the hollowing-out of rural China.
“Tendency” indicates a starting point, rather than predicting an end-point. Obviously, Sun Village’s countermovement against the hollowing out of rural China was not designed or planned out, but is the result of developments based on local sociocultural resources.
Over the past two decades, while the hollowing-out of rural China—especially central China—has become increasingly severe, the area surrounding Sun Village for about five kilometers in diameter has managed, without local government support or investment from external capital, to gradually concentrate various factors of production for the refashioning of old silver and gold jewelry, becoming the center of an industry radiating throughout China. Its secret lies in the support that local social networks provide to low-capital household enterprises, which facilitate the maximization of such networks’ economic functions. Religious activities continually increase community spirit, providing community identity and affective bonds for villagers who “leave both soil and village,” expanding the geographic reach of local social networks. Economic activities beyond the soil and the village have thus avoided becoming the poison that in other cases isolates people who leave the village from local sociocultural resources. On the contrary, the two have promoted each other’s development. This dynamic process constitutes Sun Village’s tendency toward a countermovement against the hollowing-out of rural China.
Alongside China’s highway of development, this village continues to forge its own path. If we follow such a path, perhaps we will find a way to a new world.
Translator’s note: Sun Village now belongs to Wusheng Administrative Village (武盛村) in Daitou Township (埭头镇) of Xiuyu District (秀屿区). Putian Prefecture roughly corresponds to the area historically known as Xinghua (兴化) or “Henghua,” as pronounced in the local dialect by which it is better known overseas. Before 1949, Putian referred to a smaller area administered as a county in Xinghua. After 1949, Xinghua became “Putian Prefecture,” so “Putian” referred to both the prefecture as a whole and the county within it, along with other counties and districts. In 2003, Putian County was split into several districts, so since then “Putian” has referred to the prefecture only.