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  • Eating Rice from Bamboo Roots: The Social History of a Community of Handicraft Papermakers in Rural Sichuan, 1920–2000
  • Cynthia J. Brokaw
Eating Rice from Bamboo Roots: The Social History of a Community of Handicraft Papermakers in Rural Sichuan, 1920–2000 by Jacob Eyferth. Cambridge: Harvard University Asia Center, 2009. Pp. xvi + 335. $45.00.

Jacob Eyferth’s excellent and important Eating Rice from Bamboo Roots offers far more than its subtitle, The Social History of a Community of Handicraft Papermakers in Rural Sichuan, 1920–2000, suggests. Drawing on extensive fieldwork and archival research on the handicraft papermakers of Jiajiang 夾江, Sichuan’s most famous paper-producing center, Eyferth proposes new ways of thinking about the relationship between modern state-building, the rise of elite technocrats, and rural handicrafts that change the way we assess the significance of the multiple revolutions of twentieth-century China.

Eyferth argues, first, that “the Chinese revolution—understood as a series of interconnected political, social, and technological transformations—was as much about the redistribution of skill, knowledge, and technical control as it was about the redistribution of land and political power”; and, second, that “struggles over skill in twentieth-century China resulted in a massive transfer of technical control from the villages to the cities, from primary producers to managerial elites, and from women to men” (pp. 1–2). As both the Republican state and the People’s Republic of China embraced a Western-style vision of large-scale mechanized industrialization as necessary for modernization, they developed policies that weakened the mixed industrial-commercial-agrarian economies of much of rural China, consigning the countryside to agriculture and the cities to industrial development. These policies served to deskill rural artisans and handicraft workers, degrading their labor and, in identifying them all indiscriminately as peasants limited by their exclusively local and rural frames of reference, to judge them unqualified to participate in public life.

The nine chapters that form the body of the book trace these two shifts in the loci of knowledge and control. The first three chapters provide basic and necessary information about the entire paper production process, the organization of the household industries, the transmission and sharing of skills, the social conditions for papermaking in [End Page 381] Jiajiang, and the commercial practices of the papermakers. “Locations of Skill” (Chapter 1) traces the life cycles of the household factories: the number of workers (and usually the quality of the paper produced) naturally expanded and contracted with the size of the household. Since each vat (the basic unit of production in the workshops) required the labor of seven workers, the larger households generally produced the highest-quality paper, and even these households might have had to hire workers to make up for labor shortages. Papermaking skills were orally transmitted vertically from generation to generation, but there was considerable “horizontal sharing” of skills among kin and neighbors—there were few trade secrets. Eyferth emphasizes the multivalent nature of skill in this context: papermaking skills were “embodied in the brains and bodies of practitioners,” but also deeply embedded in social relationships. “In a sense, skills are social relationships, since so much of the daily social life in the paper districts—from family life to relations among neighbors—revolves around skill and its reproduction” (p. 44). As such, they also reflect the uneven distribution of power in the papermaking communities, in that women in particular were marginalized in the production process.

“Community and Kinship in the Jiajiang Hills” (Chapter 2) describes the organizations—guilds, temple associations, secret societies (specifically, the Paoge hui 袍哥會)—that shaped power relationships among the papermakers as well as their relationships with their markets and the state. The success of individual papermakers depended to a large extent on how well they were able to maintain a range of connections to these different organizations and, of course, to their workers and buyers—in sum, “on their accumulation of ‘credit’ in the broad sense of trust and reputation” (p. 67). But here Eyferth focuses on the role that the heavy emphasis on “the distinction between generations” (beifen 輩分) in the papermaking lineages—that is, on a vision of kin groups as “horizontally layered generations rather than of...


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