17. The New Chinese Anthropology: A View from Outside

J.S. Eades

In this paper I want to discuss the development of the anthropology of China, its theoretical development and the successive issues which have preoccupied writers on Chinese culture and society, in comparative perspective.[1] In order to consider the distinctiveness of this development, and possibilities for the future, it may be useful to compare it with that of social anthropology elsewhere. Here I will be drawing on parallels with West Africa, the region I know best, but one in which there was intensive research during the period from 1950 to the late 1970s, the very period in which there was very little research being carried out in mainland China itself.
This gap is perhaps the most distinctive feature of the anthropology of China. With notable exceptions (for instance the books by Hinton and the Crooks) very little intensive local level research was carried out in the People's Republic by outside scholars at all in the thirty years after the revolution. Most of the work was confined to Taiwan, and Hong Kong, together with Chinese communities overseas. And even though much of this work was of very high quality, it was no real substitute for direct observation of the kinds of changes taking place in the People's Republic itself, and the massive social experiments which they involved. When it became possible for outside scholars, or for Chinese scholars based overseas, to carry out research in the PRC, therefore, there was a lot of ground to catch up. Social anthropology elsewhere had moved on from the classic lineage studies of the functionalist period to new preoccupations with social change, political economy and, more recently, critical cultural theory.

Research paradigms in West Africa

Until the Chinese revolution, the developments in the social anthropology of China paralleled those elsewhere, not surprisingly given the direct influence of scholars such as Malinowski and Radcliffe-Brown on the earlier generations of Chinese social scientists such as Fei Xiaotong.[2] In the UK perhaps a majority of the major anthropologists of this generation worked in Africa, particularly West Africa, the Sudan and Central Africa. There were major exceptions such as Firth, of course, but the other dominant figures in British social anthropology of the post-Malinowski generation, including Fortes, Evans-Pritchard, Gluckman, Richards, Nadel and so forth were for the most part Africanists, as, in turn, were their students ­ Goody, Lienhardt, Turner, Beattie, Douglas and the rest. For the most part the kinds of studies which they carried out paralleled the early studies of China: intensive studies of small rural communities, concentrating on the kinship system as the framework of organisation of the material, usually with chapters on the economy, political systems, ritual and, sometimes to end with, "social change". Under the influence of Radcliffe-Brown, the assumption was that cultures and societies were discrete entities, that they could be accurately described and compared, and that general hypotheses about the relationship between these institutions and their variations could be developed. An ethnographic map of Africa was therefore possible, and scholars attempted to fill it in systematically, particularly those associated with the International African Institute, based in London and Paris. The result was two ambitious projects which, though they were never completed, did lead to the publication of similar studies of a large number of ethnic groups and the possibility of systematic comparative research of the type which Radcliffe-Brown had envisaged.

The first of these was the ethnographic survey of Africa, the general editor of which was Daryll Forde. Rather like the nationalities research in China during the 1950s, the aim of this was to divide the whole region into discrete ethnic groups whose geography, language, kinship, politics, religion and so forth could then be documented. A large number of these volumes were completed in both English and French, for the most part in the 1950s and early 1960s, and though they varied considerably in quality, they are still a major resource for the comparative study of African cultures. The assumptions on which they were based went along well with the system of administration during the colonial period. Ethnic groups were named social entities which could be mapped: they had distinct cultures, languages and political and legal systems. A knowledge of these was vital for the successful operation of the colonial administration, particularly the British system of "indirect rule" developed by Lugard in northern Nigeria, and later extended to southern Nigeria and Ghana. This system created political units which seemed to be as bounded as the nation states of modern Europe. In fact, in many areas ethnic boundaries were either fluid or contested, and in many cases local rulers actually gained in power through their alliances with the colonial rulers (see the papers in Crowder and Ikime, 1970).

The second enterprise, related to the first, was the series of monographs which were published by the Institute from 1940 onwards. The first, and most famous of these, were the collections on African Political Systems , and African Systems of Kinship and Marriage , edited by the heavyweights of British social anthropology, Fortes, Evans-Pritchard, Forde and Radcliffe-Brown himself (Fortes and Evans-Pritchard, 1940; Radcliffe-Brown and Forde, 1950). Again societies were regarded as entities which could be analysed and compared: acephalous and centralised political systems, or patrilineal, matrilineal, cognatic and double descent kinship systems. There was a discrepancy between the generalising, ethnographic present of the introductions to the political systems volume, and some of the case studies, and as Stevenson (1969) has shown, for most of the societies represented, the historical record and the definition of these groups as separate entities was a good deal more complex than the book suggests. Later the Institute organised annual conferences, and successive monographs in the series dealt with African cosmologies, religious belief, Islam, Christianity, pastoralists, land tenure systems, trade, history, and so forth. They continued to be published into the early 1970s, reflecting rather better than the volumes in the ethnographic survey the changes taking place in social anthropology as a whole.[3]

In African anthropology these were related to the changes taking place after independence. In general with the establishment of the new states, the pace of change in all areas of social life accelerated. This meant that anthropologists had to take on board much more explicitly the research being carried out in the other social sciences: history, economics, political science, sociology, and geography. Research became increasingly interdisciplinary and the boundaries between disciplines became fuzzy. This was also related to the fact that Marxism was becoming important as a theoretical basis for the new research ­ not the classical evolutionary Marxism on which Soviet and Chinese anthropologists drew, but forms of neo-Marxism drawing on French discussions of modes of production and social formations, and Euro-American discussions of underdevelopment and the capitalist world system. These were taken up enthusiastically by the African and foreign scholars alike.[4] Even where scholars did not explicitly declare themselves to be Marxist, the questions the neo-Marxists raised soon became part of the conventional research agenda. In describing events at the local level, the regional and global political and economic context had to be spelled out.

This change meant drastic modification to the subjects studied by anthropologists and the other social scientists.
(a) In kinship, the emphasis was no longer on the classification and description of systems but on their transformation and modification. The seminal paper in the case of West Africa was "Time and social structure" by Fortes (1950), in which he moved away from the mere description of a matrilineal system to the demonstration that in two towns, quite near to each other and very similar in culture, family and household structures had developed in statistically rather different ways as a result of the history of the 19th century and the processes of economic change in the 20th. The town nearer the regional capital of Kumasi, which had been more disrupted by the wars, had more nuclear families headed by men, less matrilocal residence, and a more diverse economy.

Similar factors I myself argued underlay the differences in kinship between different parts of Yorubaland: Lloyd had earlier suggested that there were two kinds of Yoruba kinship systems to be found in different areas of Western Nigeria (Lloyd, 1962): agnatic to the north and west and cognatic to the south and east. As with Fortes' analysis of Ashanti, I argued that the differences were to do more with changes in settlement patterns resulting from the wars of the 19th century, and with changes in the economy and land tenure systems which had resulted from the imposition of colonial rule and the growth of the cocoa cash crop economy (Eades, 1980: chapter 3). These are just two examples of the many which could be given. What seemed to be happening in these instances was a move from the consideration of kinship systems as systems to their consideration as a cluster of factors ­ residence, inheritance, land tenure systems, and kinship ideology ­ which did not necessarily correlate exactly in their variations. They thus provided the actors with a number of different possible strategies for developing their kinship institutions in the future as the political economy changed. Perhaps the finest of all these studies in West Africa is Peel's study of the impact on Ilesha social structure ­ including lineage, generation and political relations ­ of its incorporation into the Nigerian state (Peel, 1984). The recent work of the Chinese women anthropologists, Nie (1992 and this volume) and Han (1993, and this volume) has a rather similar focus.

(b) In terms of the economy, the emphasis was no longer on subsistence farming, but on the transformation of the economy as a result of colonial rule and the incorporation of the region into the regional and world economy. Even before Marxism became fashionable, Hill's work (1963) was important in in showing that Ghanaian cocoa farmers were not "traditional" but were creating new systems of both land tenure and labour relations, and that they ran their enterprises so as to accumulate capital in a very "capitalist" fashion. On the other hand the Marxist writers of the 1970s were also able to show the increasing domination of the cash crop sector by the state, and suggested that these farmers might be better seen as "peasants" impoverished by their links with the wider capitalist system (e.g. Beer and Williams, 1976). Given that Hill was dealing with a period of rapid economic growth while the Marxists were dealing with an economic system already in decline, the use of both of these images was probably appropriate: West African cash crop farmers were both capitalists and peasants simultaneously, but the latter model fitted better the situation as their exploitation by the state increased. In the same way, I will argue, the recent literature on China has highlighted both the dependence of the Chinese farmers and their freedom to innovate.

With the expansion of the African economy other forms of economic activity also became the subject of study. The rapid urbanisation led to many studies of the urban economy, particularly the role of migrant labour and long distance trade (e.g.Cohen, 1969; the papers in Meilassoux (ed), 1973 and Amin (ed) 1974; Schildkrout 1978, Eades, 1993). Further interest in trade and other forms of small scale economic activity in towns resulted from Keith Hart's discussion of the "informal sector" (1973) and its importance both in helping the poor survive in the city and in stimulating urban growth in the absence of rapid industrialisation. The investment of capital by the state in the urban areas was leading to the expansion of the market for goods and services, and so to the expansion of the provision of these by the small-scale entrepreneurs. Despite the low level of industrialisation, factory workers also became the subject of a number of studies, most notably Peace (1978), and Lubeck (1986).

(c) In politics, the end of the colonial period meant the replacement of the British and French administrators by local bureaucrats, often with drastic modification, or even an end, to the formal role in politics of the traditional chiefs. In some cases, the new towns which began to grow still required a modified form of chiefship, in the absence of other administrative forms, but elsewhere the powers of the chiefs were drastically curtailed. The new political parties and the electoral processes became the subject of study, as did the military coups which soon established new governments in the former colonies. As in the study of kinship, the focus of research moved away from structures and institutions to strategies, and to components of the system which could coexist with each other: patron-client relations, communal political leadership, the basis of the new political culture in ethnic and communal organisation, and with social class. The continued, and increasing, importance of ethnic identities was seen not in "primordial" links with the supposed place of origin, but in the structure of resources in particular areas, which led them to mobilise to defend their interests, or in the requirements of political organisation around "informal interest groups". Once more the seminal work in this area was that of Abner Cohen in his study of the links between informal organisation and competition in the cattle markets of Western Nigeria, and in the elite politics of Sierra Leone (1969, 1981). The study of political elites was now firmly part of the anthropological agenda. So, thanks to the research on the "informal sector" was the study of the urban poor. There was a period in the late 60s and early 70s when many radical social scientists working in Africa and influenced by Marxism believed in the possibility of "progressive change", as they termed the development of socialist systems. Even though this hope proved illusory, and the attachment of people throughout Africa to the land meant that the basis of politics remained local, communal and "ethnic", the result was at least a series of fine studies of class formation, the relationship between particular occupational groups, and of political mobilisation processes to defend the interests of the urban poor (e.g. Sandbrook and Cohen, 1975).

The historical dimensions of African politics were also being explored in more detail. Historians and anthropologists shared the same methods, combining oral history, written records in both Arabic and European languages, archival material, and in some cases, archeological and linguistic evidence, to write increasingly sophisticated ethnohistories of the region. One of the most interesting sets of hypotheses relating to social and political development with wider implications are those of Goody, who argues that there is a fundamental difference in the ecology and man-land ratio between Africa and Eurasia, and that this has affected the evolution of both kinship and political systems. In politics, in rewriting the classic Marxist thesis, he argues that the important variable in Africa has not been the mode of production but the mode of destruction ­ i.e. the military technology available through control of trade. The bow, sword, horse and gun each have quite different implications for political centralisation, depending not only on their availability but who controls them. This thesis has been explored most clearly by Smaldone (1973) for the Sokoto Caliphate in Northern Nigeria, but has interesting implications for the analysis of the development of many of the states in the region. The best ethnohistories of West African states, such as those by Wilks on Ashanti, Law on Oyo, and Curtin on Senegambia, all have sophisticated analyses of the links between political development, production and trade, both regional and trans-continental. These are analyses which have much in common with Marxism, though the approach is much more flexible and the range of available models much greater.

(d) As for religion, in West Africa as a whole, the 20th century has seen the rapid rise and spread of the world religions, Christianity and Islam, and the rapid decline of traditional religion. The focus had been on the latter in the early days of social anthropology, and the region had had its fair share of studies of ancestor worship, witchcraft, ritual, symbolism and the like. But studies of the world religions soon started to appear as well, most notably the studies of African Christianity, in which European and African beliefs were most visibly mingled, and studies of Islam. The studies of religion operated at three main levels of analysis:

(i) The level of individual belief and world views, including cosmology, beliefs in spiritual beings, symbols and their interpretations. These provided the basis for the work by Horton and Peel on the intellectual aspects of conversion to the world religions (e.g. the essays collected in Horton, 1993).

(ii) The level of the structure of social groups, including the relationship between ancestor worship and social control, the relationship between patterns of witchcraft accusation, gender relations and structural conflict, and the organisation of the new Christian churches and Islamic brotherhoods (e.g. Peel, 1969)

(iii) Studies which linked these to the study of the political economy: Islamic brotherhoods were seen various as "trade unions" for peanut farmers in Senegal (O'Brien, 1971), the representatives of the urban poor in Kano (Lubeck, 1986), or ways in which the new ruling elite could consolidate its position throughout the region as a whole. Similarly the churches were seen as either representing poor or elite interests, or as institutions through which the urban poor could mobilise. Religion in other words was intimately linked to the other preoccupations of the anthropologists in the post colonial period.

The most recent phase in anthropological research in Africa has been marked by an interest in new types of problems, though during a period in which Africa has become increasingly marginal in anthropological research. One of the most remarkable studies in recent years has been that of Karen Barber (1992) of oral poetry in Yoruba towns, which successfully combines social history, a focus on gender, and the analysis of oral poetry to show how economic change has affected social and gender relations in a small town, together with their verbal expression.

To summarise: the three main phases of social anthropology in West Africa during the post-war period were marked by

(a) an initial phase in which main task was seen as the mapping of the major cultural groups or "societies", and of their major institutions, particularly the kinship and political systems, with the use of typologies and classification;

(b) a phase in which the political economy and historical processes became the main focus of attention, and in which the typologising gave way to studies of the interaction of the effects of different combinations of elements at the local level, and the development of more dynamic models of a wider range of social processes. Much of this work was carried out under the influence of Marxism, and the work was increasingly interdisciplinary.

(c) A third period in which the study of cultural forms has come to the fore, though still grounded in an understanding of the political economy and the development of social and gender relations within it.

Research paradigms in China

Because of the turbulent history of the country during the 20th century, the development of anthropology in China was very different, with major discontinuities on the mainland, particularly during the wars of 1938-49 and the political campaigns of 1957-77.[5]

Indeed during this latter period sociology and anthropology as disciplines were banned, and the scholars who were able to continue research did so under the banner of other disciplines or institutions. There were concomitant shifts in theoretical paradigms, as early Japanese and Western influence gave way to Soviet influence during the 1950s and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution after that. Ironically, perhaps, the first Chinese contact with the work of Marx and the other 19th century evolutionary theorists was through Japanese translations (Guldin, 1994: 23-4), but from the 1920s links with the outside world were more direct. Fei's visit to England to study with Malinowski is well-known, as is Radcliffe-Brown's visit to China, but as Guldin makes clear, Chinese scholars during the republican period were absorbing influences from France, Germany and the United States as well. Guldin sees as one of the main figures in the foundation of anthropology in China Cai Yuanpai, who studied in Leipzig and who had a very broad, almost "four fields" view of the boundaries of ethnology (Guldin, 1994: 30-1). Although the best-known works to be published in English, by Fei (1939) and Lin (1948) fitted well in the functionalist tradition of village case studies in social anthropology, the extensive work by both men in other field s is less well-known. Other studies carried out before 1949 included those by C.K. Yang (1959) (who was in the field in a village near Guangdong when the revolution took place), and M.C. Yang (1945) who studied a village in Shandong. There was also the important background research by Kulp (1925), Buck (1937) and Gamble (1954). But the kind of systematic, wide-scale field research which flourished in Africa in the 1930s and 1940s period became increasingly difficult in China during the Japanese invasion and the subsequent civil war between the Communists and the Guomindang. It was only resumed, but under very different conditions, in the 1950s, when the major influence on the education system and on social theory came from the Soviet Union.

On the negative side, the Marxist-Leninist evolutionary framework, now became the official line. At the time of the revolution, many of the younger social scientists moved to Hong Kong, Taiwan, where the Academia Sinica was re-established, and the west. Others stayed, including Fei and Lin. Both men adapted to the Marxist-Leninism which became the official thinking after 1949, though Fei was to be denounced for his "reactionary functionalism" in the anti-rightist campaign in the late 1950s. Both men also became involved in the immense research project into the languages, cultures and histories of China's nationalities carried out in the 1950s. One of the main achievements of this body of work was to refine the objective definition of what a minority in China consisted of, and the official number of nationalities (including the Han majority) was eventually fixed at 56. The theoretical underpinnings of the project were provided by the Engels/Morgan/Stalin model of social evolution with its five stages (primitive communism, slave societies, feudalism, capitalism and socialism). Different minorities of course exemplified different stages. As with some of the work on Africa, classification and evolutionary theory went hand in hand, though the links between them were somewhat rigid. All the same, the amount of information collected in total was staggering. Publication, delayed by the Cultural Revolution, continues (Guldin, 1994: 131-40). The research itself was badly affected by the marginalisation of leading scholars including Fei during the anti-rightist campaign, and more or less ground to a halt during the Cultural Revolution. But the kinds of detailed local-level case studies represented by the earlier work of Fei and Lin had already for the most part disappeared, as had research in mainland China by outsiders. We have two sympathetic accounts of the revolution from inside Chinese villages by outsiders: the Crooks (1966, 1979) and Hinton (1966, 1983) as well as the report resulting from a short visit in 1962 by Myrdal (1965), but most research on Chinese society by professional anthropologists writing in English was now confined to Hong Kong, Taiwan and overseas Chinese communities. This generally remained the case until the 1980s.

On the plus side, the closure of the mainland led to an extraordinary concentration of research in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and, like that in Africa during the same period, much of it of a very high quality. It also reflected the kinds of general changes in social/cultural anthropology of the kind also taking place in Africa, as is shown in the series of related books on Hong Kong and the neighbouring areas of Guangdong and Fujian.

Strangely, the precursor of these studies was based on library sources, and not on fieldwork at all. Maurice Freedman was one of Firth's students at the LSE and had originally planned to go to Malaya, but because of the political conditions there during the early 1950s he ended up in Singapore where he did research on Chinese families which became his first book (1957). His second book, Lineage organization in Southeastern China (1958) was more important however, and this was the one based on library sources. Freedman was much influenced by the kind of work which had been carried out in Africa by Fortes, Evans- Pritchard etc. and his discussion of Chinese lineages owes much to their study of lineages in Africa. In 1963, Freedman was able to spend a brief period in Hong Kong, but became ill before he could carry out any substantial work. Like the other senior British anthropologists of his generation, his focus was on the lineage, and its basis in the control of property. Critiques of Freedman's model predictably led to a typology of Chinese lineage organisation in different areas: Type I lineages had fairly minimal functions, beyond being named groups with genealogies, type II were intermediate in function, whereas type III controlled large amounts of property (see the summary in Goody, 1990). This kind of typologising ran parallel with the work already referred to in Africa on the classification of kinship and political systems.

Largely as a result of Freedman's influence, there was a series of studies of the New Territories in Hong Kong, which moved way beyond these issues. The most important of these were Jack Potter's Capitalism and the Chinese Peasant, (1968), Hugh Baker's Sheung Shui: A Chinese Lineage Village (also 1968), James Watson's Emigration and the Chinese Lineage (1975) and Inequality among Brothers, by Rubie Watson (1985). An interesting feature of this work was that it was carried out in a very small area ­ these villages were separated by only a few kilometers from each other, making it one of the most intensively researched areas in the world. As all four villages are exogamous, there are a number of affinal links between them. However, even within this area there are striking differences between villages, and the studies are complementary rather than being repetitions of each other. There were a number of personal links between this group of writers, in addition to the fact that two of them are married to each other. Baker was a student of Freedman's, and carried out his research in the village in which Freedman had originally intended to work. James Watson was a student of Potter's and helped edit Potter's book for publication: he later taught at SOAS in London where Baker also lectured. Rubie Watson's thesis was written for Freedman's old department at the LSE: her first supervisor was Stephen Morris whose wife, Barbara Ward, had also worked in the New Territories. Indeed, a continuing feature of the best Chinese work in the US up to the present is its concentration in few major universities (Harvard, Stanford, Columbia, Berkeley) centred around a small number of major scholars (the Watsons, Arthur Wolf, Myron Cohen, the Potters).

Even though the Hong Kong work was to some extent carried out by frustrated researchers who could not get into the PRC, it is still important for two reasons. First it describes a situation in which social institutions very similar to those the other side of the border have been transformed during a period of rapid economic growth and urbanisation, and may hold clues as to the way in which the more prosperous parts of the PRC may develop in the future. Second it shows the wide degree of variation within a very small area, and the dramatic effects which quite minor variations in the environment can have on development patterns and social structure.

Broadly the four major studies (Potter, Baker and the Watsons) are complementary and deal with different themes. Potter's was the first to be carried out, but is still relevant because it concentrates on the economic revolution in the New Territories, and the transition from rice farming to vegetable growing which had had a dramatic effect on incomes and standards of living. Baker's study, not surprisingly, is the most Freedmanesque of the four, concentrating on lineage structure and ritual. At the end he discusses the future of the lineage. His conclusion, in the 1960s, was that it was rapidly becoming less important. This may have been so for his community, but as the papers by Han and Nie in this volume show, processes of lineage decline or revitalisation in different areas may be completely different.

Indeed, James Watson's study, carried out slightly later, describes a very different situation. He worked in San Tin, a village which for ecological reasons was unable to cash in on the vegetable revolution, with the result that men in the village looked for opportunities to earn money outside, notably by starting restaurants in the UK (see also Watson, 1978). The lineage in fact showed a surprising capacity to adapt to these new circumstances and take on new functions. Watson's work thus has a number of parallels with other studies being carried out in British (and African) anthropology during this period, dealing as it does with migration, ethnicity and entrepreneurship.

Finally, Rubie Watson's book is a study of economic differentiation within a village, rather than between villages. She found that one of the settlements making up her "village" was much wealthier than the others and the book is an account of the development of this differentiation. Within the same local Chinese lineage, there can be striking differences in wealth and power, which seem to conflict with a lineage ideology of brotherhood. However, the lineage survives because there are benefits for the poorer members in retaining links with their wealthy relatives. The historical record shows that the lineage took a considerable time to develop through the fusion of formerly distinct units, rather than the proliferation of segments from a common origin. Differentiation between segments seems to have resulted from differential control over land, and the fact that some groups were able to exploit opportunities in what was a very complex local economy. The result was the emergence of two basic classes, landlords and tenants, a division which was reinforced by different levels of education and different marriage strategies. The final chapters deal with the emergence of a third group, the new entrepreneurs, and the effects of economic growth, in the form of outmigration and an even more complex local division of labour. The conclusion is that despite the apparent vitality of the lineage as a focus of ritual and identity, continuing to serve the interests of the elite, it is in fact becoming increasingly irrelevant both economically and politically.

A similar pattern of development can be seen in the work from Taiwan which, with the end of the Japanese occupation, became conveniently available for research just as mainland China became unavailable. The main studies here were by Gallin (1966), Cohen (1976), Ahern (1973), A. Wolf and Huang (1980), and M. Wolf (1972). There was also a growing body of Japanese research on the island during the same period, as described by Suenari in the first chapter of this volume. One feature of the Taiwanese work was that it was able to draw on excellent Japanese demographic and archival sources, which gave a more detailed picture of the development of the family than almost anything available on the mainland. (Significantly, Japanese records on the mainland compiled by the Manchurian Railway Company form the basis of the 1985 monograph by Philip Huang.) Both the Hong Kong and Taiwanese based scholars later began to write on the PRC, initially collaborating with historians using documentary sources (another parallel with the research on Africa), and increasingly, during the late 1970s and 1980s, through the first hand observation which they were able to carry out with their students.

This takes us back to research on the PRC itself. For a long time after the Revolution, very little work was published by outside observers based on first-hand observation: books that did come out included second volumes by Hinton (1983) and the Crooks (1966). But much of the best data for the period during and immediately after the cultural revolution actually came from Chinese who had emigrated to Hong Kong, mainly from Guandong: Parish and Whyte wrote two general books of the basis of this information (1978, 1984) and a group of villagers from the same village provided the material for Chen Village , one of the most detailed studies of a single community from this period (Chan et al. , 1984). Oi's book on markets (1989) is based on similar sources.

The situation gradually improved with the end of the cultural revolution, Fei emerged from obscurity to become one of China's leading social scientists once more, and travel to China by western scholars became more common. A number of general studies started to appear written on the basis of brief visits and secondary sources, notably by women writers such as Elizabeth Croll (e.g. 1981, 1988 a, b). There have been a number of general accounts of the development of the Chinese economic system during the period of economic reform, based on a similar combination of short visits, secondary sources and emigrant interviews (e.g. Riskin, 1987; Oi, 1988 and Kelliher, 1992). But there are also an increasing number of published accounts based on longer intensive fieldwork in one or more communities by Mosher (1983), Chance (1984), Endicott (1988), Huang Shu-min (1989), Siu (1989), P.C. Huang (1990), the Potters (1990) and Judd (1994). To these have to be added the major studies by mainland Chinese scholars based in Japan such as Nie (1992) and Han (1993), as well as the graduate students from mainland China studying in America.[6] There is a growing trend for both western and Japanese scholars who previously worked in Hong Kong and Taiwan, including Wolf, Cohen, the Watsons, Segawa and Shimizu, to turn their attention to the mainland. With this mass of data becoming available in both English and Japanese, we may at last be able to build up a comparative picture of what has been happening to the social structure in different areas of China during the years since 1949, based on case studies of Han China from Liaoning to Guangzhou, as well as of a number of the minorities. In its basis in the political economy, its use of historical sources, and in the kinds of political and economic issues being addressed, much of this work is directly comparable with the kinds of interdisciplinary work being carried in Africa during the late 1960s and 1970s. Among other things, it analyses the formation of ethnic boundaries as a social and political process, and shows how the basic principles of Chinese kinship can be adapted to new economic situations. And as in West Africa, the most recent developments are in the areas of culture, with studies not only of the recreation of cultural tradition for the tourist industry, but also the contested role of the media and sport in Chinese society.[7]

With the increased foreign contact with China during the 1980s therefore, Chinese anthropology and research on China appears to be increasingly divided, at least on paper: on the one hand there are the western scholars, the Japanese scholars, and the Chinese scholars trained in the west or Japan, who apply the theoretical categories of the last two decades to Chinese society, in analysing the rapid changes taking place as a result of the economic reforms after 1978, and on the other there are the more conservative, often older, China- or Soviet-trained scholars, still working within what appear to be the dual strait-jackets of 19th century evolutionary theory and an approach to the study of minorities derived from the Stalinist period and reminiscent of the African work from the colonial period. However, informal contacts with Chinese academics reveal how much is being read, how much is available, and how pragmatic and flexible paradigms really are: publishing and similar public pronouncements are a different matter. Given the history of China over the last half-century, pragmatic caution in these matters is understandable.

The most likely possibility is that, even if Marxist-Leninist-Mao Ze-dong thought is officially retained as the basis of intellectual life, the way in which it is interpreted may well become more flexible. Guldin quotes a senior Chinese professor to the effect that in essence what Marxist-Leninism means is (a) looking to economic factors as a key to understanding society, (b) recognising the importance of the masses in creating history and (c) tracing the dialectical processes in human development. Using this definition, I suspect a large percentage of non-Chinese academics would be classified as Marxist-Leninists. As I have suggested above, some of the best studies of West Africa in the last few years have incorporated just these understandings.

The other point about China is that intellectual developments are often tolerated or even encouraged if they appear to be useful. This was why the nationalities research was encouraged, even though anthropology had such a limited institutional base at the time. Many of the key problems of Chinese society (demographic transition, welfare provision within the family, the accumulation of capital within family businesses, processes of migration, and relations between citizens and cadres at the local level) can all benefit from in-depth anthropological research. Whether or not the Party accepts the picture presented by this research is another matter, but the problems are so serious that it could be argued that, in the long run, they have little choice.

In terms of presentation of self, this is where the Japanese research may play a role. One of the features of the papers in this book is that many of the papers revolve around classical themes in anthropology ­ the lineage, ritual, spiritual beliefs, ethnic minority cultures and so on. Theory is implicit rather than explicit: structuralist, Marxist or post-modern paradigms are not obviously visible among the carefully observed field-data. And yet there are hidden twists. These papers in many cases undermine the very theoretical categories from which they take their starting point. The work on ethnic minorities exposes the fluidity and contested nature of ethnic boundaries: the papers by Segawa, Suenari, Yokoyama and Shimizu show that processes of "sinicisation" or the adoption of Han cultural traits are frequently to be found: but where the autonomous control of resources and the possibility of avoiding restrictive legislation is involved, people can move in the opposite direction culturally, and declare themselves to be members of minorities even when their genealogical, linguistic, or cultural claim is to say the least flimsy. In the papers by Han and Nishizawa, the starting point is the lineage, but the discussion quickly turns to the economic advantages to be gained from it. The paper by Nie reminds us that where these links appear to be of little use, they often disappear. It may well be that this kind of strategy of dealing with theoretical questions may also be of use to Chinese academics in moulding their theories to, and reconciling them with, the real world. Focussing on safe "classical" issues may outwardly present the appearance of conforming to the officially accepted models, while in reality the fine print of the analysis erodes them.

The parallels between research in Africa and China

It remains to draw out some of the parallels with African social anthropology. I would argue that African social anthropology has gone through three main stages: in the first, there was a preoccupation with basic documentation, the mapping of ethnic groups, the delineation of political systems, and that this was linked with the requirements of administration. In a sense, given the situation of ethnic pluralism or internal colonialism which the Chinese state faces, it is not surprising that much of the officially supported ethnological research in China is still at this stage, though many of the problems are at least tacitly realised. Much of the focus of the early research was on the structure and role of the lineage, much of the work inspired by Freedman, and in one sense this work is continuing, as the links between lineage membership and residence in some parts of China are only now being documented for the first time. Lineages, their classification, and the associated ancestor rituals have remained a popular subject for research among Japanese scholars to the present, as they have with scholars working on the interface between anthropology and history in the West, though they, like other scholars outside China, have begun to widen their focus to pay much more attention to historical processes and to the political economy.

In the second stage, African research, largely as a result of independence, moved away to consideration of the broader historical processes, and the articulation between local groups and the wider political economy. Important in the work in West Africa was the body of Marxist-inspired research which focused on the relations between the local farmers and the world economy, characterising them either as peasants or capitalists. Even though the Marxist wave soon passed, similar relationships have been the subject of intense scrutiny, either at the macro- or the local level by recent researchers in China: the ambivalence of the relationship comes out particularly well in the discussions by Siu (1989), who sees the farmers in Guangdong as both "agents" and "victims" of the revolution; by Oi (1989) who discusses the use of patron-client relations by both peasants and officials as a way of evading official restrictions; and by Kelliher (1992) who sees many of the policy changes since 1978 as having been forced on the government by the informal actions of the peasants, even though the peasants have been unable to break free entirely from their subordinate position in the national system of grain procurement and marketing. The micro-level studies also bring out well the ambivalent relations between the cadres and the local people. Perhaps the most explicitly detailed of all these studies, and the only one which focuses on urban economic reform and the informal sector, is that of Bruun (1993).

A related focus of research which has parallels with Africa is the move from seeing kinship as essentially something given as a resource which can be manipulated in conditions of rapid social change. These discussions have much in common with descriptions of the clash between familism and bureaucratic rationality in other parts of the world, and with increasing wealth at stake in China, it is not surprising that guanxi is still flourishing. Thus as in Africa, the studies of kinship in China are moving away from the formal description of lineage structures to the description of the potential of kinship relations in coping with the problems of peasant life. The "revival of kinship" which many scholars have commented on obviously has to be seen against this background, as for that matter does the "revival of ritual" (see Han's paper in this volume).

This is linked with a third area of research, the question of local identities, and how they are perceived and negotiated. As events in Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union have shown, ethnicity and "tribalism" are not confined to Africa or Papua-New Guinea. The expression of local cultures which has been allowed, or even encouraged, by the state in China is inextricably linked to the distribution of power and resources within the country, and also has effects in the sphere of religion, where cultural minorities are also religious minorities, as they are in the western part of China.

It could be argued that by far the most interesting questions in Chinese social science at the moment involve relations between local groups and the state, the distribution of resources, and the historical contexts within which these have developed. Just as in Africa, this is essentially interdisciplinary work, as the recent extensive collaborations between social historians and anthropologists working on China have shown.[8] All the same, the more distinctively anthropological enterprise of the analysis of cultural forms under the impact of rapid economic change is also starting: this was amply shown at the 1992 AAA panel on Chinese popular culture (referred to in note 7), where the speakers dealt with subjects as diverse as the role of the media in the reinvention of tradition, the significance and control of body-building contests, and life in a Chinese television studio. Of the recent monographs, Jankowiak's study of urban Inner Mongolia (1993) also deals with an eclectic range of cultural issues. This represents an expansion of social anthropology into areas in which it has been at home in Europe and North America for some time, but which are less familiar in China and Japan. Presumably given the right conditions the number of such studies is likely to increase in the years to come. One can only hope that they will be more firmly anchored in the realities of economic and political life than they have been sometimes in recent studies of culture in Europe or North America, though, given the importance of the state in Chinese life and the rapidity of economic change, these are hardly factors which it is easy to lose sight of.


1. A number of important studies have been published since the completion of the first edition of this book, such as those by Bruun (1993), Jankowiak (1993), and Judd. (1994), and particularly Guldin (1994), necessitating a full-scale revision of this chapter.

2. On Radcliffe-Brown's visit to China in 1935, see Guldin (1994: 42). Guldin also makes the point that, in addition to Malinowski, an important influence on Fei's work was the Russian ethnologist Sergei M. Shirokogoroff, who moved to China after 1917 and remained there until his death in 1954 (Guldin, 1994: 44-6).

3. The IAI still operates, though on a reduced scale: in addition to its occasional conferences, it produces a monograph series, the journal Africa , and an annual regional bibliography.

4. The Review of African Political Economy soon became, and still is, the main forum for these debates.

5. Guldin (1994) gives an invaluable detailed account of these periods. See especially pp. 50-67 (the anti-Japanese war); pp. 149-70 (the Anti-Rightist campaign); and pp. 183-202 (the Cultural Revolution).

6. Since the publication of the first edition of this book, a third major village study by a Chinese scholar writing in Japanese has been completed at Tokyo University by Qin Zhao-xiong, working in Hubei Province.

7. E.g. the papers presented in the panel on "Popular Cultural Practices in China: Room for Heterodoxy", organised by Susan E. Brownell and Louisa Schein, AAA 91st Annual Meeting, San Francisco, December 6th 1992. Papers presented included: Ralph A. Litzinger, "Returning the Traditional to a Socialist-Modern Landscape: Yao Popular Ritual in the PRC"; Louisa Schein, "Reconfiguring the Dominant: Multidimensionality in the Manufacture of the Miao"; Susan E. Brownell, "The State, Obscene Bodies and a Popular Movement; Bodybuilding in China"; Tad Ballew, "The Production of Shanghai Television".

8. E.g. P.B. Ebrey and J.L. Watson (eds) Kinship Organization in Late Imperial China 1000-1940. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986; J. L. Watson and E. S. Rawski, (eds.) Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China , Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988. R. S. Watson and P. B. Ebrey (eds.) Marriage and Inequality in Chinese Society , Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991; R.S. Watson (ed) Memory, History, and Oppression under State Socialism . Santa Fe: School of American Research Press, 1994.

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Updated 4 June 2020