He Wrote the Book on Rural China. But First, He Wrote a Novel.
It was the winter of 2016, and I was clumsily scanning a stack of Raymond Firth’s papers in the archives of the London School of Economics when I came across something unexpected. Buried amid the usual ephemera of scholarly life was the manuscript of a previously unknown 1938 novel. The title, “Cocoon,” was mysterious, but the author, a Chinese student of Firth’s, was instantly familiar: Fei Xiaotong, one of the founders of Chinese sociology and anthropology.
Born in 1910, Fei was one of China’s best-known and most respected academics. His 1939 study of the Chinese countryside, “Peasant Life in China: A Field Study of Country Life in the Yangtze Valley,” remains a must-read for anyone interested in the field. After losing decades of his career to the turmoil of the 1950s and ’60s, he became one of the leaders of China’s “reform and opening-up” period, serving in a series of important posts and helping to push through economic reforms that would raise standards of living across rural China.
As a doctoral student in anthropology, I knew Fei’s story well, but I’d never thought of him as a novelist. What had he wanted to say to readers — or himself — that he couldn’t convey in his academic work?
Translating “Cocoon,” which Fei had written in English, took time, but the narrative gradually took shape. The novel revolves around the silk weaving industry in the Yangtze Delta region, a popular subject among reformist authors of the era, who saw it as a symbol of contemporary China’s backwardness. Its hero is likewise typical: Wu Qingnong is a young man who recently concluded his studies abroad and wants to put both his lessons and his ideals into practice. He sets up a silk factory in a town near the Taihu Basin in the eastern province of Jiangsu, hoping to contribute to China’s national rejuvenation.
Wu’s reforms break with the region’s longstanding trade practices and challenge traditional familial and social norms. The conflicts between the traditional silk trade and Wu’s silk factory, between farmers and the intellectual elite, and between rural and urban areas eventually combine to produce the novel’s climax: a planned strike by silk traders against the silk factory.
The shadow of Fei’s own life hangs over the story. A native of the silk-rich Taihu region, he saw firsthand how competition from more efficient, higher quality Japanese factories had devastated the region’s farmers in the 1920s. Although some members of the gentry attempted to organize a silk industry reform campaign in the 1930s, improving the quality of local raw silk through the introduction of foreign technologies and practices, their efforts ran afoul of the powerful silk dealers who controlled the trade and, by extension, the farmers.
Fei Xiaotong’s sister, Fei Dasheng, was one such reformer. She set up a silk factory together with some farmers as a way to help them escape exploitation by middlemen. In his sister, Fei saw a potential route to changing the countryside from within: One of the novel’s leading characters, Zhang Baozhu, is a child bride who enters the silk industry and eventually helps solve the strike crisis. On the surface, her transformation symbolizes the awakening of farmers’ subjective consciousness as they embrace modernization, but her arc also implies that progressive intellectuals’ ideals were feasible: Rural society possessed the ability to reconstruct itself.
Importantly, this transformation was led by a woman, reflecting the key role that Chinese women could and did play in China’s modernization. Some of China’s earliest factory workers were women. They experienced modernity and industrialization on the factory floor, and though many left and returned to start families in the countryside, they helped spread these new concepts and ideas to their children and families. In Fei’s novel, it is Baozhu, and not her weaver apprentice husband, Sanfu, who plays a crucial role in ending the strike.
The allegory of “Cocoon” is not black and white. Fei depicts the revolutionary potential of the countryside as something inherent to any traditional society swaying between new and old, but its realization comes gradually and is far from guaranteed. The novel’s other protagonist, Li Yipu, is a left-wing intellectual critical of Wu’s “moral economics.” Believing in the power of the people over individual self-transformation, his ideological differences with Wu further complicate Fei’s story.
This complexity, along with the novel’s focus on rural modernization as the key to national rejuvenation, reflects the debates that dominated China’s intellectual community in the 1930s. A pupa will eventually break through its cocoon and become a butterfly, but how do you keep that cocoon safe in the interim? China’s intellectuals and revolutionaries could never quite come to an agreement. As “Cocoon” suggests, Fei advocated for the establishment of modern industry in the countryside. Liang Shuming, a philosopher who advocated for the modernization of Confucianism, believed intellectual elites should work to improve the culture of rural areas. And Communists like Mao Zedong promoted systemic revolution by and through farmers themselves.
After the end of the Cultural Revolution and the advent of “reform and opening-up” in the late 1970s, Fei found a countryside still in dire need of reform. Finally in a position to test his ideas, he advanced the “Sunan Model” of rural development in the 1980s, based on the experiences of small township and village enterprises in southern Jiangsu province.
Fei’s model was eventually overtaken by events, however, as the exodus of farmers from rural China radically altered the economic landscape of the countryside. The tug-of-war between tradition and modernity seen in “Cocoon” remains unresolved.
These issues are not limited to China, of course. Fei Xiaotong wrote “Cocoon” at Raymond Firth’s home in the quiet English village of Thorncombe. The spring after I found Fei’s manuscript, I followed his footsteps and boarded a southbound train into the English countryside. As I watched its fields roll by, I imagined how the scenery must have reminded a young Fei of his hometown. I also wondered how the ramifications of the United Kingdom’s decision to break from the European Union would affect its own farmers.
The Chinese edition of “Cocoon” was published in 2021, finally allowing readers to experience Fei’s vision for themselves. Perhaps it will inspire a new generation of scholars and writers to seek their own answers in the countryside.
Translator: Matt Turner; editor: Cai Yineng; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: Visual elements from VCG and Yangtse Evening Post, reedited by Sixth Tone)