The Rural and the Modern in Chinese Cultural Imagination, 1915-1965


A Review of To The Soil: The Rural and the Modern in Chinese Cultural Imagination, 1915-1965, by Zhang Yu.

Zhang Yu’s dissertation examines the complex meanings that defined both the representation and social practice of “going to the countryside” in early and mid twentieth-century China. Zhang argues that by the May Fourth period, Chinese intellectuals perceived urban and rural China as being defined by a profound social and epistemic divide, with the latter the very epitome of the nation’s cultural and technological backwardness. Elite attempts to incorporate rural societies into a modern vision for the country thus constituted a crucial problem within China’s experience of modernity. As Zhang puts it, the rural became an important “epistemological and emotional site” (p. 14) for intellectuals as they grappled with the moral, pedagogical, and technological dimensions of nation-building. Zhang thus sets out to track how Chinese writers, reformers, and revolutionaries across succeeding generations represented and practiced rural return and transformation.

Chapter 1 analyzes how students and intellectuals in the 1920s, many linked to crucial institutions of modern life such as urban universities and cultural journals, wrote about their rural hometowns “back there” in the countryside. Zhang examines the depiction of the native place offered by amateur sociologists writing in the “social investigation” 社会调查 column of the iconoclastic journal New Youth 新青年, as well as the native-place fiction 乡土文学 of a number of the decade’s most important authors: Lu Xun 鲁迅, Xu Qinwen 许钦文, Yu Dafu 郁达夫, and Feng Yuanjun 冯沅君.

One of the great strengths of this first chapter is Zhang’s insistence that, while the native-place was certainly constructed as historically backward by many intellectuals during this time, it could also be seen as an important resource for negotiating a vision of public morality in the wake of the May Fourth repudiation of the Confucian kinship-system. Such a claim helps complicate existing scholarly narratives regarding the relationship May Fourth intellectuals had to rural society, which typically sees them as constructing the rural as an unmitigated zone of violence and patriarchy. In Zhang’s reading, xiangtu discourse highlighted key ideas imbedded in rural society such as “human feeling” 人情 based on a logic of mutual reciprocity. The hometown, far from being seen as a dehumanizing space of ritual-formality, was constructed as a space “based on mutual concerns and indebtedness” (p. 69) between recognizable human agents. Zhang’s argument that such ideas had a powerful moral claim on intellectuals of the time, despite their seeming iconoclasm, is an important one that historians of the period should be cognizant of.

Chapter 2 shifts analytical focus to James Yen’s 晏阳初 Rural Reconstruction efforts at Dingxian in Hebei Province in the 1930s. Zhang analyzes how Yen’s movement employed a variety of visual and oral media, from illustrated literacy primers to spoken theatrical forms, not only to help rural subjects visualize what modern life could be, but to make such a life seem emotionally compelling to them as well. Of particular interest are Xiong Foxi’s 熊佛西 attempts at appropriating the Euro-American theatrical form of the spoken word drama into a rural Chinese setting. Xiong designed plays whose narratives would deal directly with concerns found in everyday village society, and the actors who participated in these plays were rural people themselves. Through a close-reading of Xiong’s works alongside recollections of audience participation when they were staged, Zhang argues that these theatrical performances created “a space of attraction and empathy” (p. 85). Rural subjects performed the Enlightenment pedagogy that lay at the heart of the reconstruction movement, blurring the lines between art and life, theater and village, teacher and student.

Chapter 3 continues this emphasis on the cardinal role played by aesthetics in popular rural mobilization, this time examining the Chinese Communist Party’s employment of a variety of media and performance forms in wartime Yan’an to disseminate new notions of law, family, and gender. Zhang begins her chapter by discussing the CCP’s new marriage law, passed in 1934 and intended to abolish forced marriages in all soviets. Zhang asks: in a social context in which arranged marriage was a socially ingrained norm—with longstanding economic and cultural rationales—how could the Party popularize and legitimate its new concept of gender equality in rural society?

The Party presented stories concerning the marriage law in the relatively elite confines of Party newspapers such as Liberation Daily 解放日报. Zhang keys in on one instance of this journalistic dissemination, in the story of East Gansu commissioner Ma Xiwu 马锡五, who helped solve thorny legal cases surrounding marriage disputes in his district. These newspaper accounts were then adapted into popular oral mediums, such as the female author Yuan Jing’s 袁静 1945 Qin opera as well as the work of illiterate village storyteller Han Qixiang 韩起祥. Zhang emphasizes the formal and linguistic changes that the Ma Xiwu tale underwent as it was adapted from newspaper print to oral performance. She demonstrates that the abstract language of the Liberation Daily articles had to be translated into a popular idiom rooted in local understandings of justice in order for the law to be emotionally affecting to rural people. Zhang’s insistence that the CCP’s revolutionary discourse had to find ethical correlation with rural habitus is an important one, with considerable impact for those working on the popularization of socialist culture in rural China.

Zhang’s final chapter brings her conversation into the heart of the Maoist period, examining two films made immediately during and after the Great Leap Forward. By examining The Young People in Our Village 我们村里的年轻人 (1959; sequel 1963), Zhang argues that Maoist aesthetics mobilized native-place sentiment in order to generate desire on behalf of viewers to dedicate themselves to the industrialization of their rural hometowns. The subsequent vision of rural socialist industry was one that criss-crossed a number of categories generally considered to be antithetical in theories of modern economic development: the handcrafted and the machine, the artisanal and the industrial, and localist folk knowledge and state-sponsored scientific engineering. As in her previous chapters, Zhang emphasizes the aesthetic complexity and emotional potential of these films, arguing that Maoist cinema was an important means to imagine what rural socialist modernity could look like.

Broadly conceived and astutely executed, Zhang Yu’s dissertation brings fresh insights into how the rural was incorporated and transformed into a number of different regimes of modernity in the Chinese twentieth century. She displays an impressive command over an array of primary texts—from May Fourth period vernacular fiction to Maoist legal tracts—giving her project a genuine interdisciplinary scope. She also weaves into her chapters the works of numerous Euro-American theorists of modern culture and selfhood, placing her Chinese materials into conversation with thinkers as wide ranging as Hannah Arendt, Louis Althusser, Walter Benjamin, Mary Louise Pratt, and Homi Bhabha. Her project’s emphasis on the role aesthetics and affect played in rural mobilization is an insight that will need to be taken into account by anyone working on the history of peasant movements or rural socioeconomic transformation in twentieth century China.

Mark McConaghy
East Asian Studies Department
University of Toronto

Primary Sources

New Youth 新青年.
Xiong Foxi. 1937. Xiju Dazhonghua zhi shiyan 戏剧大众化之实验. Zhongzhen shuju.
Yuan Jing. 1947. Liu Qiao’er gaozhuang 刘巧儿告状. Dongei Shudian.
Han Qixiang.1949. Liu Qiao Tuanyuan 刘巧团圆. Xinhua Shudian.
Jiefang Ribao 解放日报.

Dissertation Information

Stanford University. 2014. 261 pp. Primary Advisor: Ban Wang.

Image: From the Literacy Primer for Peasants during the Ding County Rural Reconstruction Movement.

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