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Revolutionizing the Family

March 20, 2010

Neil J. Diamant. Revolutionizing the Family: Politics, Love, and Divorce in Urban and Rural China, 1949-1968. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Ji Hee Jung (2004)

Suggesting that studying marriage and divorce “opens a wide window” onto the interaction between state and society, Neil J. Diamant provides dramatically new perspectives on family and marriage structures during the revolutionary transition in China (14). Diamant argues that peasant women, who have been considered the most traditional and passive members of society, were the most active and successful in taking advantage of the “modern” provisions of the Marriage Law – such as freedom of marriage and divorce often without the state’s help. In contrast to his original state-urban-centered hypothesis, “social dynamics generated by the implementation of the Marriage Law” that he encountered in his research forces Diamant to “rethink the nature of revolutionary change” (325).

Stressing ordinary people’s agency vis-à-vis the state, both on the individual and group levels, and different meanings of the Marriage Law to a variety of people in China, Diamant challenges the notion that divorce is an urban phenomenon because urbanities are more “modern” and have easier access to legal forums. On the contrary, Diamant argues the opposite is true for revolutionary China.

Diamant shows that a relatively positive experience of state, the multilayered structure of state legitimacy, a bold “legal culture,” relatively open “sexual culture,” and other resources such as community, land, time and space encouraged the rural population’s willingness and ability to take advantage of new state laws. In contrast, urbanities remained reluctant to use new opportunities due to a fear of the state, a strong sense of privacy, concerns with face, lack of other resources, and the state’s “dense” political geography. Through comparison between urban core and periphery, he indicates that even the features that facilitated divorce claims in urban areas stemmed from petitioners’ rural background.

This book points out that what has been assumed as “traditional,” and therefore easily assumed as an obstacle of social change, such as community or gender inequality, actually facilitated “modern” state-led change. In this light, Diamant criticizes the feminist position that gender equality is a precondition for taking advantage of Marriage Law for underestimating women’s agency. He emphasizes that women still went to courts and other state agencies even though they held on to the customary view of gender division. Ironically, this view made it easier for women to forge identities and communities based on common experience.

On the other hand, Diamant also sheds light on the unintended consequences of the Marriage Law, as well as the mismanagement and improvisation by the state. The Marriage Law was based on expectations that new relationship would be formed on the basis of love, equality and mutual respect, but in the real world “people also desired power, money, and sex,” all of which are subject to competition; in other words, “commodities” (327). Therefore, poorer and unattractive peasant men were often those most victimized by the politics of family reform in the PRC even if Communist Revolution was based on the poor peasants’ support.

Diamant’s argument is highly thought-provoking and his research is exhaustive and rich in details. This book is a “thoroughly revisionist study, in the best sense of the word,” and “interestingly structured from a methodological point of view” (Vivienne Shue, American Political Science Review 95.1). Diamant’s methodology emphasizes the comparisons between regions, classes, levels of the state and the party apparatus. In particular, the regional variations of research including Shanghai and Beijing, suburbs of these two cities (Qingpu County and Tong County) and Chuxiong prefecture in Yunnan, along with comprehensive use of new sources from different levels of government archives (including those in districts) deserve high attention.

© Copyright 2004. All rights reserved.

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