Most rural Chinese live in one of some 900,000 villages, which have an average population of from 1,000 to 2,000 people. Villages have never been self-contained, self-sufficient units, and the social world of Chinese peasants has extended beyond their home villages. Almost all new wives come into a village from other settlements, and daughters marry out. All villagers have close kinship ties with families in other villages, and marriage gobetweens shuttle from village to village.
Before 1950 clusters of villages centered on small market towns that linked them to the wider economy and society. Most peasants were only a few hours' walk or less from a market town, which provided not only opportunities to buy and sell but also opportunities for entertainment, information, social life, and a host of specialized services. The villages around a market formed a social unit that, although less immediately visible than the villages, was equally significant.
From the early 1950s on, China's revolutionary government made great efforts to put the state and its ideology into direct contact with the villages and to sweep aside the intermediaries and brokers who had traditionally interpreted central policies and national values for villagers. The state and the party were generally successful, establishing unprecedented degrees of political and ideological integration of villages into the state and of villagelevel awareness of state policies and political goals.
The unintended consequence of the economic and political policies of the 1950s and 1960s was to increase the closed, corporate quality of China's villages and to narrow the social horizons of villagers. Land reform and the reorganization of villages as subunits of people's communes meant that villages became collective landholding units and had clear boundaries between their lands and those of adjacent villages. Central direction of labor on collective fields made the former practices of swapping labor between villages impossible. The household registration and rationing systems confined villagers to their home settlements and made it impossible for them to seek their fortune elsewhere. Cooperation with fellow villagers and good relations with village leaders became even more important than they had been in the past. The suppression of rural markets, which accompanied the drive for self-sufficiency in grain production and other economic activities, had severe social as well as economic consequences. Most peasants had neither reason nor opportunity for regular trips to town, and their opportunities for exchange and cooperation with residents of other villages were diminished. Villages became work units, with all that that implied.
Decollectivization in the early 1980s resulted in the revival of rural marketing, and a limited relaxation of controls on outmigration opened villages and diminished the social boundaries around them. The social world of peasants expanded, and the larger marketing community took on more significance as that of the village proper was diminished. Village membership, once the single most important determinant of an individual's circumstances, became only one of a number of significant factors, which also included occupation, personal connections, and managerial talent.
|Country Studies main page | China Country Studies main page|