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Postulating Peasants and Upholding Urbanites

March 24, 2010

Postulating Peasants and Upholding Urbanites: A Reassessment of China’s Rural-Urban Divide

Miriam Gross (2006)

How does one chop up a territory in order to study it? Is it just convenience, common sense, ideology? Since historians started writing about China they have debated the relationship between cities and the countryside and between urban-dwellers and country folk. This paper will unearth some of the reasons behind their decisions and then point to new ways these relationships are being explored.

The Gap Created

Many scholars exploring Chinese history prior to contact with Europe and America describe cities that were strikingly integrated with rural areas. As Susan Mann explains, “traditional Chinese cities remained closely tied to the countryside by patterns of office-holding, land tenure, merchant activity, and labor recruitment that marked a large proportion of the urban population as mere sojourners – temporary urbanites destined to return to more rural homesites” (89). Despite the general acceptance of this thesis, once scholars started discussing cities after the Western incursion in the middle of nineteenth century, they began to posit a strong divide between the urban and rural spheres. It seems unlikely that the few treaty ports perched on China’s Eastern edge would have had a wide-ranging impact on the nature of most Chinese cities. Thus, we must ask why scholars of later China suddenly fashioned this new model, a model seemingly inapplicable to much of the Chinese landscape.

The answer seems to lie in why historians of later China were interested in cities. It appears that they primarily wanted to look for the roots of modernization. In Europe, cities have always been separated from the countryside. Further, as Rhoads Murphey explains, “economic growth has been causally associated with urbanization” (251). Cities were assumed to be the engine of both the economic and the cultural phenomena leading to modernity. Thus, it is perhaps not surprising that historians, whose own background undoubtedly involved studying the power of Western cities, hoped they might find urban areas playing a similar role in China. According to Mark Elvin, in his preface introducing the 1974 edited volume The Chinese City Between Two Worlds, one of the first attempts to explore Chinese cities, “China’s first encounter with modern industrial civilization took place in the cities; it was in the cities, too, that Chinese efforts at modernization began” (2). One of first questions early historians of China grappled with was why it was taking so long for China to modernize, especially when compared to Japan. What, they asked themselves, was holding China back? How was China’s response to the West impacting on its development? All of these crucial question could be explored through spotlighting the city as a separable object of study whose independent development allowed an assessment of China’s progress towards modernity. Thus scholars did not so much consciously build a model of cities as separate entities, as assume that it was so.

There were three other factors that seem to have encouraged this basic inclination. First, in order to track whether earlier continuities between the rural and urban spheres continued in later times, one needs access to archival data and statistics that were unavailable to early historians of China. Second, since detailed or eyewitness Chinese accounts could not be obtained, the best descriptions of Chinese cities was often by early Western travelers. These travelers, who observed the difference between the vigorous urban environment and quieter rural areas, tended to take it for granted that the Chinese cities were as distinct as Western ones. Thus, Mark Elvin quotes von Richthofen’s 1872 observations of Sichuan, “the city is thoroughly city and the country is thoroughly country” (6). Data such as this, helped to confirm the impression of a complete divide. Third, within the discipline of history itself, if practitioners moved beyond analyzing general societal trends, they tended to become specialists focused primarily on rural areas or on cities, but not the interrelation of both. This too made it difficult to conceive of the crosscutting questions that would have disturbed the notion of an urban-rural divide.

The Gap Modified

However, as the study of cities progressed and more sources became available, scholars began to question whether the supposed gap between the rural and urban sectors really occurred as soon as modernizing Westerners appeared on the scene. Thus the new question became: when did cities become separate from the countryside? Three possible answers came to the fore: the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the 1930s, and the 1950s.

Mary Rankin writing in 1977, Susan Mann in 1984, and Hanchao Lu in 1999 believe the gap occurred in the late 1920s and 1930s. As Rankin pointedly remarks to those who are proponents of an earlier divide, “detailed research in local gazetteers raises doubts about broadly applying the idea of an urban-rural gap to explain social developments in the late nineteenth century and at least the first two decades of the twentieth” (68). According to Lu, as the countryside went into economic decline, a sharp gap was created between the rural and urban spheres. While the city was originally viewed as “an abomination,” by the 1920s and 1930s, “modern, industrialized, and highly commercialized cities came to be seen as better places than small towns and villages” (5). This gulf meant that desperate peasants flooded the cities. Rather than young men finding short-term work in the slack season, whole families settled permanently and tried to construct a secure niche for themselves. The result was that while ties were still maintained with rural hometowns, even peasants were “proud to call themselves Shanghairen” (50). Thus enough of a connection to the city and distinction from native place had been created that people began to conceive of themselves as city-dwellers. While Mann agrees that the divide occurred in the late 1920s, unlike Lu, she discovers that urban elites by no means envisaged urban-rural relations in the same way. In fact she finds “nativist, reconstructionist, and positivist” perspectives (94). The nativist paradigm rejected the modern city as destructive of traditional society’s mores and relationships and thus perceived it as a direct attack on what it meant to be Chinese. The reconstructionists valued the countryside for the same reasons, but felt that urban commercial development could be used expediently to help jumpstart rural economic wellbeing. The positivists felt that Chinese traditional rural society had failed China. Thus they were wholeheartedly in favor of urban development since it meant modernization along Western lines. While Lu and Mann differ on whether urban and rural spaces had positive or negatives connotations, they point out that the need to evaluate and compare them meant that in people’s experience the city and countryside had become functionally separated.

Peter Nolan and Gordon White in 1984 and a plethora of studies starting in 1994, place the gap much later in the mid to late 1950s. Characteristic of this group is Mark Selden and Tiejun Cheng’s article on the hukou system. The hukou which was promulgated in 1953, assigned individuals formally to their hometown and made it illegal to “blindly flow” to the cities without a certificate of employment. Initially, it was not very effectively implemented. However, prompted by the loss of private land during rural collectivization in 1956, vastly superior economic opportunities in the city, and the Great Leap Forward, peasants flooded the cities escaping the miseries of the countryside. By 1960 the government became frightened by the instability of uncontrolled migration and enacted stringent measures to hold people in place. The result, according to Selden and Cheng, is that the hukou system became “the central institutional mechanism defining the city-countryside relationship creating a spatial hierarchy of urban places and prioritizing the city over the countryside” (644-645). As Nolan and White, who describe this phenomenon more luridly, put it, “in a sense, China’s cities in the 1960s and 1970s were like social fortresses, the migration controls forming a wall against rural incursion” (68). There appears general agreement in the literature that once the hukou system is enacted, most connections to the countryside cease, leading to a stringent rural-urban divide. This gap was so large and the benefits to urban living so great, that Thomas Bernstein in his early 1977 book on the rustication movement (shangshan xiaxiang) believes that there began to be a fundamental shift in values. Prior to the Cultural Revolution, “there was considerable snobbishness about blue-collar work. However, given the option of being stuck in a remote village, ‘those assigned to factory work are in high spirits and elated.’ For an intellectual’s daughter, marriage to an urban worker is considered a good match” (103). Thus the mere possession of urban status became a more important class marker than intellectual attainments. In any event, for these researchers, only after the imposition of the hukou system were urban-rural connections finally sundered.

Interestingly, it appears that a reconsideration of the earlier era’s possible “gap potential” may be occurring. Myron Cohen in his 1993 article on the invention of the concept “peasant” believes that the divide happened somewhere between the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Instead of focusing (like Rankin, Lu, and Mann) on the economic factors and (like Nolan and White, Selden and Cheng, and Bernstein) on the structural factors that led to an urban-rural divide and then opened a space for a change in consciousness, Cohen believes that the change in consciousness happened first. He feels the crucial determinant was a reconceptualization of the peasant and the countryside. According to Cohen, in late imperial times, most families lived in rural areas and survived by diversifying. Thus some members farmed, others engaged in small industry, still others sold agricultural and sideline products, and ideally others studied to help the whole family move up in the social hierarchy. This meant that “peasant” as an isolated, negative entity did not exist. Starting in the late nineteenth century many crucial loan words entered China from Japan. Chief among them were peasant (nongmin), feudal (fengjian), and superstition (mixin). Over the next decades, both Marxist and non-Marxist Western perceptions of the peasants as a discreet and destructive element filtered into China. In the decade leading up to the May 4th Movement, elites began to believe that “China’s rural population was now ‘backward’ and a major obstacle to national development and salvation. For them rural China was still a ‘feudal society’ of ‘peasants’ who were intellectually and culturally crippled by ‘superstition'” (154). While some intellectuals were more sympathetic to the peasants’ situation, they tended to demonstrate their sympathy by engaging in folklore studies in the 1920s which only served to reify peasants as a separate and quaintly anachronistic assemblage. The result was that the countryside lost its status as the heartland of Chinese values and the place that defined what it meant to be Chinese. In addition, those who tilled the soil gained a new harmful characterization requiring their isolation and reform. Cohen interestingly points out that this represents a reversal of Western conceptions of modernization which tended to turn peasants into farmers. Instead, after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, “‘peasants’ now have second-class citizenship, ironically, giving legal confirmation to the second-class culture they earlier had been identified with” (159).

Given the strong scholarly consensus that late imperial China was characterized by a high degree of urban-rural continuity and the obvious current separation between city and country, how are we to determine when the gap first occurred? It seems likely that the solution lies is separating the consciousness of a divide from the real divide. Cohen is probably right that this process of changing perceptions started at the end of the nineteenth century amont a very few elites and spread throughout the 1930s until it encompassed a much wider societal consensus, at least among urbanites. The actual rural-urban divide most likely only occurred with the imposition of the hukou. Given the strong ties to family and hometown and the equally great opportunities for enrichment in the developing cities, many non-elites seem to have continued normal patterns of family diversification by selecting some members to work in towns and cities. The result is that the argument among scholars over when the rural-urban gap occurred may be more perceived than real.

However, where scholars place this gap does have a large impact on their research directions and conclusions. Those who focus on economics generally continue to compare China’s modernization process to the West. These scholars still find it difficult to see urban-rural relations as a continuum during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. However, until they do, they will be unable to accurately assess China’s own pathways towards development. Historians whose main sources come from urban elites, people who generally define themselves in opposition to a newly essentialized countryside, also tend to believe that a gap occurred earlier than it actually did. This means that such scholars will minimize or completely ignore the ongoing interaction between city and countryside. Finally, anthropologists and historians engaged in tracking patterns of social interactions will be those most likely to accurately represent the true continuity that existed throughout the nineteenth and half of the twentieth century.

Beyond the Gap

A number of historians and social scientists have become increasingly dissatisfied with the implications of the urban-rural divide framework on their scholarship. They have realized that this segregation is innately value-laden such that cities and their avatars, urban elites, become representatives of progress and modernity, and the countryside and peasants become the demons of unchanging backwardness. Surely such dichotomous representations do a grave disservice to both groups. Many of these scholars have particularly begun to reassess peasants.

In their 1998 article, Laurence Ma and Biao Xiang explore what happens to peasants who illegally migrated to cities after the economic liberalization in the 1980s. Most of the extensive prior scholarship discussing internal migration envisions a two-tiered urban society composed of urbanites and unintegrated, backward peasants. Feeling the need to fight against this countervailing scholarly trend, the authors forcefully remark that the imposition of a “neatly dualistic order” fails to accurately reflect the complex realities of Chinese cities and masks “the migrants” heterogeneous ways of life, diverse employment patterns and income differences (548). They find that contrary to the description of peasants “flowing blindly” (mangliu) to the city in hopes of randomly picking up urban employment, they in fact have specific destinations in mind that are determined by native-place ties. Further, although migrants are generally assumed to constitute an urban underclass, they have a wide range of incomes. Many are considerably wealthier than those proud owners of urban hukou who work in the meagerly paying state-owned enterprises. Many of their accomplishments have come through discovering spaces left by structural shortcomings in the command economy. They are often able to exploit these spaces only because they retain strong connections to extended family and native place. In other words, their success originates in their ability to reinvigorate the traditional linkages between city and countryside.

In a second 1990 article about rural migrants to the Shanghai, Emily Honig reevaluates whether the undoubted biases of urbanites really has to do with migrants’ status as peasants. She discovers that migrants from the wealthy agricultural area of Jiangnan are generally slated to become elites while those from impoverished Subei are supposed to become the urban underclass. After carefully tracking the development of historical prejudices and the reason why they are still being “actively perpetuated and reproduced” (281), she concludes that “native-place identity has itself been the basis of prejudice and inequality” (273). Thus by not automatically assuming all rural migrants were poor, despised peasants, Honig discovers that perhaps the category “peasant” is not really the determining factor behind current stereotypes. Further, by critically examining relationships between urban-dwellers and migrants, she finds a complex picture of shifting prejudices that develop over time. By breaking down assumed dichotomies and focusing on native-place, a designation that reinforces urban and rural continuities, Honig’s study suggests important new directions in the field.

In a 1995 article, Andrew Kipnis examines how residents in Fengjia Village, Shandong Province conceived of themselves in 1988 and 1990. At that time, “excesses” of banqueting, gift giving, ritual and filiality, as well as a desire for many (or male) children, were often described as “feudal remnants” (119). Residents were actively encouraged to get rich and to distance themselves from the peasant customs that were perceived as inhibiting their march towards modernity. Kipnis found that village members tended to aggressively reinvent themselves as “peasants” or “non-peasants.” Villagers who wanted an identity based on being “non-peasants” actively avoided situations where they would have to engage in rituals such as bowing and ketou and tried to keep their daughters from working in the fields so as to retain their “non-peasant beauty” (128). Meanwhile residents who embraced the identity of peasant, evaluated past practices positively. As Kipnis explains, “instead of constructing the future as something new that necessitated the rejection of the past, they constructed the future as something to be purposefully filled with the recreations of past practices” (124). In their minds, so-called backwards customs became an exercise in being subversive. Once again, by moving beyond the habitual unitary assessments of peasants constructed by both Chinese elites and traditional Western scholarship, Kipnis is able to formulate new questions and thus discover a much more accurate and interesting picture of the ways peasants perceive themselves.

Exciting studies such as those by Ma and Xiang, Honig, and Kipnis point out the great benefit to reevaluating a framework assuming urban-rural divide, a framework that has, in many instances, proved to be a conceptual straightjacket. Not only does the “gap thesis” misrepresent continuities between city and countryside, it also artificially forces the multifaceted relationships between urban and rural-dwellers into a simple, value-laden dichotomy. The result is that many researchers have had difficulty in even conceiving of alternative research questions. However, a flexible vision of intertwined rural and urban spaces and peoples combined with an energetic reconsideration of old categories, such as “peasant,” are widening the field and leading to the sort of accurate and reflective history that should be every historian’s greatest goal.


Bernstein, Thomas. Up to the Mountains and Down to the Villages: The Transfer of Youth from Urban to Rural China. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977.

Cheng, Tiejun and Mark Seldon. “The Origins and Social Consequences of China’s Hukou System.” The China Quarterly 139 (September 1994), 644-668.

Cohen, Myron L. “Cultural and Political Inventions in Modern China: The Case of the Chinese Peasant.” Daedalus 122.2 (Spring 1993), 151-170.

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Rankin, Mary Backus. “Rural-Urban Continuities: Leading Families of Two Chekiang Market Towns.” Ch’ing-shih wen-t’i 3.7 (November 1977), 67-104.

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