- Rural China in Transformation
Since 1978, when China launched its first set of reforms in the countryside, its rural areas have undergone several distinctive phases of change that have transformed their social, economic, and political landscape. Chinese villagers, under conditions not entirely of their own making, have divided land, built rural industries, migrated en masse to the cities, and returned to stake out a private realm of entrepreneurship in a dogged attempt to improve their livelihood against great odds. The result is a general rise in the material standard of living in the rural areas, but prosperity has been marred by a growing gap in income and wealth among villagers, and between villagers and urban dwellers. New social actors have begun to emerge in the countryside. Entrepreneurs, petty-commodity producers, migrants, rural-industry workers, and subcontracting farmers now dot the rural landscape and point to the emergence of a post-peasant society in rural China. The more fortunate ones among them have begun to utilize their newly obtained wealth to gain political influence. After two decades of reform, the Chinese countryside has indeed become a highly variegated social space, a far cry from the conditions of "enforced uniformity," as Daniel Kelliher aptly described them, on the eve of the reform.1
The English-language scholarship on China's rural political economy has mirrored this changing reality in its research focus. One may think of the post-reform literature on rural China as falling into three generations in terms of its substantive research interests thus far: the first generation grappled with decollectivization and its consequences for realigning state-society relations;2 the second sought to offer competing explanations of rural industrialization and marketization;3 and the third—into which the two books under review here largely fall—have begun to probe the impact of migration and rising private entrepreneurship on the rural economy and politics.4 Owing to the novelty of the post-migration rural landscape, Rachel Murphy, in her How Migrant Labor Is Changing Rural China, largely refrains from using the traditional word "peasant" to refer to the [End Page 151] population of her study (her preferred term is "social actors"). In the case of Hiroshi Sato, in The Growth of Market Relations in Post-reform Rural China, his rural subjects include self-employed villagers, rural entrepreneurs, migrants, and government-aid recipients. Sato retains the use of the word "peasant" throughout his book, but his "peasants" are no longer the kind who make a living off subsistence farming but derive most income from nonagricultural activities. Besides this substantive change in research focus, the latest round of research on rural China has also seen an expansion in the geographical coverage (e.g., more and more inland provinces and rural counties are now accessible to scholars) and growing methodological eclecticism (e.g., increased use of survey data to complement ethnographic research).
Rachel Murphy's book is an excellent illustration of the new generation of scholarship on rural China. It is based on extensive fieldwork in Jiangxi Province, an inland province that has not received much attention from scholars up to now. She combines rich qualitative materials (interviews, participant observation, etc.) with village surveys and analysis of locally obtained statistics. Her subjects are return migrants who bring back money and skills along with new values, goals, and ideas acquired in the cities as they resettle in the rural community. Murphy's book is the first systematic study of the impact on the countryside of migration and migrant returnees. As such, it is different from most studies of internal migration in China thus far that have focused on city-bound migrants and their urban sojourning experience.5 This is not to say that the author ignores the migrants...