- What's a Peasant to Do? Village Becoming Town in South China
The thesis of this book is that in rural China of the last twenty years villages have been becoming more like towns, and towns have been becoming more like cities. This will not be startling news to most readers of this journal (indeed it is happening over most of the globe), but it is nonetheless an important matter affecting hundreds of millions of Chinese, and well worth a thickly descriptive anthropological study of what these changes mean in people's lives and minds. Guldin is an anthropologist, but unfortunately this book seems decidedly lightweight.
The breezy tone of the title continues throughout. Breathless gee-whiz exclamations about reform era changes ride on overblown clichés: production "sky-rocketed," [End Page 102] per capita incomes "soared," migrants "flocked" to towns, which "grew by leaps and bounds" because of the "carte blanche for moneymaking opportunities," although some policies drew "a firestorm of criticism." Too often the clichés descend into simple clumsiness: "they are government-controlled to do so"; "the power equation . . . may be more equal structurally"; "change had begun to transform. . ."; "decidedly run-of-the-mill economically"; the "national income" of districts; and "China is today leading the charge as the twin processes of townization and citization bring much of humanity into that urbanized reality." Awkward neologisms are perhaps intended to sound cute: "townization," "citization," "greenization," and "deagriculturalization of the land." Most forced is the cutesy slang: "hit the road," "have a tough time of it," "gobs of goods," "a tad over," "a cool 20,000 yuan," "smack dab in the middle of the metropolis of Guangzhou," and chapter sections titled "Eats" and "Some of That Ol'-Time Religion."
This show-offy informality—a style of writing usually confined to the class notes in American alumni magazines—raises questions about the intended audience. Presumably it is not scholars, who are little wont to take seriously a writer with a slapdash attitude to his topic, and who certainly do not need little explanations about the Opium War and how Commissioner Lin "burned" the opium. Perhaps, consciously or unconsciously, the author is speaking to his students. That would explain the repetitiveness of the book, too.
It would also explain the author's offhandedness about describing his research method. He speaks of a cooperative research project in 1992-1993 with "Chinese colleagues" (only one of whom is named). They (all?) visited something like fifteen sites, mostly in Guangdong and Fujian, plus one in Hunan and two in minority areas of Yunnan. There is no discussion of why these particular sites were chosen or by whom. There are vague references to later return visits, but it is not clear how long Guldin, or the others, stayed anywhere. Nor are we told what the objectives of the research project were or its methodology, how many scholars were involved, whether they pooled their information, or whether there were significant visits after 1992-1993. The reader is left with a vague impression that Guldin visited all the sites but did not stay long anywhere. The book contains statements like "one prosperous farmer in the Pearl River Delta told me. . . ," or anecdotes about people met on the street or in restaurants (one chapter opens: "After flagging down the minibus . . . we each took empty seats in the van and settled down for the hour-plus ride to the metropolitan center"), as well as data drawn from (mostly English-language) newspapers or Web sites and from English-language secondary material. Most of his data appear to date from the early 1990s or before (all his tables, for instance, are 1990-1992). Often he contrasts the "commune era" before reform with "nowadays," citing information from 1993 or so. He makes virtually no use of the enormous body of Chinese social science research [End Page 103] now available (unlike, for example, Rachel Murphy's solid How Migrant Labor Is Changing Rural China [Cambridge...