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Biography of Place

March 26, 2010

Biography of Place: Local Studies and the Nation-State in Chinese Historiography

Jeremy Murray (2005)

In studies of Chinese history done in the post-Mao era there has been a trend toward local analysis. This shift toward focusing on specific local cases and regional variance is a result of increased access for scholarly research, and it represents a shift away from earlier studies that often homogenize the national history and experience of China, in search of a grand, sweeping narrative. This change parallels broad trends in post-colonial/post-modern philosophy and literature toward closer studies of previously neglected experiences, especially those that do not fall neatly into totalizing and teleological narratives of the emergence of constructed nations and their modern manifestations. In the China field, as in other relatively new area studies fields, there has been a tendency to emphasize how these regional studies of the twentieth century are connected to the grand revolutionary or anti-colonial narrative. (This approach naturally has a national teleology of its own, but it has been more fashionable for progressive-minded scholars in its apparently anti-colonial manifestation.) Two major issues emerge from this trend: one is whether it is useful or even possible to jettison the use of the nation-state as the essential unit of analysis; the other is whether local analyses can be taken as microcosms of larger narratives, and if so how such extensions of the local should be qualified.

Although many historians continue to use the modern nation-state to identify their broad area of study, they generally try to approach state histories with increased skepticism. That is, scholars often try to counterbalance celebratory and uncritical national narratives issued by state propagandists. Many local analyses avoid reinforcing the national myth that points to state citizenship as the main factor in determining how one’s history – national or local – is shared, written, and remembered. The result in the China field has been a genre of monographs that can be categorized as “biography of place,” the story of lived experience in a region, defined as much by how regional identity is formed, as by a disciplinary or phenomenological approach.

This does not mean that regional uniqueness is the focus of these studies. Though different regions are examined in these new studies, the emphasis is often not on ways in which this region is atypical within the national narrative. Depending on the size of the region or subject examined, the reader generally expects some degree of relevance to larger issues of society and nation, if not, in fact, a claim that the story of this location is an exemplary illustration of essential aspects of the national narrative. A simple human-interest narrative of a region in which the historian claims no relevance to issues related to the nation-state or even larger global trends, is exceptionally rare, and the academic historian would likely abandon such a subject to the popular historian for a lack of compelling material. This is a curious tendency, but it seems that the nation-state is inescapable as the essential unit of analysis for the China historian.

Even if the microcosmic narrative is of a people or region whose struggle is against the state, the nation-state continues to figure essentially within local studies, if only as an analytical starting point or a rhetorical foil. So while many historians avoid celebrating the patriotic myths of a nation-state (and some, like Arjun Appadurai, even claim that we have entered a post-nation-state era in which societal groupings are defined by cultural “scapes” and not state boundaries) it is still difficult to argue the significance of a region or event if its larger implications, either national or global, are not apparent. This paper will examine some biographies of place in the China field, and contrast them with some studies that take a macrocosmic approach. This comparison will lead to questions about the usefulness and feasibility of moving beyond the heavy hand of the nation-state in modern Chinese historiography. Above the nation-state is the realm of global culture and universalizing humanism, and below the nation-state are provincial, regional, village, and family identities (and perhaps, also, universalizing humanism). None of these different levels of analysis is invalid for the historian, but currently almost all levels of study seem required to contend directly and centrally with the category of the Chinese nation-state.

The volume of essays, Remaking the Chinese City: Modernity and National Identity, 1900-1950 (Joseph Esherick, ed.) is testament to attention paid to urban microcosms of China, in this case, the Chinese city in a negotiation between the modern (often conceived of as a cosmopolitan or Western notion in the period examined) and the traditionally Chinese. This struggle to find an urban identity that incorporates both of these forces in the “remaking” of various cities is one of the central concerns of this volume. The complexity of this problem and the difficulty of locating an essential and traditional “Chineseness” (or an essential modern, for that matter) imply the diversity of the urban experience in China from the last years of the Qing dynasty through the founding of the People’s Republic (PRC). There is no archetypal Chinese city to which the writers refer, though within the volume there is an explicit effort to move beyond the trend of narrowly focusing on Shanghai as the only worthwhile or fruitful subject in Chinese urban history. This volume and other works have shown that the complex negotiations of Chinese modernity were not exclusive to Shanghai.

Through the 1980s and 1990s much of Chinese urban history revolved around Shanghai, and the reception of modernity within a cosmopolitan and unique example of treaty port culture. Leo Ou-fan Lee is one of the most prominent historians in this group whose approach to Shanghai was aimed at the intellectual elites of the city, and the works that they produced especially in the Republican era (1911-1949). Lee does not argue that the subject of his work The Romantic Generation of Modern Chinese Writers – “dandies” with Cambridge or Columbia degrees and apartments in the wealthier foreign concessions of Shanghai – were representative examples of traditional Chinese scholars or patriots. Lee suggests that that their intellectual concerns and their literary efforts are compelling for what he considers a universal humanist-romanticist perspective, which he argues was unprecedented in Chinese literature, and did not directly produce noteworthy heirs. These sensitive young writers lived in a world of violent revolution and invasion, though the treaty port culture often physically isolated them from the daily experience of chaotic national disunity and weakness.

This local world of Shanghai intellectuals is certainly unique in China, though Lee asserts that some of their humanist concerns were closely linked to literary and philosophical trends that were evident throughout the world. Hence Lee escapes, to some degree, the usually omnipresent nation-state in much of his narrative. The work is less about Chinese intellectuals as it is about globe-trotting dandies who happen to have been born in China. Lee stretches this notion a bit thin when he suggests that one of the writers was actually unaware of the violence that swirled around him in his charmed existence (154), but his effort to locate and examine a microcosm that is not shaped and dictated by the historical causality of revolution and the teleology of the Chinese nation-state is important. It is also important to note that the trajectory of Lee’s subject ranges from literary revolution to revolutionary literature. Though the writers he examines from the early period are in fact aspiring to be “superfluous men” in the model of Turgenev’s characters, there is a shift to more socially conscious intellectuals who throw in their lot with a political party in the urgency of war and revolution. Lee does not try to maintain this narrative of uniqueness of this micro-study in its resistance to the heavy hand of the nation-state through this later section, as the sources he examines do not support it.

When each city is examined individually as in Lee’s Shanghai and the Esherick volume, much of the language of a homogenized traditional Chinese identity is found to be less important than an examination of regional diversity. Even notions of sameness within a nation-state are naturally construed differently by the local population from one region of the state to the next. There is certainly no archetypal city or village to which the historian can turn as a paradigm of Chineseness at a given moment. But it is more significant to consider the way people thought of themselves as part of a national body – political or cultural – and how this notion of national participation affected their lives. This is the focus of the second half of Lee’s study. To consider how the nation figured in the lives of individuals and societies from one city or region to another is more productive than trying to establish some arbitrary scale that measures the degree to which a region embodies some concrete notion of Chinese traditional culture or Western modernity. It is through local studies that it becomes immediately clear that both of these notions are often in flux from place to place and through time.

In two works on Beijing in the Republican era, the authors consider how different people in the city thought of their lives – from the daily markets to elite politics – in terms of their city and the nation of which it had until recently been the political center. In Republican Beijing: The City and Its Histories, Madeleine Yue Dong interprets the circulation of everyday goods within Beijing as a kind of cultural recycling, which gives way to a “nostalgia for the present” within the city. This is not a look toward a static, traditional China, but, according to Dong, an attribute of a specific modernity – one that does not necessarily have its roots in the West. Dong’s study is an urban history, as is David Strand’s Rickshaw Beijing: City People and Politics in the 1920s. In both of these works, the authors suggest that the process of modernization was not a zero-sum equation with the modern West on one hand and traditional China on the other. From the everyday incorporation of symbols of tradition in markets, to the rickshaw’s brief appearance on Beijing’s streets followed by the streetcar, people in Beijing were not passive in the negotiation, but were active in constructing a cultural locality of Republican-era China.

As the former capital of the Qing dynasty and the early Chinese republican government, Beijing is unique among other Chinese cities and regions. Shanghai and Beijing are both significant as localized studies, though their historical prominence within the narrative of the Chinese nation-state too often leads to an assumption of typicality that extends beyond the limits of the events that occurred there. But beyond Shanghai and Beijing there are more compelling arguments for studying a region, a city, or a village with the goal of arriving at an example that can be extended beyond the boundaries of the specific case. In considering, for example, how the state apparatuses of the People’s Republic interacted with village elites and peasants, can trends be extrapolated from a single example?

Edward Friedman, Paul Pickowicz, and Mark Selden produced two volumes covering life in a single Hebei village, focusing on the ascension and rule of the PRC government and how this rule was experienced in the village. There is some discussion of nearby villages within the same county, and comparisons with other villages, but the study deals most thoroughly with Wugong, in Raoyang county. State officials had previously selected the same village that these authors chose, but as a production model for national emulation, rather than a subject of scholarly study. This was an honor for the village heads, but it also meant that the village would be under constant scrutiny and held to higher production standards than ever. Again this seems to present a problem in the search for an archetypal village. Naturally it is the official stance that this village, Wugong, is an example to be replicated throughout the state for its efficiency, but it can hardly be assumed that other villages would eventually come to indeed look and feel like Wugong. As the writers note, such model villages were accorded special treatment in order to maintain their pristine appearance and production record.

In the title of the first volume, Chinese Village, Socialist State, the authors seem to imply typicality in Wugong, but they state quite bluntly at the outset: “There was, and is, no typical village. This book presents a spectrum of villages with diverse resources and social and cultural traditions, which interacted with the state in different ways” (xiv). But they go on to explain how they consider Raoyang county to be “representative of significant aspects of China’s vast rural hinterland” (xvii). Still more telling of the authors’ use of their example as representative of village life and culture, they explain how their research led them to reconsider some macrocosmic theses of Chinese revolution and resistance through their knowledge of the events and the findings of their case study. (xxi)

In Wugong we see a compelling parallel between the project of these three authors and the project of PRC officials. Both are reading a different type of typicality in the village, a microcosmic essence that can or should be extended throughout the rest of rural China. The authors of Chinese Village, Socialist State are not simply weaving a narrative of Wugong’s rich, unique, local history. The variable in their narrative is at the state level, not in the village. Wugong represents a village’s resilient reaction to fluctuating PRC policies, and hence it is the “eternal local,” as they term it, that is the immutable factor in the equation. The narrative follows changes in state policy, and the resistance and endurance of local actors in negotiating these sometimes devastating policies. Ultimately, this is a story of state brutality and local resilience. The Chinese village, as these authors conclude, is a complicated place, and one that cannot be easily bent into the form of an undistinguishable engine of production for the state. Even while Wugong was cited as one of the foremost examples of correct methods, its leaders and people continued to have ambiguous and critical views of the powers that disrupted their sense of community. Even if certain aspects of this community identity is essentialized and extended as an example over other cases, it still is not a simple task. In the case of Wugong in the post-Mao era, “Ancient glories, modern patriotism, contemporary agonies, and hopes for a better future were complexly and passionately mixed” (Revolution, Resistance, and Reform, 285).

This complexity of local negotiation of state power is often missed in macro-narratives such as Maurice Meisner’s works, Mao’s China and After and The Deng Xiaoping Era. It is not Meisner’s goal to explain the nuance of local governance, nor does he aim to show how local production teams organized to meet state quotas. To some extent, Meisner, like Leo Ou-fan Lee, is dealing with intellectual history. Meisner refers mainly to the documents issued by state leaders and committees, emphasizing how they were produced and what the ideological origins of policies and programs were. (Works like the Wugong volumes take it from there and explain what happens when these policies are enacted, how they are manipulated, how they are interpreted or misinterpreted, accepted or opposed.) But also like Lee, the production of these policies certainly involves its own type of local history. The national and global appreciation already accorded elite policy makers does not preclude their participation in localized experiences. Like Lee’s romantics sipping demitasses and twirling to Strauss, authors of state policy behind the walls of government buildings in Beijing are also a local community of their own.

Recent works of Andrew Nathan deal with this subgroup of bureaucrats and elite Party members (see works listed in the bibliography), but Meisner’s work also addresses this local group, if not as directly. A narrative history that privileges elite politics and policy formation is simply the conventional approach of focusing on the group of individuals whose actions most dramatically affect their environment and society. In his work on the Deng Xiaoping era, Meisner narrates Deng’s career as an individual, rising and falling, until he rose to the pinnacle of Party power. Meisner also attempts to explain the ideological foundations out of which Deng’s ruling philosophy emerged. This exploration of motivation is only possible through interviews or extensive, available documentation.

In the case of the Wugong volumes, interviews constituted most of the richest source material, but in the case of prominent leaders or prolific artists, access to their writings represents a direct source that allows the historian the possibility of avoiding the pitfalls of propaganda writing and replication of nation-state myths. Although the examples of local analysis listed here are diverse, they all present a different kind of humanized alternative to the mythology of national propaganda. But in each of the examples, the Chinese nation-state is a factor that either takes center stage, or presents a constant foil to the local narrative.

This omnipresence of the national narrative is a conscious inclusion of the historian. Appadurai argues that the nation-state is all but behind us, and cultural, linguistic, and technological distinctions that seem to ignore state boundaries should be the building blocks of a social analyst’s work. But the stubborn nation-state seems oblivious to this philosophical development, and along with its adherents, it continues to demand obedience to its laws, service for its defense from other states, pecuniary compensation for such services, and other impositions that even the most absent-minded of professors cannot disregard.

Though Meisner’s work is referred to above as a macro-study, it is in fact the work of philosophers like Appadurai that is most macrocosmic in scope. This type of work is useful as a societal diagnosis in a global world, and sometimes such work is astute in its assessment of shifts to come. But in such a world as Appadurai’s, or Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-system, there seem to be few active people. Though neither is concerned with geology or cartography, and both seem to have the human at the center of their analysis, humans make only rare appearances in their works of global scope. Processes, rather, are the focus. Human motivations such as greed and xenophobia can only be assumed to have set into motion titanic forces that can no longer be affected by people; hence this group’s theoretical adherents can forgo the study of people at the local level. These works are built on a mountain of literature, much of it tracing circuitously back to the still revolutionary wisdom of Karl Marx.

Like Marx, many historians or social scientists cannot be bothered with the details of local analysis, but instead extrapolate philosophies with varying degrees of coherence and complexity based on what they perceive as trends and themes in society. The constructed nature of an institution such as the nation-state is critiqued and deconstructed (rhetorically, of course). Other factors are considered, and their importance advocated, for many of these writers predict the imminent demise of the nation-state as an organizing and disciplining institution, if they do not believe that this has indeed already taken place.

Surely the era of the modern nation-state and its construction has been more destructive than any before it in terms of human suffering and violent death. And many of us would like nothing more than to wash our hands of our ancestors’ mistakes and march forward into the post-nation-state era. But no ivory tower conjuring will puff the nation-state into oblivion. This paper has cited some examples that demonstrate the usefulness of local analyses in historical research. But in these examples, it is clear that the nation-state continues to demand our attention as a unit of analysis, and as a real force in people’s lives.


Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota, 1998.

Esherick, Joseph W., ed. Remaking the Chinese City: Modernity and National Identity, 1900-1950. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2000.

Friedman, Edward, Paul G. Pickowicz, and Mark Selden. Chinese Village, Socialist State. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1991.

Friedman, Edward, Paul G. Pickowicz, and Mark Selden. Revolution, Resistance, and Reform in Village China. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.

Lee, Leo Ou-fan. The Romantic Generation of Modern Chinese Writers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973.

Meisner, Maurice. The Deng Xiaoping Era: An Inquiry into the Fate of Chinese Socialism. New York: Hill and Wang, 1996.

______. Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic. New York: the Free Press, 1977.

Nathan, Andrew and Bruce Gilley. China’s New Rulers: the Secret Files. New York: New York Review, 2002.

Nathan, Andrew and Perry Link. The Tiananmen Papers: The Chinese Leadership’s Decision to Use Force Against Their Own People – In Their Own Words. New York: Public Affairs, 2001.

Strand, David. Rickshaw Beijing: City People and Politics in the 1920s. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

Wallerstein, Immanuel. World-Systems Analysis: An Introduction. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004.

Yue, Madeleine Dong. Republican Beijing: The City and Its Histories. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

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