Village Governance in North China, 1875-1936
Huaiyin's book on village governance is a welcome addition to the study of the relationship between the state and society in late imperial and Republican China. The study's location is Huailu County of south-central Hebei, a province in north China. Although many books, along with a slew of articles, have discussed similar subjects within past three decades, the book finds its own niche by focusing on the village level of a peasant community. The author is therefore able to provide new information on this intricate relationship.
The book consists of two major parts. In Part one, the author focuses on the mechanism that allowed villages to function as a community. Unlike Popkin, who sees peasants as "rational" participants, Japanese researchers who view peasant communities as "corporate" entities, and those Western scholars who perceive them as "natural villages," Li views the villagers in Huailu as united not only by common values and a tacit moral code but also by such informal sanctions as cursing, gossip, ridicule, and even open denunciation.1 The author insists that those seemingly trivial behaviors played a crucial role in enforcing village rules (cungui) as well as local regulations (xianggui), helping to form the basis for village governance. In this sense, Li treats the village community as a "field" within which villagers calculated the gains and losses of their interest according to each circumstance before deciding whether to participate in, or to defy, village undertakings.
Another focal point of the study is the Xiangdi system, whereby the village head (xiangdi) served as the intermediary between the country government and the village community. Disagreeing with previous studies that regarded these local community leaders as middlemen or brokers, Li argues that their duties were much more onerous and complex, especially during the Warlord period when various self-proclaimed governments levied heavy taxes on villagers. The xiangdi often had to decide to continue mediating between the resisting community and the [End Page 169] intruding authority. As villagers, they themselves often calculated the gains and losses of each circumstance and acted accordingly.
Understanding the evolving role of the xiangdi requires a thorough examination of the ever-changing state/society relationship, the primary concern of the book's second part. After carefully scrutinizing the selection process, personal background, and daily duties of these village leaders, Li sets his eyes on the villages' actual operation. He argues that previous researchers over-emphasized the formal structure of local governance when the "informal institutions" were in need of more attention. The state deliberately stayed distant from the villages until major disputes erupted. As Li suggests, the Chinese state—unlike that of Western Europe with its feudal lords and decentralized monarchial power— was highly centralized and standardized above the village level but decentralized and informal at the village level. The author uses the term "substantive government," as well as Mann's concept of "infrastructural power," to describe this nature of the Chinese state.2 Li believes that the Chinese state refrained from fully exercising its power at the village level to preserve its image of benevolence, which was crucial in maintaining its legitimacy. Nor would the state have benefited if it acted otherwise, creating resistance from the local community. The key to the existence of such a relationship was that the state and village communities were interdependent.
The book confirms that the Nationalist government was able to penetrate the local communities in Huailu. Although the state-making process was visible throughout the entire period under study, it was more apparent, as well as effective, during the Guomingdang era. Under the pressure of state making, the informal institutions at the village level were destroyed and replaced by a formal system of government control. It is no surprise that shortly after 1930, elite activism at the village level almost completely disappeared.
The book's strength is its focus on Chinese rural society at the village level. The author based his research on local archives filled with documents related to litigation cases, taxation records, and petitions. Its analysis of peasant behavior, which reveals the informal government of the village communities at Huailu, is particularly lucid. Although the discussion of state making in the Republican period is not distinctly different from that of previous works, the book nevertheless provides valuable information below the county level.