As recently as a few years ago, there were few rhythms in Chinese media more reliable than the publication each Spring Festival of the annual “doctoral student returns to their village and shares their thoughts” think piece. At the start of each new year, media outlets across China would find a newly minted Ph.D. headed home to the countryside for the holiday and ask them to share their thoughts on the rural life they had worked so hard to escape. The details varied from case to case, but the overarching narrative never changed: Villages were stagnating after the exodus of promising young people, extended family ties were fraying under the pressures of modernity, and traditional morals and order were collapsing.
It’s a story that, if not quite as old as time, at least dates to the explosive urbanization kicked off by China’s “reform and opening-up” policy. But while scholars of rural studies all agree that the past 40 years have radically remade China’s countryside, there is still no consensus on how these changes should be interpreted.
According to the most influential school of thought — the huazhong xiangtupai, or “central China school of rural studies” — reform and opening-up has been an unmitigated disaster for the countryside, ushering in a period of societal collapse that persists today.
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The group takes its name from the Rural Issues Research Center at Central China Normal University where members, including prominent and outspoken scholars like He Xuefeng, first coalesced in the 1990s. Today, it is more often known simply as the “rural school.” Loosely organized around the implacable He, the group dominates discussions of rural issues in contemporary China, arguing in favor of privileging local — or “indigenous” — perspectives, adopting pragmatic solutions to the problems of rural life, and rejecting Western theories as ill-suited to China’s unique context. In 2020, the rural school’s criticisms of a village merger program in the northern province of Shandong went viral, triggered a nationwide debate, and eventually led the province to partially suspend the program.
At the core of the rural school’s philosophy is the concept of “atomization,” a term used by the group’s members to sum up the fractured state of rural Chinese society today. In an atomized countryside, social ties are weak and individuals isolated, with catastrophic results for rural society’s capacity for self-organization, grassroots governance, and ability to enforce traditional norms and morality.
High-rise residential buildings being built in the countryside as part of a village merger program in Rizhao, Shandong province, Aug. 28, 2022. An Baiming/IC
In this, the rural school stays faithful to the work of the pioneering 20th century sociologist Fei Xiaotong, who held that traditional Chinese villages were “acquaintance societies” composed of face-to-face groups and founded on Confucian ethics. They see the unprecedented mobility of the past 40 years as having led to the gradual disintegration of these acquaintance societies, with relations between people in the countryside increasingly resembling the atomized “stranger societies” found in cities.
Borrowing a metaphor from Karl Marx, the rural school’s scholars like to compare these atomized societies to a “bag filled with potatoes”: there are no organic, diverse connections between individuals, and individuals have trouble forming a sense of belonging or taking collective action beyond the nuclear family unit.
As the rural school sees it, the various problems that have emerged in rural China since the reform and opening-up can all be traced back to the atomization and alienation of relations between “acquaintances” and “face-to-face groups” brought on by the country’s market reforms. The solution, therefore, must involve the bolstering of grassroots organs, the reconstitution of rural collectives, and the improvement of rural society’s capacity for self-organization.
Although the sheer volume of the rural school’s arguments risks drowning out all opposition, not every Chinese scholar accepts the idea that atomization is a new or unique phenomenon. Anthropologist Zhao Xudong, for example, has offered one of the sharpest criticisms of the rural school’s arguments. In essence, Zhao believes that the rural school’s view of traditional village life is overly influenced by Fei’s “acquaintance society” concept. But this was just one element of a far more complex argument Fei was making about Chinese society. In traditional villages, there were not just acquaintances but also strangers, and relationships between villagers were not always predicated on tenderness and trust. Indeed, the various “bizarre and shocking” phenomena He Xuefeng likes to cite in support of his claims, such as theft, pyramid schemes, and the “stabbing of close relations in the back,” were hardly unheard of in villages prior to reform and opening-up.
At its core, Zhao’s argument is that traditional rural society is not necessarily the antithesis of “atomization” described by He and other rural school scholars. Moreover, he believes the rural school’s concept of atomization is predicated on an overly simplistic and dichotomic view of city versus countryside. According to He and other rural school scholars, the city and countryside are totally independent entities representing two opposing ways of life: The countryside is an “acquaintance society,” whereas the city is a “stranger society.” Atomization is essentially the process by which the former takes on more and more traits of the latter.
If you buy into this dichotomy, it’s easy to attribute many of the problems that have emerged in rural society to the disintegration of traditional village life and the corrupting influence of urbanism and modernity. But the reality is that villages and cities have always existed on a spectrum. They are fundamentally interdependent and mutually constitutive. The crises of governance He and the rural school have identified thus cannot be explained away as symptoms of encroaching urban values; rather, they may be better understood as side effects of years spent trying to forcibly separate the rural from the urban.
Zhao has also criticized the rural school’s emphasis on finding solutions, rather than conducting impartial research. Although the school’s work is ostensibly grounded in local and indigenous perspectives, its members often view villages through the lens of modern urban life as problems that need to be solved. Unsurprisingly, they tend to arrive at the same reductive conclusion: that the countryside is plagued with issues that can only be resolved through external intervention — namely, that of the state.
The problems identified by the rural school also tend to reflect the preoccupations of officials and the urban elite rather than villagers themselves. I’ve seen this play out in my own fieldwork. While carrying out research in a village in the northern province of Shanxi, local cadres repeatedly complained to me that the villagers lacked a collectivist spirit. Even when higher level officials from the nearby township visited in person to rally them, the villagers still weren’t willing to bring their doorways up to code for a major village clean-up campaign. In the end, the village came in dead last in the associated municipal hygiene survey.
No doubt that was frustrating for the officials tasked with fulfilling the state’s goals, but was it really a sign of poor collectivist spirit? That same year, when local cadres failed to promptly address a local water supply issue, the villagers spontaneously banded together to elect village delegates, actively assisted experts sent from the township in investigating the issue’s causes, and supervised the implementation of a solution. It’s clear that, even in villages where the collectivist spirit has supposedly eroded, public affairs that have a concrete impact on villagers’ daily lives can nonetheless rouse them into taking collective action.
If it’s not already obvious, I tend to agree with Zhao’s criticisms of the rural school. Although the concept of “atomization” offers certain insights into the problems of rural governance, on its own it fails to encapsulate the complex transformations underway in rural society.
On an individual level, interpersonal relationships in villages are indeed no longer as intimate as they once were. However, traditional “acquaintance societies” were in part defined by their closedness and low degree of mobility. It’s a matter of perspective. To He, the disintegration of interpersonal relationships in the countryside is a symptom of modernity; to Zhao, rural society was always atomized, only that atomization used to be confined to the regional level, as villages existed in relative isolation from each other. Given how reform and opening-up has increased social mobility and knitted once disparate villages and cities back together, one could even argue that the transformation of rural society is precisely the opposite of atomization. The atoms, no longer cordoned off from each other, are colliding, releasing the pent-up energy of rural society.
Furthermore, the solutions proposed by the rural school — such as expecting the state to bolster villages’ capacity for self-organization — are also full of contradictions. From the perspective of a centralized government, “atomized” social relations may be disadvantageous to rural governance, but any increase in capacity for grassroots organization could also pose a risk to centralized rule. Organizations based on native place, kinship ties, and folk beliefs — once common throughout the Chinese countryside — have been repeatedly suppressed, supposedly because they were antithetical to modernization.
Viewed in this light, atomization is perhaps not the cause of contemporary rural society’s woes. Rather, these problems result from the challenges of adapting China’s centralized mode of governance to the rapid transformation of rural society.
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Lu Hua and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Villagers on a misty road in rural Handan, Hebei province, Sept. 13, 2022. VCG)