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  • Drink Water, but Remember the Source: Moral Discourse in a Chinese Village
  • Mary Scoggin (bio)
Ellen Oxfeld. Drink Water, but Remember the Source: Moral Discourse in a Chinese Village. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010. xviii, 292 pp. Paperback $24.95, ISBN 978-0-520-26095-5.

Anthropologist Ellen Oxfeld, well known as a scholar of overseas Hakka Chinese communities, has in this work heeded the warning not to forget her own roots, in a parallel to the proverbial admonishment in her title, more often translated “when drinking water, remember its source.” It is appropriate for her here to favor the more imperative form here, because the role of human agency, over flexible stretches of time, is an important emphasis in her study. The setting for her research, Mirror Pond Village in the remote mountain terrain between Guang-dong and Fujian Provinces, is modestly limited in scope, but it is also implicitly posed as the ideal type for the communities that have produced generations of migrating Hakka throughout Asia, including the settings in India and Hong Kong where Oxfeld conducted research for previous works (Oxfeld 1993Oxfeld 2001Oxfeld 2004). Based upon several field trips of varying lengths totaling between one and two years over a period of nearly fourteen years from 1993 to 2007, the observations represented here give a sustained portrait of the reform era. Unlike so much of the modern Chinese story, as the author explicitly points out, this book is not [End Page 358] about the modern economy, whether conceived as liberation or as corruption. Oxfeld means to show that, whether or not the economy as a modern or post-Mao system is inherently corrupt (as she says China scholars generally suspect, and her informants may also believe but do not often unequivocally assert), life in this little village shows Chinese operating upon a set of deeply rooted morals (pp. 4, 45).

Oxfeld’s study poses morality as a category of study, parallel to economy, kinship, gender, or religious practice in traditional ethnographies, as something that can be located in both behavior and discourse of everyday life. The pivot around which moral behavior is evaluated is the measurement of interactive social debt. As has been the case with other ethnographic works on related topics in China, at the center of the knot of interrelated terms used to register and analyze social debt is the production and distribution of memory, “a resource which can be exchanged” (p. 62) and the key to mobilizing both structural and past obligations. Oxfeld’s focus on discourse, or the ways people talk about morality, leads her to single out liang xin, translated roughly as “conscience,” for central attention throughout this work. Noting that liang xin as the central term of inquiry must be defined situationally, Oxfeld avoids a literal verbatim translation such as “good-hearted.” However, what makes this term useful for her informants is precisely its deliberate and irreducible simplicity, a point that she raises elsewhere when she defines “moral discourse” as how people parse good as distinct from bad behavior (p. 26). Morality, especially as something expressed when people are noted to have or to lack liang xin, is presented as a central topic of interest and conversation among her subjects. They are, as she notes, reflective about their own experiences and enthusiastic in their discussion and evaluation of others. These evaluations, held against the grainy complexities of history and lived experience, compose the fabric of this “unabashedly ethnographic” work (p. 27).

Bucking the trend of multi-sited research and global perspectives in which Oxfeld’s own work has been an exemplar, this book is curiously determined in its focus upon one village, related in a deliberately traditional ethnographic style. By the time Oxfeld began her experience in Mirror Pond Village, the villagers in their daily lives had settled into a mild revival of traditional practices including fengshui, lineage consciousness (if not actual lineage structure), ancestor celebrations (if not worship), and other ritual cycles based upon the agricultural calendar. The restoration of these practices implies, of course, a disruption, which is characterized by local convention as “Maoist” or “the collective period,” a divisor that neatly cleaves time into three...


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pp. 358-361
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