Urban-Rural Divide in China


A review of Crossing the Urban-Rural Divide in Twentieth Century China, by JEREMY BROWN.

In this well-written and extensively documented dissertation, Jeremy Brown tackles the daunting and demanding topic of urban-rural relations in twentieth-century China through the case of Tianjin, focusing on the years 1949 to 1978. He argues that the fraught and mutually defining relationship between city and country, though framed by institutional structures and administrative fiat, formed from continuing personal interactions that reified difference even as they spanned those two zones.

Chapter One contextualizes the project historically and analytically. A capsule history of Tianjin before 1949 (pp. 8-14), a discussion of the Chinese Communist understanding and experience of city and country (pp. 28-35), and synopsis of the chapters to come (pp. 35-41) situate the reader. Brown highlights two major contributions of his study as empirically and interpretively challenging the “persistent myth” of a rural-urban continuum in late imperial and modern China (pp. 14-18) and drawing attention to socio-cultural factors that structured urban-rural difference (pp. 24-28). Codings of cleanliness, clothing, and comportment, for example, proved enduring and provide an alternative window onto inequality from analyses of the household registration system (hukou) or the forces of global capitalism. Brown also greatly enriches our knowledge of Tianjin, discursively and empirically one of the most important places in North China.

Dramatic and direct contact between city and country arrived along with the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in January 1949. Chapters Two and Three trace the new regime’s early years and show how lines would be drawn, crossed, and redrawn with life and death consequences. Early government concern centered on impression management and cadre work style; village mores and methods had to be reined in and retooled in the city both for effectiveness and to inoculate against urban corruptions. Rural residents, meanwhile, routinely flowed in and out of the city looking for work. The Great Leap Forward expanded Tianjin’s borders through suburban villages and drew many of those residents in to work. The terrible famine that followed, however, would starkly distinguish the city from its hinterland as central leaders sought to protect and feed Tianjin while its countryside starved.

The 1960s saw the consequences of this divide: talk of eliminating urban-rural difference had been shelved by 1960, and as Chapters Four, Five, and Six show, the countryside would become a dumping ground for urban undesirables. Central directives to reduce the urban population led to the “great downsizing” of 1961 to 1963. Confused logistics, mixed incentive and threat, and different bargaining positions led to disparate outcomes for individuals, who alternatively volunteered for or successfully contested relocation. A second wave of sent down youth and urban work teams followed these former workers in the mid 1960s. Comparatively ignorant of local conditions, these urban arrivals disrupted the lives of their hosts—either with disorderly brawling or political directives that upended local arrangements. In either case, the power of city over country was only reinforced by those who supposedly came to bridge the gap. Punishing political outcasts of the Cultural Revolution with deportation to the country only discursively confirmed this relationship while straining the resources of the villages that had to house and feed the new arrivals.

Chapters Seven and Eight turn to unusual spaces—in-between, “category-busting” (p. 267), and artificial—to demonstrate the power of the outside interventions that created and maintained these enclaves. The Tianjin Ironworks, a Third Front project, was an administrative island, subordinate to the city and staffed by urban residents but located in remote mountains; the Worker-Peasant Alliance Farm was nearby, but through a similar administrative contortion employed “workers” to provide the city with produce. Both privileged spaces existed in-between city and country, and demonstrated how administrative fiat might change lives, but neither established a lasting independent identity: the ironworks is now a local enterprise, and Tianjin has expanded into the farm. Xiaojinzhuang, an otherwise undistinguished place, vaulted to fame with Jiang Qing’s backing as model village and supposed Maoist utopia from 1974. The spectacle staged there—politically aware farmer-poets and all—came with infusions of cash and prestige, but represented a “repository of urban imaginings of the countryside.” (p. 318) Symbolism cut both ways, and as a proxy the village paid the price after the fall of its chief patron.

Brown’s dissertation demonstrates the way forward to writing the history of the People’s Republic. His omnivorous appetite for sources includes archives from Tianjin and surrounding areas, published document collections, intelligence reports (neibu cankao), newspapers, memoirs, privately purchased archives, and oral history. The latter two in particular flavor and inform his later Cultural Revolution period chapters, and help seal his argument about the powerful but also manipulable nature of state categories and discourse for personal ends.

The interpretive import of Brown’s work is equally significant. The cumulative impact of his chapters forces us to question and reconceptualize the very categories of ‘urban’ and ‘rural.’ As he shows, the crossings and confrontations that occurred between these two often took place within the city or country, and indeed within the party itself, whether in the form of clashing cadre backgrounds or contending discursive constructions of urban and rural. Even as the population flow of today has become more unidirectional from country to city, many of these juxtapositions visibly endure in the migrants who build the skylines or care for the children of urban China, and Brown has given us a vital insight into the deeper context of this persistent divide.

Christopher R. Leighton
Assistant Professor
Department of History
Massachusetts Institute of Technology

Primary Source List

Archives from in or near Tianjin, including privately purchased dang’an
Published document collections
Memoirs and wenshi ziliao
Oral history

Dissertation Information

University of California, San Diego, 2008. 386 pp. Primary Advisors: Joseph W. Esherick, Paul G. Pickowicz

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